In an episode of the first season of Mad Men, ambitious account man Pete Campbell finds some potentially damaging information about his boss, Don Draper. Feeling spurned over not being offered the “Head of Account Services” position, Campbell decides to use this information to blackmail Draper into giving him the job. Campbell tries to spin the threat as an opportunity for Draper to see that Campbell truly deserves the position, dismissing the blackmail threat entirely. He even pleads with Draper that he deserves the job, even though it is abundantly clear that he is too green, too spoiled, and far too entitled to have earned it.
That scene took place in a somewhat romanticized version of the early 60’s, when men were men and they drank like fish at work. It’s not hard to see something like that having played out for real in cutthroat Manhattan, during an era when America and Americans were feeling their oats, Ayn Rand style. So it’s not illogical to believe that in roughly 50 years, treachery and egotrips by the spoiled have progressed to the farce seen Thursday at a Boys and Girls Club in wealthy, suburban Greenwich, CT.
Looking back on it now, “The Decision” starring Lebron James was no more than a meant-to-be dramatic climax to an elaborate ruse set up by James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and their respective handlers and agents. There were clues in the interview with Wade and Bosh 24 hours prior, when Bosh was asked about what James would do and Bosh nearly blew the whole thing, laughing as he wished his friend luck. Another hint came when various reporters, trying to sniff out the story, found out that Wade was travelling to various suitor teams as a spy for the Miami Heat, meeting with the other teams to gauge their situations instead of truly making himself available. Then in the final hours before the hourlong farce, stories were unleashed about a full-page ad welcoming the trio in the Miami Herald that was put up and taken down (call it a crossover move), along with rumors about Lebron renting several cabanas on South Beach for his triumphant arrival.
The point of this very long con? To keep the league from thinking the trio’s actions were collusion. It’s one thing for teams to act in a collusive manner, since they toe that line on a regular basis. For three of the game’s best players to do it and believe that they could pull it off is a caper unlike any since the Lufthansa heist – and better, it played out (mostly) publicly. If David Stern had known early on that this was possible, he would’ve put the clamps on it early on. Now that it’s happened, he’ll probably just spin it into some kind of leverage in the NBA’s upcoming collective bargaining sessions.
It used to be that when playing a team sport, you danced with the one who brought you. That meant fealty to a team that drafted you, paid you your first pro salary, and if the team was run correctly, surrounded you with the necessary talent to make your own talent shine. The collective decision of James, Wade, and Bosh was an effective “SCREW YOU” to the system, redefining forever what it means to be a free agent. Not only did the players decide together where they’d play, they have also become their own team general managers in the process. As brilliant as Pat Riley is, he and his staff have been reduced to being accountants, merely clearing cap space for the stars, while the stars are in turn refocusing their efforts on recruiting near-retirement veterans and other castaways to “share the sacrifice for a greater goal.” Defenders point to the fact that James and his cohorts took less money to make the deal happen, but they all will get recompense from Florida’s lack of state income tax and their own early opt-outs in only four years.
It’s ironic that the seed for this collusion germinated at the Olympics in Beijing, where the Redeem Team truly put individual statistics aside to win back the hoops gold medal. At some point between then and Thursday, James decided that he could no longer trust either Cleveland’s management (or another team’s) to risk his prime years wasting away on a team that just fell short of the brass ring. He took the if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em approach, which has disappointed more than a few old-school players and legends. It’s unfortunate that Lebron, sensing his career clock ticking louder with each passing day, chose to compromise instead of carving out his legacy on only his terms. The strange thing is that the compromise is being done to push for multiple championships – and in the NBA that doesn’t mean a mere two or three, but rather five, six, or more – a number that would catapult him into a discussion with the greatest: Russell, Jordan, Magic, Kareem. Bird, and in the future, Kobe.
What’s disappointing is that everyone in pro sports gets to a point where he is presented with a fight-or-flight opportunity, and it’s how he reacts to that situation that establishes his legacy. Lebron’s response was clearly flight. In the other major sports, there are too many dependencies to create this kind of situation frequently. In baseball, a hitter may have 25-35 plate appearances during a series. A quarterback may drop back 40 times in a playoff game. A soccer striker may have only a couple of shots at the goal in a match. In basketball, a scorer will get perhaps 150 field goal attempts per series and easily double or triple the number of possessions.
Strangely, I am more fascinated with the NBA’s offseason machinations than MLB’s. The NBA’s soft cap makes the disparity between haves and have-nots less striking than baseball. Unlike MLB, in the NBA teams can trade just about anything: players, picks, draft rights, even cap exceptions. I love “caponomics” more than I love sabermetrics, which makes me a bit perverse, I know, and this charade has only fed my hunger in a terrible, guilty pleasure manner. Still, I can’t help but be bothered by the idea that what these three players have done has served to reduce competition. These players (yes, Wade and Bosh are both guilty too) have chosen to share the burden, which is admirable in a way, but to not have the will or fortitude to carry the burden on their own for a little longer is more than a little disappointing. In a sport where The Man carries the team and cries out for help when needed, it’s hard to claim that you are The Man when you are, in effect, The Help.
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Didn’t Giambi try (or at least mention trying) to do the same thing once he went to the Stankees, bringing all his A’s buddies over?
Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya did basically the same thing in 2003 with the Colorado Avalanche (signing collectively for less money than they could have received separately in the hopes of winning a championship).
There is the fact that it seems to be LeBron positioning himself to win a championship without as much effort as would have been required if he had stayed with the girl he came with (Cleveland). At the same time, I’d much rather someone do something to win a title than make a shitload more money, wouldn’t you?
Funny how marquee players in the NBA all end up in the glamor markets:
Wilt Chamberlain – goes from Philadelphia to LA
Kareem Abdul Jabbar – goes from Milwaukee to LA
Shaquille O’Neal – goes from Orlando to LA
Patrick Ewing – ends up in New York after Knicks mysteriously win draft lottery.
Kobe Bryant – drafted by the Charlotte Hornets, but ends up in LA
LeBron James – goes from Cleveland to Miami
Lebron’s “The Decision” was egotistical and a waste of time. He should have just sent a Twitter message: “I’m going to Miami.” and that’s it.
If I was a an NBA, MLB, NFL or NHL player I’d rather find myself on a team where I could contribute and win a championship then be a star on a team and fall short of that goal. If I was labeled THE HELP instead of The MAN, I’d take it. I couldn’t care less about all the money, fame and personal stats if I can’t win a championship,
Lebron, Wade and Bosh made smart moves. Now let’s see if they can deliver.
In recent years, we’ve seen what are supposed be mundane exercises in procedure, ie the NFL and NBA drafts, turned into media spectacles. And of course there’s the NFL’s Super Bowl halftime show, which has become a star-studded extravaganza that’s a bigger event than the game itself. I remember when Super Bowl halftimes featured the finals of the Punt Pass and Kick competition.
Is it any surprise the LeBron mess was made into a special akin to a Presidential State of the Union Address?
Good post, ML. It was interesting to learn that we share a great interest in hoops finances as well.
I’ve gone back and forth over the past week on this, from being disappointed in Lebron’s decision to now defending him.
My thoughts are:
*Yes, the Florida “no income tax” does make up for the $15M that Lebron left on the table…but, the players each still could’ve made that a sticking point and gotten max salaries from Miami. Instead, they are taking ~$2M less apiece, which will allow the Heat to sign Mike Miller ($5M per) and perhaps Udonis Haslem ($4-5M per) to create an incredible starting/crunchtime five, all of them on below-market contracts. If they were truly being incredibly selfish, they would’ve all insisted on max deals, which would’ve led to them being surrounded by nine league-minimum players, basically.
*At least 95%(?) of Americans get to pick and choose the companies they choose work for when they graduate high school or college. NBA guys don’t. And what’s worse, different than the MLB or NFL, they can’t “hold out”, go back to school after being drafted by a team or situation they dislike, or negotiate the terms of their first contract – it’s all slotted at a salary drastically below market value for a player of Lebron/Wade’s caliber. Lebron was drafted, told that he would play for this team, and make this salary, with no negotiation. Not many Americans are forced to accept those terms at their job. So…I absolutely don’t begrudge him – he finally had the chance to pick where he wanted to live, who he wanted to work, and which colleagues he wanted to work with. And he made the best choice for his long-term happiness. Nothing wrong with any of that.
*I didn’t like The Decision show, either. I’ll get back to that.*** Probably nobody outside of South Florida, did. But I also am cognizant that players nowadays are realizing their power, and they are using it. That rails against the establishment, but is it wrong? For 100 years players have needed owners and needed the media, both for a place to play and to become famous enough to earn big salaries. Now, that’s changed – players can be their own media with Twitter, host their own TV shows or spectacles like the Decision…they can buy teams when they retire (Jordan), and they can have huge influence on front office decisions (as Wade and Lebron did)…and a lot of people don’t like it. Do preople not like it simply because it’s different than the status quo? I mean, someone needs to have power…why is it better that it’s owners/GMs than players? Do people not like this situation because the mainstream media is TELLING them not to like it, since it represents the media’s loss of power (and eventually the loss of even more sports media jobs)? Or, a scary thought, do people not like it (subconsciously and innocently, perhaps) because it represents white people (owners, most media members) losing some power that they once held over elite athletes, and will never again gain back?
***I didn’t like The Decision, but I didn’t like it because it too fluffy, slow moving, and because Lebron didn’t look comfortable with the whole thing. Had he hammed it up or seemed to actually enjoy the spotlight he had put himself in, or been asked better questions by the journalists and answered more honestly, I would’ve found it riveting. But The Decision did NOT bother me for any of the other common reasons: Lebron was bringing attention to himself, or disappointing his home state on live television. Those things are his well-earned right and ultimately if it weren’t an interesting topic, people wouldn’t have watched. Pretty much all of television these days is people bringing unnecessary attention to themselves; I don’t see why Lebron can’t.
Thanks for posting the topic! I’d love to debate it more. Apparently I’ve been needing an outlet for all this. 🙂
re: *At least 95%(?) of Americans get to pick and choose the companies they choose work for when they graduate high school or college. NBA guys don’t.
…yes they do. They choose to work for the NBA company, which then tells them which branch they will work in. “We have an opening for you in our Cleveland office but not our Miami office at the moment. You can choose which office you want after several years.”
And Americans can only choose to work for whichever company will have them. Want to work for NBC right out of college after getting your broadcasting degree? You better be prepared to work for WWWW in Mississippi for a few years instead. These days many college grads are finding that no company at all will have them.