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Sports Then and Now

Grading the LeBron James Experience

Posted on July 14, 2010 by Dean Hybl

LeBron James is starting to get used to his new uniform and surroundings.

Now that the dust has settled on the LeBron James sweepstakes, let’s take a look at some of the key participants in his announcement and how they fared during a strange week that seemed to captivate the interest of the sports media as much as any game or event in recent memory.

LeBron James the Basketball Player:  A

You could say that the decision to take his talents from a Cleveland squad where he was the primary factor in whether they won or lost to a Miami squad where he will share the load with Dwyane Wade was a great move for LeBron James the player. I believe that had he stayed in Cleveland, James would have eventually led the Cavaliers to an NBA Championship. However, it would have been excruciatingly difficult and it is unlikely that he would have been able to lead them to multiple titles. He now joins a team that has a championship pedigree and three very talented players capable of building a dynasty. I’m not necessarily saying that the Miami Heat will create a monopoly on championships, but once Pat Riley has time to surround his three stars with some solid complimentary players they will certainly be in the mix every season. James knows that he must win at least one NBA title to be considered an all-time great and with at least 10 years left in his career, this should guarantee that he will get at least one ring.

LeBron James the Global Brand: D

Team LeBron has been force-feeding LeBron James commercials and his greatness to the American public since before he even graduated from high school. He has definitely become a powerful marketing machine – big enough to commandeer the largest sports television network for more than an hour in prime time. However, part of what has helped make James a national icon is the assumption that he is the heir to the throne as basketball’s next great superstar.

By leaving Cleveland, where he was undisputedly “The King”, for South Beach, James has in some respects abdicated his throne of greatness. His decision to go to a team with another nearly equal superstar has signaled that he doesn’t want/need to be “the man” on his team. That may help him win championships, but it is not going to help him build his global brand.

I predict that with the exception of fans in Cleveland, James will eventually overcome much of the negative hits he has received for leaving his hometown city at the altar. However, unless he does something quickly to distinguish himself from Wade and Chris Bosh, I also predict that many fans will lose interest in LeBron the individual talent. He will now become part of the “The Trio” and his individual prominence will diminish accordingly.

What Do You Think of LeBron James Now?

  • Boy did he make a big mistake (25%, 25 Votes)
  • What an Ego (24%, 24 Votes)
  • Better not go back to Cleveland anytime soon (23%, 23 Votes)
  • Really wants to Win a Title (17%, 17 Votes)
  • Still a Great Talent (10%, 10 Votes)

Total Voters: 99

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Miami Heat: A

In my opinion, there is no bigger winner in this entire situation than the Miami Heat. A team that has floundered since winning an accidental title in 2006 has come back very strong with the addition of two talented players that will join their own superstar in forming a basketball juggernaut. They have now pretty much guaranteed that they will be a championship contender for at least the next six years.

They also have lifted the Miami Heat brand to a level that is beyond anything they could have done simply by winning titles. By becoming an NBA bully (stealing talented stars from lesser franchises), they have potentially joined an upper echelon of sports franchises that transcend their sport.

For most professional franchises, merchandise sales tend to align with on-the-field success, but for those few franchises that transcend sports, merchandise sales generally remain steady regardless of whether the team is winning.

Teams like the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees and Oakland Raiders have been able to gain a sustained global following because they are polarizing. Whether you love them or hate them, those teams and to a lesser extent a few other sports franchises including the Boston Red Sox, Boston Celtics, Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Lakers have created national followings because they force you into a reaction. I think there is a very good probability that the Miami Heat will soon move to that next level. It will suddenly be cool to wear a Miami Heat jersey even if you are living in Boise or Des Moines.  That has never previously been the case.

Jim Gray:  F-

Jim Gray seemed so excited to be on stage with LeBron James that it is surprising he didn't give him a big hug and kiss.

In my opinion, one of the worst decisions in the entire experience was the choice of veteran panderer Jim Gray to serve as the “interviewer” for the live television program. Remembered best for justifying on national television the actions of a 12-year-old truant who had just impacted the on-the-field action during a 1996 baseball playoff game and for badgering Pete Rose immediately after an amazing ceremony at the 1999 World Series, Gray’s participation emphasized the fact that this was entertainment and not journalism.

His questions were so soft that I was kind of surprised he didn’t stop in the middle and ask James for his autograph. Asking James if he still bit his nails was just one example of how awful Gray was during the “interview”.

After seeing how much Gray fawned over James, it came as little surprise that questions have now been raised as to whether Gray was selected and paid by ESPN or if the James team made the selection and paid his expenses.

Considering that Gray is not a regular ESPN reporter and that the network has dozens who are better, I don’t think there is little doubt that regardless of who paid the bills, the decision to have Gray in the interview chair was a strategic decision made outside of Bristol.


Giving ESPN an overall grade on their role in “The Decision” is a little bit tricky. You can’t blame them for being willing facilitators to the hour+ self indulgence of LeBron James. If they had declined, any of a multitude of other networks would have gladly accepted the opportunity. The first letter in ESPN is entertainment and this program fit that element. Because they try to have sports news on SportsCenter, Outside the Lines and their other similar shows people sometimes believe they are a news organization, but they are an entertainment company that reports sports news.

That being said, it was obvious that the “reporters” participating in the program had a tough time being objective because they recognize where their bread is buttered. Much like Michael Jordan during his glory days or Tiger Woods before his life crash, LeBron James is one powerful sports figure to whom no one wants to be on the wrong side.

Michael Wilbon and some of the other analysts gave some minimal resistance prior to the announcement, but quickly fell in line once the move had been made. Then Wilbon and Stuart Scott quickly joined Gray in throwing softball questions at the athlete.

The agenda of ESPN became even clearer the next day when every single one of their television and radio hosts couldn’t move quick enough to condemn Dan Gilbert for his remarks about James. I will get to Gilbert in a minute, but I didn’t like how the ESPN talking heads were unmercifully ripping him for speaking his mind.

Dan Gilbert: D+

You can't fault Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert for his passion, but his open letter was not a good move.

If the open letter posted by Dan Gilbert on the Cavaliers web site had been penned by Joe Fan, then it would have been justified bitterness for a lost sports love. However, Gilbert is the owner of a major professional sports team that still has to field a 12-player roster capable of competing in the NBA next season.

Regardless of whether his words were truthful (and I think many people believe that most of them were – whether they will admit it or not), Gilbert has to recognize that while fans are important, what is ultimately going to determine success in Cleveland is what kind of players the team can sign.

His petty bitterness toward James was probably a red flag to every agent and player in the league. Cleveland is a hard enough place to get top players to want to play at, so imagine how hard it is going to be to attract quality players when the owner has basically said that he loves you if you are his, but will rip you once you leave.

Gilbert had every right to be upset that James chose not to personally call him before the announcement to tell him that he was leaving. I don’t think anyone will dispute that. However, the premise behind free agency in sports is that the player has the right to go wherever he chooses to play. So calling James a traitor and Benedict Arnold was probably going a little too far.

I know part of why Gilbert was so emphatic was to keep the Cleveland area fans engaged, but what will keep the fans interested in the long term is winning games, not throwing shots at a former member of the organization.

Jesse Jackson: F

In case you hadn’t heard, Jesse Jackson made some headlines over the weekend condemning the remarks by Gilbert. While I respect the work Jesse Jackson has done over time to promote equality, he needs to stay out of things that aren’t his business and this is one of those.

David Stern: B+

Stern was right in fining Gilbert for his actions and also for not agreeing with Jackson’s comments. I also was pleased that he came out saying that James should probably have done his announcement in a different manner. However, I can’t give Stern an A because he is the person who set up this kind of individual glorification by marketing the NBA as a league of individuals instead of as a group of great teams.

Other Winners:

Basketball in Florida: Having spent nearly 14 years living in Florida, I know that the state is a football state through and through. Basketball is nice, but football, especially college football, dominates the headlines 365 days per year. The newfound glamour of the Heat and the recent success of Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic could increase the interest for professional basketball in the state. If the Magic and Heat can truly become major rivals, it could create an electricity for basketball that has never been seen in Florida.

Chris Bosh: In one fell swoop, he went from being an unknown Toronto Raptor to being part of the greatest trio in Miami since the Bee Gees. I am not of the opinion that Bosh is anywhere near as talented as James or Wade, but given his size and position, he will probably be equally as important to their long-term success.

Other Losers:

Western Conference: It was just a few years ago when there was a debate whether the eighth seeded team in the Western Conference was good enough to beat the nest team from the East if they met in the finals. That balance of power has now significantly shifted toward the East. The West still has 8-10 very solid teams, but I think only 2-3 legitimate contenders for a conference title. To the contrary, the East now has at least four teams with definite championship potential (Heat, Magic, Celtics, Bulls) and several others who will make life difficult during the season. With the exception of Kobe Bryant, the East now also has most of the prominent personalities and individual players in the league.

NBA Fans: Certainly fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers are the biggest losers in this entire situation. However, you could say that this also eventually will negatively impact fans of a number of other NBA franchises that are in locations that aren’t the most desirable for players. If LeBron can leave his home town and Chris Bosh can leave Toronto, then no team can guarantee that their best players will not bolt for greener pastures once they are able to leave.

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