LOS ANGELES – Free agency was forever LeBron James'(notes) chase, the Championship of Me, and how fitting that he uses the most vacuous vehicle of our time – the "Larry King Show" – to upstage an NBA Finals rich with such history and substance. As the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers gather for a championship series to remind us of what built the league, what made it great, here's LeBron James with a public ode on LeBron James.
"I'm the ringleader," he told King.
Only, he has no rings.
He was talking about the free-agent crop of stars, because that's mostly what James has cared about for two years now. He tried to win a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He has surrounded himself with a collection of sycophants and incompetents, sneaker reps and childhood buddies and middlemen whom he calls his team. Somehow, they couldn't let him stay quiet until the playoffs were over, until everyone had pushed past the way he disappeared in the conference semifinals. He did a vapid sit-down with King to air on Friday night, and they made sure to leak out a transcript that drones out the start of the NBA Finals.
In so many ways, he's a young Alex Rodriguez, so insecure with himself and his MVP awards, so desperate to find validation in the courtship of free agency.
"He seems more enthusiastic about this than he did trying to beat the Celtics," said one Western Conference GM. "I mean, who goes on Larry King to talk about 'when I become a free agent'?"
Different times, different measures of self. James refuses to see himself in the context of sport, in the lineage of those before him. There are two preps-to-the-pros stars in these NBA Finals – Kobe Bryant(notes) and Kevin Garnett(notes) – and sometimes people forget how much they struggled early on, how no one ever anointed them as skinny high schoolers leaping straight into the draft. They were talents, but they never had childhoods like James.
James climbed out of limousines at prep All-American sneaker camps. He wore shades and shirts which proclaimed himself King. He never learned to treat people with many manners or treat authority with respect. When he had something to say about himself, LeBron James never needed to consider the circumstances surrounding him. Now, it happens again. Free agency has enough hype without this selfish stunt, without him thinking that somehow everyone else is just a prop for his drama.
Two seasons ago, James marched into Madison Square Garden and sounded like a carnival barker, bellowing: "If you guys want to go to sleep right now and not wake up until July 1, 2010, then go ahead because it's going to be a big day."
He sat on a news-conference podium, with uncomfortable Cavaliers officials looking on, spitting out the date his personal playoffs begin: July 1, 2010. He loves to hear other free agents – Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes), Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) and Carlos Boozer(notes) – all insist this process starts with him. He loves that no can make a move in July until he does.
The NBA had always been about June, but LeBron James couldn't stand this month without him. The Celtics and Lakers earned themselves this stage, a throwback rivalry that makes those in the '60s and '70s and '80s so proud of the way these two teams, these champions, comport themselves. The Celtics and Lakers are the NBA's test of time – Bryant and Garnett, Gasol and Pierce. They've come to understand that those teams, those uniforms, represent something bigger than themselves, something that's sustained this league forever.
Maybe someday LeBron James will find it, but something tells you of the emptiness awaiting him in July. Eventually, he's going to have to find a team, sign a contract and the Championship of Me will be over. All he's ever truly wanted was to be the so-called ringleader of free agency, and it's almost here, almost his now. All these years, all these stars who lived for June, and now maybe the most gifted of them all has never stopped talking about July. No judgment. No shame. The ringleader is still searching for something.