Yakkin’ about how the NBA salary cap destroys parity over at The Classical.
Part of my job now involves watching and reading an irresponsible amount of sports commentary, most of it recently having to do with the New Orleans Saints or LeBron James. Everyone agrees that LeBron James plays wonderful basketball until a certain point. To use a cross-sport analogy, LeBron basically refuses to be his own closer. Deadspin’s Sean Newell exhaustively listed the reasons that this is okay, but he wrote one thing that will be, at some point, proven demonstrably false: “If Lebron took the shot and made it, LeBron and the Heat would have done exactly what is expected: beat the Jazz in March.” No. The sports-watching world is waiting for LeBron to shoot. If he takes a last-second shot and he makes it, it will not hesitate to congratulate itself for remaking James in its own image, even if it’s only one game and one shot, and one he’s taken before, albeit under different circumstances.
While Newell and even Jon Barry, whose argument Newell briskly escorts to the woodshed, both say that LeBron’s pass to Udonis Haslem against the Jazz was the “right basketball play,” I think they’re overstating what they know. I love statistics and I pray at their altar, but what we don’t know far outstrips that which we do. Is a surprise Udonis Haslem 15-foot open shot a better percentage play than a LeBron isolation play after LeBron has drilled miraculous shot after miraculous shot? I have no way of knowing. I don’t like that people think they know the answer. I think the source of my confusion is: context.
Context is why the same meal on fine china tastes better than on paper plates, and why better-looking people get paid better than worse-paid ones to provide exactly the same service. It is powerful and deceiving, and it is real. To go back to the baseball analogy, the Red Sox’ closer-by-committee didn’t work because the pitchers were crappy, but the generally accepted theory is that it didn’t work because pitchers wanted to know their roles. If you’re willing to admit that that sort of uncertainly had at least some effect on their performance—and I encourage you to imagine yourself at work, battling uncertainty, and compare that to your most productive times—then you’re granting that context provides an unknown. If Michael Wilbon was to be believed on PTI today, Magic Johnson told him that other players on the Heat are likely looking to James to take that shot, and that they see his passing it up as something akin to Josh Beckett removing himself to let Dice-K face the last batter when Beckett has 18 strikeouts. If context has some effect, then it’s almost certainly playing a role here, both in the short term and long term.
If you grant all that, and you believe in the numbers… well, if you’re willing to discount a regular season game as just a regular season game, isn’t it in LeBron’s best interests to kill this storyline? Process is important, as the Sloan Conference hammered at last weekend. So is realism. You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The potential shitshow of this continuing nonsense is not worth one regular-season loss, even if it’s nonsense. I’m confident enough in my math to say that. We’re at that point. We don’t often get there. If LeBron takes the last shot the next time he has the chance, he will feed the monkey enough to shift the ball enough toward his amazing play that, if the stress is wearing on him at all, it’ll free him up to be even better.
Shoot the ball, buddy. It’s like sushi. You might love it if you try it.
Imagine my surprise when, after writing two columns on LeBron James on Friday morning I walked into my childhood home that evening, which I thought was empty, and was confronted with my 17-year-old self watching SportsCenter, LeBron news on repeat. (Please ignore space-time continuum problems.)
ME: Do you know who I am?
17-Y-O-Me: (looks me up and down) I have a guess.
ME: Okay, I can tell you do. Because, like, you’re me and we’re still pretty similar.
17-Y-O-Me: (makes show of playing with long hair) In some ways.
ME: I never would have said something like that.
17-Y-O-Me: Apparently you would have.
ME: That either. I wasn’t that aggressive.
17-Y-O-Me: Maybe you should have been.
ME: So, uh… how about LeBron?
17-Y-O-Me: It’s crazy.
ME: He looks so douchey up there. (At the moment, the highlights from the Heat Beach Party are playing and Neil Everett or Linda Cohn is screaming something. Chris Bosh is acting like a wrestler.)
17-Y-O-Me: I don’t know. He looks like he’s having fun.
ME: Douchebags can have fun too.
17-Y-O-Me: What’s wrong with having fun?
ME: Um, nothing, I suppose. But if I was a Cleveland fan, I’d be upset by this.
17-Y-O-Me: But you’re not.
ME: Yeah, but I can empathize.
17-Y-O-Me: Yeah, it sucks. But so what?
ME: Well, I mean, I have a few good friends from Cleveland…
17-Y-O-Me: Oh. What does that matter?
ME: Are you saying empathy is bad?
17-Y-O-Me: (suddenly defensive; I notice this trait from my youth) No, that’s not what I’m saying.
ME: Then what are you saying?
17-Y-O-Me: Isn’t this just kind of cool?
ME: I don’t know. It just feels so yucky.
17-Y-O-Me: Sports are yucky all the time.
ME: I suppose that’s true…
17-Y-O-Me: No really, sports are yucky all the time. Who gives a crap? They’re only sports.
ME: Funny that you say that when you’ve spent your entire life trying to learn everything possible about them.
17-Y-O-Me: (mimics entire sentence in play voice, then turns beet red in embarrassment)
ME: (ignoring it) You know what sucks for us?
ME: All that memorization we did—who played what position for what team when, all the records and stuff—anyone can get all that off their phone now. Everyone’s a sports expert. It’s really hard to make a name for yourself.
17-Y-O-Me: We probably should have been a lawyer.
(We look straight at each other like: No way.)
ME: You know what you need? Some financial advice.
17-Y-O-Me: I make $15 an hour at Brickman’s at the moment. I’m doing just fine.
ME: I mean long-term, numbnuts.
17-Y-O-Me: Numbnuts. Real original. What are you, from Jersey?
(I pounce on the couch in a rage and we start fighting for about 30 seconds before we simultaneously yell “Glass table!” to remind each other that we risk breaking it, and we stop)
17-Y-O-Me: (sarcastically) Yeah, you’ve changed.
ME: You mean I’m stronger?
17-Y-O-Me: (turns red, doesn’t want to admit it) Whatever.
17-Y-O-Me: (suddenly) Can you buy me beer?
ME: You don’t even know what you’re doing with that stuff.
17-Y-O-Me: Oh, and you do.
ME: You DICK! (start fighting again)
17-Y-O-Me: Glass table!
(I keep fighting, he pushes me off)
17-Y-O-Me: You know, it’s almost like you come back here to just to fight me. I mean look at you! You’re worse than I am. I’m perfectly calm, and by the time you leave you’re sitting on the couch just like me, watching ESPN over and over. It’s almost like you feel like you can’t do that in the city, when you totally can. Not my fault you can’t remember that the good things in life are simple. We island folk have it good.
ME: “We island folk.” You pretentious fuck.
17-Y-O-Me: Whatever. It’s true.
ME: Hey dickhead, I have news for you.
17-Y-O-Me: Oh yeah, what?
ME: I’ve had sex.
Rather than Twitter my thoughts one by one, here are the remainder of them:
The holdover from the Jordan era, which pretty much wafts at every level of the NBA experience, is that a single, singular player leads a team to a championship, and that amongst a group of elite players, only so many of them have “what it takes” to get there. You can choose to believe this narrative if you’d like, but it’s a flimsy one, because once someone’s won it, it crumbles. Kobe couldn’t win by himself, and then he did. Look elsewhere in sports, and you can see it folding on itself (as you’ll see the next time Kobe loses in the playoffs): Phil Mickelson couldn’t win the big one, then he did, then he choked again, then he won again. Peyton Manning couldn’t win, then he could, then he choked.
I think what people are angry about with LeBron is that we’re not going to get to see if he has that, I don’t know, “it” that may or may not even exist in the first place. That’s a presumption in and of itself, but let’s just say it’s true: If the Heat win the title with relatively equal contributions from Wade and Bron, does that tarnish LeBron’s legacy? The answer, today, seems to be yes. LeBron seems to either not care or to have taken people at face value when they said he needed to win a championship to be a complete player, or something, when they really meant he needed to lead a team to a championship. Having played for a Team USA—on which he wasn’t the top draw, Kobe was—that was roundly lauded, you can see how he’d come to this conclusion. Why would people praise his ability to play with superstar then, and tear it down now? (He might be asking himself.)
Another thing about Team USA: So many stories about how watching Kobe brought LeBron’s work habits to another level. Maybe this is something where LeBron thinks he can get better just by being around Wade. Kobe himself has admitted that he’s basically stolen every move in his arsenal, an aggregation service along the lines of, jeez, fivethirtyeight.com. Maybe LeBron needs to see things up close to duplicate and surpass them, and got a whiff of it at the Olympics. I don’t know. I’m just saying.
He’s certainly read the tea leaves wrong about what was expected of him, as evidenced by the audible vacuum that hit the Greenwich, CT Boys & Girls Club last night, when he awkwardly spoke the words “South Beach” as his destination. (Seriously?) He honestly thought we just wanted him to win one, when we actually wanted so much more. What did we want? Something we hadn’t seen before, something transcendent. This was something we hadn’t seen before, but it wasn’t transcendent. Our new fear is that it won’t be transcendent even if he wins it all. That’s a disappointment, sure, but LeBron probably won’t feel like it’s a disappointment when he’s holding the trophy. In 20 years, maybe he’ll wonder “What if?” But it doesn’t matter if he knew he had that mythological extra oomph in 20 years; he’s searching for it now, frantically looking for it on the beach like a lost key. The thing is, we told him the key was there, even if it might not exist, and even if he thinks it’s the bottom of that trophy we’ll tell him nope. you don’t have it. Unlike many people, I have no problem feeling a little bit sorry for the guy and also rooting heartily against him, and that’s just what I plan to do (and root for Cleveland to absolutely pound him, somehow). The idea of this team winning the title sickens me to the point that I would root for Kobe against them. I wanted transcendence as much as anybody, and I find the idea of Wade and LeBron playing together categorically unfair. But you know what? It’s totally fucking fair. I’m being deprived of a negative, something that I only imagined existing: LeBron flying through the air, delivering the team on which he was Top Dog to a title, averaging 35 PPG in the Finals with 10 and 10. Now even if that happens we’ll think it’s silly. What a joke.
LeBron James is 25 years old. Twenty five-year-olds can make stupid decisions, and even they can be aware that these decisions may, in fact, be stupid. LeBron seemed to know something was up with his pawing desire to go to Miami. For all the talk of his being a “committee of one,” it seems like there was really a committee of five or six, and at the top was not LeBron, but Gloria James. It was both heartbreaking and totally reassuring that LeBron said his decision finally came down to his mom’s approval. It was heartbreaking because you know there was a last line of defense to talk him out of it, but it was reassuring because it reinforced true loyalty in a scenario where loyalty was being imposed upon LeBron—not at all unconvincingly—left and right. Even Gloria James had to know that her son’s best chance to win a title was with Chicago, and that his chance to write the best story was in Cleveland. But her son effectively asked her if she would be okay with him forgoing both those scenarios to play with his friends in Miami, because it would make him the happiest, and she said yes. Maybe playing in Cleveland so long expanded his vision of what needed to do that he thought playing in Miami would strap blinders on him in a way playing in Chicago wouldn’t have done; maybe he does crave the spotlight, but needs some time off. I don’t know. All I know is that Gloria James trusted in her son’s ability to work these things out for himself. What can I say to that?
Did LeBron “betray” Cleveland? Well, if he “quit” on the team in four of games of the NBA playoffs, as Dan Gilbert suggested in his acidic open letter on Cavs.com, then yes. But let’s not forget than his ending up in Cleveland was the result of a roll of the ping-pong balls anyway. It made a great story because it seemed like it was preordained, but nothing is preordained—that’s hacky sportswriter bullshit that’s no different, spiritually, from the filler for hundreds of stories on James that were written last week. At the same time, he did come to Cleveland, and he is from Akron, and it was a great story while it lasted. And now this.
I think it’s worth remembering that an unhappy Allen Iverson was nearly traded to the Los Angeles Clippers the year before the 76ers made the finals; an unhappy Kobe was nearly traded to the Bulls the year before the Lakers made the Finals; and an unhappy Paul Pierce was almost shipped out of Boston the year before the Celtics won their 17th title. The reports on Kobe, specifically, came so fast and furious it seemed like the next time you refereshed he’d be out of L.A. None of these things happened, but the groundwork was there. If they had been free agents, there’s no question they would have bolted. Cavs fans could say that they didn’t exactly provide the pressure-cooker environment of Philadelphia or Boston, or the dysfunctional one of L.A.; I’m not sure I would believe them. Check out the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s cover this morning. You might not be able to read it, but the arrow pointing to his hand says “7 years in Cleveland. No rings”:
I thought it wasn’t about rings in Cleveland? I thought it was about his hometown. I thought it wasn’t 7 years, but 25. And I thought it was about the promise of bringing a title that lingered despite the Cavs’ “failures” to win it all in the last few seasons. I mean, if you’re going to be so blatant about admitting you were using James as a tool toward your own deliverance, you’re pretty far into the muck.
I can’t really blame the Plain Dealer for playing populist, however; it’s just a shame that there were never really any real adults in this situation. LeBron didn’t act like one; Dan Gilbert didn’t act like one; ESPN’s commentators were almost, to a person, eating shit in the sandbox. LeBron is the most hated man in basketball today, but if you’ve got the energy to get mad at LeBron you should already be 10 times angrier at the NBA for its very often brutally inconsistent, self-aggrandizing, borderline unwatchable product. LeBron James isn’t the system, he’s a product of it, and now he’s going to play with Dwyane Wade in Miami. That’s totally ridiculous and throws everything David Stern has done for the one superstar, one team ethos right back in his face. If it doesn’t get thrown back in LeBron’s face when D-Leaguers are missing wide-open layups on the break, why will we criticize him? He obviously doesn’t care. We do. What I’d most like to see is compelling, fair basketball. If I can’t have that, this will have to do.
* Yes, this is a tweet from last night.
Remember when he accepted the head coaching job for the Orlando Magic and came back to Florida within days?
Remember when Billy Beane agreed to become general manager of the Boston Red Sox and came back to Oakland within days?
I’m starting to get the sense that LeBron might, in fact, announce that he’s joining a team other than the Cavaliers tonight. My sense based on nothing but rumor and innuendo and “implications” that Chris Broussard apparently reported out and turned into a story sometime between when I went to sleep at 1:30 and woke up at 7:30, but I get the feeling nonetheless.
What I won’t believe, until the contract is signed, is that LeBron is playing with a team other than the Cavaliers. The self-imposed Thursday deadline isn’t doing him any favors if he hasn’t already made up his mind—why force yourself to make the biggest decision of your life before you’re ready?—and if he has made up his mind, and made it up at the same time he pitched Decision idea to ESPN, it seems to me that it would point him back to Cleveland. I’m not going to read anything into Bronathan’s decision to have this whole thing go down in Greenwich, CT, other than to say that if he wanted to come off as a stuffy asshole, he succeeded.
But all that will be a footnote to history, the same way Ali/Liston II pops up in every discussion of Lewiston, Maine. The real news will be where LeBronny plays basketball. It’s easy to say you’re going to leave home, but it’s harder to do it. I’ll believe LeBron’s gone when I see it.
I guess Chris Bosh doesn’t need that $27 million summer house in Southampton. The now-former Raptors’ centerish dude has taken $28 million fewer dollars than he would have made playing (presumably) with LeBron James in Cleveland to play (presumably) with Dwyane Wade in Miami. And thus the free market system has told you something about the relative value of two American cities to one Christopher Wesson Bosh, of Dallas, Texas.
Of course, this wasn’t a perfect example of market forces working their magic. The Raptors could pay Bosh the most, and any other team looking to sign him could pay him $28 million less. The Raptors and Cavs had agreed for Bosh to sign the higher contract and then work out a trade. He didn’t, so they didn’t, and now he’s going to Miami.
All of this makes you wonder how much money would be flying around if there was no salary cap. The NBA system is designed to give superstars incentives to stay on their longtime teams, presumably because David Stern has found that it makes the league more marketable. He’s taken the Michael Jordan effect and spread it leaguewide: Have one recognizable great player on each team, and people will tune in even if they don’t know anyone else on the roster. Best of all, make the league such an enticing draw for advertisers that the best players—the ones whose pay is actually being capped by the limits on maximum contracts—don’t actively bark about their pay being limited, and instead work toward endorsement deals. The league’s increasingly squeaky-clean image—promoted by NBA Cares commercials and enforced by Stern & Co.’s zero-tolerance approach to physical nonsense, on or off the court—helps make these endorsements a reality. It’s the After Artest era, one in which Ron-Ron himself almost single-handedly wins Game 7 of the NBA finals and thanks his therapist on national television.
It’s almost impossible believe that with all the money that’s floating around now that the owners are threatening to lock out the players after next season, and it’s even worse when you know they’d be throwing out even more if they could. You don’t think LeBron would hold out for a contract bigger than Alex Rodriguez’s $300 million deal? LeBron has scheduled a prime-time hour on ESPN to announce his decision. Childhood vanity or innate vanity, it’s still vanity, and by the manner in which teams are falling all over LeBron to procure his services, there’s no reason to think someone wouldn’t nudged an offer at least into spitting distance of A-Rod’s deal. And yet the owners are going to tell you they’re losing money, which they may in fact be doing. There are rumors that they’ve spent so much this offseason because they know they won’t have to pay up, as they are expected to ask for an across-the-board salary cut, owing mostly to dwindling attendance. Knowing David Stern, they’re likely to get it. Mr. Stern doesn’t lose, even if the owners are making an embarrassingly poor case for themselves right now.
Their counterpoint could be that these are simply the costs of doing business, but they’re not. “Doing business” and building a championship team are not, unfortunately for sports fans, the same thing. Profitability has an easily identifiable blueprint: pay as little as possible for players, win as many games as possible and, whatever you do, make the playoffs. Exactly how far you make it in the playoffs doesn’t matter all that much to the bottom line. At some point you are going to run up against someone else’s vanity project, and to plan to beat that team (not the same as actually beating them), takes money out of your pocket at the height of your moneymaking powers. People don’t want to hear it, but if you follow that blueprint, you’ll make money.
Yet rich people continue to buy sports teams and pile money into them, and you don’t become rich enough to become an owner without being a shrewd moneysmith. At some point, owning a sports team could be classified as little more than a vanity project, which would explain owners’ inability to keep their public statements in line with the actions of their teams. They claim to not want to lose money, but most of them are already losing money when compared to how much they could be making if they were, for lack of a better term, “all business.” So what they’re really complaining about is a movement down a sliding scale on which they’ve willingly jumped. I’m not that sympathetic.
At the same time, the NBA’s system does, at least in theory, strike a nice balance between the rabidly free-market system of Major League Baseball and the proscribed, socialistic payout system of the NFL. Baseball embraced the “watch the money” ethos early on, content to sell as many Yankees hats as it can and crush the dreams of every Kansas City kid; the NFL has far too many players to pay to allow any one team or group to monopolize the talent pool. In the NBA, you can do it if you’re lucky, good and plan well. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh won’t be teaming up in Miami, but they could have. The resulting arrangement should leave title-contending teams in Miami, Cleveland, Chicago, Orlando and Boston… and that’s just in the East. Three of those teams are led by No. 1 overall draft picks, which shows how much you need the ball to bounce your way, but that’s no less capricious than, say, relying on Tom Brady to turn into a Hall of Famer. Sometimes it’s about money, sometimes it’s about skill, and sometimes it’s about luck.
So when looking at Chris Bosh’s decision to leave $28 million on the table and go to Cleveland, I wouldn’t sweat about the money. He’s not a good or bad person for doing what he did, he’s just a guy in search of something at the nexus of comfort, vanity, and fulfillment. Or to put it another way: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” That’s Moby-Dick; I’m still on that. LeBron’s the white whale, sure, but the only thing that comes up more in Moby-Dick than Moby Dick himself is God, created the system that led to the noble pursuit in which Ishmael was engaged and over which virtually everyone onboard obsessed.
I think Melville would have liked David Stern.
Apropos of nothing, I was going to post a clip from last night’s Louie, featuring Ricky Gervais, that is in no way, shape or form safe for work. However, the still shot for the YouTube video is of Louis C.K.’s butt, so I’ll just post the link. If you want to watch it, go here. Do this.
I rode to Massachusetts this weekend in a car without a working radio that was three-quarters full of basketball fans, so we passed the time on the way up by thinking out every conceivable scenario for the NBA’s free agent class. We did the same thing on the way back, using the most up-to-date information (Dirk! Pierce! Joe Johnson! Amar’e!). Here’s what we believe:
1) The Knicks actually did something right. After two years of “planning,” the Knicks looked like a rudderless ship as recently as Thursday, but at a poker table where everyone was afraid to make the first move, the Knicks pushed a sizable portion of their chips to the center of the table. Amar’e Stoudemire is a good player on a slow, predictable decline, but Chris the Knicks Fan insists Amar’e is one of the smartest players he’s ever seen. This means the end of David Lee in New York, which messes up your fantasy keeper league team but not much else. (Slight UPDATE: The uninsured part deserves some scrutiny. Okay, a lot. But still.)
2) Going to Chicago is the brave move… for Dwyane Wade. Even my mom knows Wu-Tang is for the children, and it appears Dwyane Wade is too. The convention line of thought at the moment is that D-Wade is likely to go to Chicago because he’s locked in a custody battle with his ex-wife and his children are there. You’d have to be the coldest-hearted Heat fan to hate him for leaving because of his kids, and it’s a good reason to leave, but there’s a potentially better one. LeBron’s decision is magnified because he’s quasi-understood to be “chasing history,” whatever that means: More than Michael, more than Kobe, or bringing a title to Cleveland. Wade, a young champion, seems immune from all this and, family drama aside, perfectly willing to stay in Miami and play on 50-win teams. That’s why I think the bold move for him is to go to Chicago, and wedge himself into the Kobe/LeBron discussion. Could he beat them both if he went to the Bulls? I absolutely think so.
3) LeBron isn’t an afterthought, but no one’s going to wait for him if they find something better. I think the whole “LeBron signs and the dominoes fall” narrative is coming to its end, as a prime result of the two factors discussed above. The Knicks took a “F***-it” approach to wait-and-see, and if Wade thinks he can win a title in Chicago, why would he wait for the word from LeBron?
4) Joe Johnson is or is not overpaid. We hashed out this discussion and ended up agreeing to disagree. Person A said that Johnson is the rare truly effective, occasionally game-changing guard; Person B said that he’d be willing to grant all that, but that the maximum contract rule makes it absurd that he’ll be making as much or more than players who are better than him (like Wade and James). I’m person B.
5. Paul Pierce. In light of Pierce’s greatness/goodness over the last three years, it’s worth revisiting the Celtics team that made it within two victories of the NBA Finals with Pierce and Antoine Walker as 1 and 1A’s. That’s what we told ourselves, at least. Now think about how Antoine Walker played basketball. So yes, he’s getting old and doesn’t bring it every day, but Paul Pierce has been good at basketball for a very long time. For whatever reason, I’m just sayin’.
Tuesday, July 6th. Back in the saddle again.
If I was LeBron James. If I was Dwyane Wade. If I was Chris Bosh. If I was Amar’e Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer. If I was Joe Johnson. If I was Rudy Gay. If I was Ray Allen. If I was J.J. Redick.
If I was 6’8″. If I grew up in Akron, Ohio. If I had been assigned for greatness by the age of 12. If my high school basketball games had been on ESPN, my tattoos covered by bandages because tattoos were a no-no. If I had watched the results of the lottery, knowing that Cleveland had the best chances at pulling the number one overall pick, and knowing that should they obtain it, even I might begin to believe that the fairy tale. If I had seen, in the aftermath of the lottery, the owner of the Cavaliers hold up a jersey with my name on it.
If I was forever known as the player picked one spot before Darko Milicic (just kidding). If I inspired hundreds of thousands to watch my first pro game, against the Kings, where I gamely tossed a pass to Ricky Davis on a fast break, showing the world that I knew what it meant to be deferential. If I had followed that up with a thunderous dunk of my own, a small peak behind the curtain of the breadth of my abilities.
If I had heard the criticism of my shooting at age 19. If I had been told that I could learn. If I spent much of the next seven years practicing a shooting motion with which I could live, reliant on the slightest flick of the wrist from the top of my elevated Sears Tower-like frame, brambles on brambles of muscle like the skyscraper’s buildings resting upon buildings. If I learned to do it with with my arms bent as awkwardly as frog legs, an imperfection related solely to my massive stature, a nagging imperfection like a fly bounding against an elephant.
If I had watched my team improve to the point it was the best in the league, at least during the regular season, over the last two years. If I had heard the whispers about how it meant nothing about a title. If I had fallen short in the playoffs, only after submitting a handful of the few greatest games in the playoffs. If I had heard the whispers about how I was distracted by the thought of July 1st, 2010. If I had only wanted to get to July 1st, 2010, without hurting anybody, including myself. If I had heard the whispers about how I had failed my hometown, already, by not committing to them already.
If I grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, and had a chance to take his place. If I dreamed of having the chance to live in Chicago since far before the moment I saw him swat Bryon Russell aside. If I wanted to outshine Kanye West. If the President of the United States had, in a moment of honesty, told the world what I already knew: that I would look great in a Bulls uniform.
If I loved Jay-Z and vice versa, and listened to his pitch: Brooklyn, a new team, new name, new tradition… B, why don’t you tell him? If I was suddenly staring down the eyes of Beyoncé. If I was watching them, daring me to be the first person to tell them no.
If I had—at some point in my life—a dream of resurrecting the Knicks, bringing them to the front of the New York sports scene for the first time in almost 40 years. If I had watched the Willis Reed tape dozens of times, imagining that it was me, only I went for 40 points and sent Kobe packing. If I could replace Derek Jeter as the chairman of the Canyon of Heroes. If I wanted to feel tickertape in my skull.
If I had heard the shouting that I wouldn’t be anything unless I won more often than Kobe. If my life was defined, to some degree, by someone else’s, despite everything I had done. If I hadn’t made Kobe realize that the missing element of his game was teamwork, just as he made me realize that real work was the missing element of mine. If I we had corrected our results at the same rate, but he got a better rate of return. If I thought about why that was…
If I had a chance to change everything, to write my own story. If I had a chance to start it all over again someplace else, or bring a title to the only hometown I’ve ever known in a way of my choosing. If I heard the pleas from my friends, neighbors, the mayor, that it was the only right thing to do. If I thought: They don’t need to tell me what’s special about this place; I already know. If I thought: This is what will happen if I leave, and saw the images of crying children, adults, grandparents, a deserted Quicken Loans Arena. If I was prepared to be hated for making a choice that is ostensibly mine. If anyone is prepared for something like that, ever.
If I had to make a choice anyway, and I was LeBron James, what would I choose?
I don’t know. But if I was advising LeBron James, here’s what I’d do: I’d put the contract offers in front of him, in a row, and give him a pen. I’d wait for him to sign one of them, and when he did, I would look him in the eye and tell him that if I was LeBron James, I would never look back.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Food Court Lunch’s excellent imagined conversation between LeBron and Chris “Happy to be here” Bosh. An excerpt:
Bosh: (annoyed) How do you figure? Last I checked, you and me had the same number of rings.
LeBron: (incredulous) Same number of…Look, man, let me put this another way. Look over your shoulder. What do you see?
Bosh: (looks) There’s nothing there.
LeBron: Right. Now look over mine.
(Bosh looks. A single-file line of fifteen women, anxiously straightening their dresses and fixing their make-up, has suddenly appeared behind James)
Bosh: What the…
LeBron: You see? I just thought about them, and they appeared.
I also have thought power. I think about work, and it appears. I guess I’m Batman too. So many Batmans.
The only thing Chris needs more than a glass of water is a working Internet connection. He doesn’t even need a minute to think this over. Say the word, chart the King’s path for New Jersey, and he’s ready to make the switch. After years of frustration in the best of times and something beyond despair in the worst of them, he’s looking at the Knicks and he feels nothing at all. The Church of Anthony Mason has been destroyed. For the first time, he sees this:
Starting tomorrow, Chris will be clicking between two websites: Twitter, which is sure to break news of LeBron James’ eventual destination faster than any other site, and the New Jersey Nets’ official website. The season tickets page, to be exact. If LeBron jumps, so will he, and that will be the end of it.
It’s hard for me to say how much Chris loved the Knicks growing up; I didn’t know him until eight years ago, when the team was already corkscrewing to the bottom of a terrible conference. The Nets were ascendant then, but that made no difference to him. The Knicks were bad, but to him and many others, still: StarksMasonEwingEwingEwing, and FUCK Charles Smith, but not as much as Michael Jordan, no player as much as Michael Jordan, not then or not ever, but Jimmy Dolan on the other hand…
He watched and waited and watched and waited, and good God, he watched. He watched the Knicks on television, compulsively. He was an addict in search of that first, glorious high, creepingly aware that it was never coming back but digging in his heels—and his butt into his couch—anyway. The definition of addiction, and the definition of insanity. Still, they were his Knicks, and nothing could change that…
Until 2004, Chris was a Yankees fan. The A-Rod trade turned him off to the team altogether, and he swiftly made the switch to the Mets. To this day, I’ve never heard any echoes of his joy at 1996 or subsequent titles. Maybe he keeps them to himself, but his love for the Yankees seems dead, a small fire snuffed out by a Category 5 hurricane.
For the Knicks, Hurricane Isiah finally started pushing people to the brink. Not Chris. He kept watching. StarksMasonEwingEwingEwing. FUCK Charles… eh, I guess he’s no Isiah. And FUCK Michael… eh, why bother? Chris didn’t let go of his grip completely, he just loosened it, but the storm kept coming.
Now the Nets are definitely coming to Brooklyn, where Chris grew up, and the Knicks, having ostensibly planned for this offseason for three years, look as clueless as they did when they started. Not only that, Chris is convinced that LeBron is signing with the Nets. He is convinced that LeBron’s mind has long been made up to come to New York, but that he, like Chris, sees a team that died 10 years ago. The fire still burned for Chris, surviving every Category 5 hurricane James Dolan threw at him, but why would it for LeBron?
There is, technically, no Category 6 hurricane. That’s what James would be. He’s already a prototype of something we haven’t seen before. Category 6. Category number 6. For Chris, he’s the hope to extinguish the smoldering wreckage of what was and will always be his favorite era in any sport, ever. Starks, the little engine that did. Mason, the man on whom he has modeled a not-insignificant part of his life (Chris’ love for Mase is pathological, admirable, scary). Ewing, the original spark of hope. Ewing, the key to it all. Ewing, the symbol of all that could have been, a monument to the past.
If the storm comes, it’ll fill thousands of glasses of water. The blue pills keep fans looking backward. The red pill pushes them forward—”the only direction”—and that’s why Chris has chosen it. But he’s no longer looking to the sky for his water to wash it down. He’s already taken it and, that’s why for the first time in a decade, he’s ready to enjoy whatever comes next.