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WARNING: The following article may be suspected of baseless and fatalistic Internet whining, or of peanut gallery shots taken out of frustration. It is guilty of neither. I promise to offer at least as much substance as there is complaining within. If unsatisfied by this list, you may exchange this story for a full refund of your time. I’ll teach you how to juggle or something. Otherwise, strap in. These are the ten worst things about…whatever the hell happened in the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club.
It never felt good, ya know? And just like in a scary movie, that first “I’ve got a bad feeling from this” from a good-looking teen means things are effed. From the get-go, “The Decision” was flawed; it was a typical “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” setup. It was pomp for all the wrong reasons. If he was going back to Cleveland, LeBron James would’ve been criticized for wasting our time. If he was going anywhere else…well, you saw what happened, as the Twitterverse and, it seems, public opinion turned on the young man we had all anointed as King.
It was an hour-long spectacular, when a normal press conference (or a Twitter post, in Kevin Durant’s case) would’ve sufficed. It was held in a ludicrously out-of-the-way locale, as if its Boys & Girls Club “for a good cause” byline was enough to justify the absolutely baffling itinerary. It was organized by ESPN and LeBron’s handlers; now we know why the NBA hires smart public relations people (answer: because otherwise these things come off laughably amateur). It took place just weeks after another dreary jobs report reminded anyone paying attention that many Americans, especially in James’ home state of Ohio, were struggling to keep food on the table; politics be damned, this hourlong publicity event to belabor the question of which team had the privilege of paying LeBron hundreds of millions was in bad taste. So with bad aura swirling around even the notion of “The Decision,” the argument could be made that we should all hate it on principle. But that would be unfair to LeBron. We did, after all, as a sports culture, claim him as the second coming of Magic Johnson, and for him to feed into that with an ESPN special may have been misguided, but it wasn’t ire-worthy. Like many people, I went into “The Decision” with the hope that I would be rewarded with some substance.
Of the sixty minutes allotted to LeBron’s decision this past week, roughly five of them were allotted to anything regarding basketball (e.g. James committed to Erik Spoelstra, not Pat Riley as coach). Exactly zero of them were devoted to any kind of explanation of his decision. And I’d be fine with that choice, if he weren’t starring in his own hour of reality TV dedicated to making sense of all this. James offered platitude after platitude to Jim Gray’s softball questions (Gray’s opening toughie: “How’s your summer?”), pantomiming emotion like he was in a high school acting class. “I mean, it’s heartfelt for me,” the 25-year-old phenom said in the same tone later used to thank the show’s sponsor, the University of Phoenix.
The problem of substance is, essentially, one of wasting the viewer’s time. Yes, an inordinate amount of people tuned in, but ESPN itself advertised that a decision would be made in the first ten minutes. Instead, the same talking heads at ESPN’s NBA studio ruminated on the same thing the company had been discussing for the previous two weeks, with exactly the same information (truly, the lack thereof) they’d already told us ad nauseam. This went on for nearly half an hour before Gray and LeBron began their clearly scripted conversation. Maybe LeBron had to read his lines again.
When ESPN’s team tried to interview LeBron, he deflected some fairly good questions, and it became clear that the two-time MVP came to say exactly what he had rehearsed, and nothing more. In the end, “The Decision” was exactly what LeBron wanted it to be, and I think that’s why, whatever your reaction is or was, it has been to James as a person. ESPN has been panned, and rightly so, but they ceded much of the control over the event, including advertising control, to James and his handlers. What you saw out there, which was a whole lot of nothing, was a direct reflection of James’ desired public image. It was an hourlong commercial for his brand, which, ironically enough, took its biggest hit since LeBron’s arrival in the NBA.
The summer sucks for sports fans. It really does. This summer’s respite has been the World Cup, which has made for incredible television. But with only four Cup games that week, and all of those taking place during daytime hours, there was nothing to whet the appetite for sport. Baseball is in the All-Star Break, with most teams using the opportunity to get some extra rest for starters. Football is still far enough away that there are, mercifully, no minute-by-minute Brett Favre updates. Thoughts of hockey have melted with the latest heatwave, and…well…that’s it. Basketball free agency became the de facto story of the moment. And it was worse than ever.
Listen, I’m (perhaps obviously) an NBA geek. I follow Steve Nash on Twitter. I’m Facebook friends with Ryan Gomes. I watch Summer League games. I take time out of my day to write articles about people who not only will never read them, but I will probably never meet. And even I think that turning the free market contract negotiations of the NBA into a monthlong festival of hype (let’s call it Snoreapalooza) is gratuitous. Know who the key free agent acquisition was for the Lakers last year? Ron Artest. Key piece and Game 7 hero, but ultimately the same guy who shot 39.3% from the field in the Finals, who Phil Jackson had to implore not to shoot even when wide open, and who, when getting torced by Paul Pierce, was the 2nd or 3rd worst player on the court. The key free agent for the Celtics three years ago was James Posey, a 30-year-old journeyman on his 5th team in seven years. His main responsibilities were to play great defense and, on occasion, make open 3’s.
Point is, as the hype about free agency’s importance has grown, its actual relevance has remained marginal. Free agency results in decent starting players being paid like megastars (see: Lewis, Rashard) or cripplingly stupid contracts (see: Dampier, Erick). Only occasionally do you get what you pay for, and teams are far more likely to do so by negotiating with their own players (Rajon Rondo and Durant both did this within the last six months, and I’ll eat my hat if both those contracts don’t look like good deals for both team and player in three years).
The open market of free agency is the equivalent of a bachelor party reaching the roulette tables: you might win, but in the end you’re blindly throwing your money and hoping it’ll stick. For that reason, recent teams have chosen to rebuild through trades (Boston acquiring Allen, Garnett; L.A. acquiring Pau Gasol; Detroit acquiring Pre-Fat and Lazy Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups) and/or the draft (San Antonio snagging Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili; Detroit acquiring Tayshaun Prince; Boston picking Rondo). Teams that overpay free agents end up with power-forwards who runs from 3-point line to 3-point line and can’t score double digits in the playoffs (if you thought I could limit myself to one dig at Rashard Lewis, who, for the record, is the 2nd-highest paid player in the league next year…well, you get it).
So the media was drooling for coverage of this year’s bumper crop. Finally, we wouldn’t be talking about Bobby Simmons, Tim Thomas, and Trevor Ariza and pretending that paying more attention would make them any better as players. No, we had two of the top five players in the league (LeBron/Dwyane Wade), five more All-Stars (Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, David Lee), and plenty of quality depth beyond that (Rudy Gay, Kyle Korver, Brad Miller, Tyrus Thomas, Linas Kleiza, etc.).
The media had their field day. ESPN had a countdown to midnight on July 1st, the official start to the free agency period. It was of no consequence to them that absolutely nothing would happen at midnight, and that it merely represented the beginning of a period arbitrarily set forth by the bureaucracy of the NBA. It’s also no surprise that when Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles (the Clippers count, right? No? Okay, fair point) have dogs in the race, ESPN throws its skirt over its head.
In 2004-05, when teams like San Antonio, Phoenix, and the Clippers (See? They don’t matter!) had cash to blow, the only major free agent story was whether Kobe would stay or go. There was no ticker to when the free agencies of Steve Nash, Manu Ginobili, Rasheed Wallace, Karl Malone, and Kenyon Martin were going to begin. (Small aside: mentioning the productive years of Wallace’s career, when he was a highly desired asset, is one of the weirdest things that went into researching this column. It’s like writing about someone who’s dead.) Granted, 2004-05 was still post-lockout NBA, a time when Michael Jordan’s Wizards comeback was the most culturally relevant thing that had happened since the 6th Bulls title.
And we didn’t really know how good (Nash, Ginobili) or overrated (Martin) some of those players were, but it was a fine free agency class. And the culture of sports media has shifted since then; we are more addicted now than we’ve ever been to the constant updates of ESPNMobile and the Bottomline. The improved access to the media, by the fans, has created the need for the media to pretend as though there is always something incredibly newsworthy going on in the world of sports. There isn’t, and despite the fact that today’s players having higher Q scores than anyone since Jordan, “The Decision” probably wouldn’t have been this big if it were taking place in October.
I’ve taken a lot of shots at ESPN to this point, but only because they’re becoming a glorified tabloid intent on crushing all local sports coverage so they can fill their monopolistic coffers. Er…sorry, that felt good. No, the shots at ESPN are a stand-in for my displeasure with the sporting media community using the NBA free agency story not to do any actual reporting, but to congratulate one another on just what a great job everyone does, day in and day out. Instead of talking about how LeBron’s lack of a father figure and his decision to skip college and go straight to the pros may have affected his choice, the only updates from trusted NBA sources were about Chris Broussard or Chad Ford. Those aren’t the names of trusted LeBron advisors or key employees of the teams vying for these players, they’re two of ESPN’s NBA correspondents. Broussard, who was one of the talking heads detailed by ESPN to “The Decision,” was the final “expert” to break a meaningful story, that James was leaning towards Miami, and even he waffled in the final moments before the Gray interview.
Millions of dollars and hundreds of hours went into the glorified guessing game of where LeBron would end up, only to, five minutes before the announcement was made, have the most knowledgable source on the issue admit to being unsure about it. Why didn’t the media just admit defeat and cover baseball? Was there a point to trying to get inside the head of an athlete who, clearly, very few of us understood as well as we thought we did? Guys I respect, like Mike Wilbon, offered nothing except more of the same cirus act. Did anyone ever have anything about the ultimate decision illuminated for them by anything other than maybe the final 24 hours of coverage? (If you did, post a comment with some details; I’ll gladly namedrop any fine members of the fourth estate who managed to wade through this mess and offer something concrete)
I’ll admit that my Northeast bias is coming into play here, but I think we can all agree that Miami is not, and probably never will be, a great sports city. It’s the last place I’d have picked to have LeBron play among the serious contenders. The Heat are a 22-year-old franchise. They have one NBA title, 13 playoff appearances, seven division titles, and a D-League team with a dazzlingly bad-ass name: the Skyforce. They’re an above-average, but not spectacular, franchise, and their finances are middle-of-the-pack. They’ve made some moderate upgrades to their arena, insuring that it doesn’t age horribly like its counterpart in Orlando.
But one thing Miami is not known for is loyal fans. They ranked 15th in the league in attendance last year, and a casual glance at the start of any Heat home game will see plenty of lower-bowl seats unoccupied, either because of the struggling economy or the carefree South Beach attitude. In Chicago, Boston, and New York, fans are rabid because, well, otherwise the five months of winter would eat our souls. We NEED basketball and hockey. In Miami, there’s just not the same need. Of the top 10 teams in NBA attendance for 2009-10, only four are from warm-weather areas (Jazz, Lakers, San Antonio, Dallas). And of those four, only Los Angeles remotely resembles Miami as a sports city. In Salt Lake City, there’s nothing else to do EXCEPT go to Jazz games. San Antonio and Dallas are nearly three times the size of Miami. And Los Angeles is a city of nearly four million, whose basketball team is world famous. I think we can safely say that Miami has none of those things going for it.
And it’s not just a matter of having an off-year: the woeful Pistons had over a thousand more people per game than did the Heat, who boasted one of the league’s most entertaining and marketable stars in Wade and were the fifth seed in the East. The most notable player on the Pistons is Rip Hamilton, whose biggest endorsement is a truly hilarious set of endorsements for a local eye doctor in the Detroit area. And while Miami’s economy has been ravaged by the recession, it certainly hasn’t been hit worse than Detroit. Having gone to school for four years in the state of Michigan, I can attest that (and I will never admit it to any of them) Detroit fans are impressive in their dedication to the team. Miami fans are not. Real fans don’t need silly color gimmicks that make the entire crowd look like cult members (the ONLY place these belong are in college football, and I’m sticking to that).
So in the coming months, prepare yourself for the bandwagon to get pretty full. You can bet your last two pennies that Jay-Z (and probably lesser Miami rappers like Rick Ross & Pitbull) will show up at courtside. I expect we’ll see a terrific amount of LA Syndrome from crowds, as American Airlines Arena becomes a place to go to be seen, instead of to watch a game. The Lakers get away with it because A) Jack Nicholson is awesome (although doesn’t he seem one or two more bad calls from going Sprewell on a referee?), B) they’re arguably the most famous basketball franchise of all-time, and C) their actual fans are die-hard, live-and-die-with-the-team dudes and dudettes. I know that A and B don’t apply to Miami, and I’m not sure C does either. A Google search for “rabid Heat fan” returned nine results, while “rabid Bulls fan” returned 244 (And yes, “rabid Celtics fan” returned 4700+ results, which will help me sleep at night when I have to watch Jermaine O’Neal start for three months).
So maybe the Miami fans have it in ’em to become a great NBA crowd like the ones in Salt Lake City, Boston, and Chicago and we just haven’t seen it yet. But don’t be surprised if the crowd is completely invisible through the first three quarters because everyone’s too busy on their cell phone trying to wave their hands into the TV cameras.
(Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion
Tags: Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Chicago Bulls, Chris Bosh, Chris Paul, Cleveland Cavaliers, Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, James Posey, Joe Johnson, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Rajon Rondo, Ron Artest, Tony Parker