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They ended up with that split-screen of the King's jersey burned live on his infomercial, as this sad, lost robot sat in a leafy suburban gymnasium with children as props and the world watching, those empty eyes masking a lost, dazed LeBron James(notes). This was the champagne shower for the Championship of Me, an exercise in self-aggrandizement and self-loathing that will have far-reaching implications for the NBA and James. What a spectacle, what a train wreck.
As the worst idea in the history of marketing unfolded, James looked trapped somewhere between despondence and defiance. His bumbling buddy Maverick Carter had walked him into the public execution of his legacy, his image, and there was a part of James that clearly wished he could turn back through the doors and hide. Only, it was too late. No going back now. James goes to the Miami Heat, Cleveland goes into a basketball Hades and LeBron's legacy becomes that of a callous carpetbagger.
"His brand is [bleep] now," one high-level NBA official said late Thursday. "He's destroyed everything."
The Championship of Me became the Championship of Flee, because LeBron James doesn't believe he can be the centerpiece of a title team. He needed Dwyane Wade, a closer, far more than Wade needed him.
Yes, he's ruined everything. What a wonderful idea: Divorce your childhood sweetheart on national television and tell her, hey, I'll let you keep the "We are all Witnesses" billboards lording over downtown Cleveland.
"I'm taking my talents to South Beach," James said, and it was like time stopped because – even for him – this was a moment so devoid of reality and free of concern of consequences. South Beach? He wasn't picking a basketball team as much as a party. He's 25 years old, and yet somehow this felt like a cloistered teenager picking a party school for college.
Yes, James will take his talent to South Beach and leave his soul in Cleveland. His hometown won't hate him as much for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers as for the way he left them. Leaving never would've been easy, but he went out of his way to humiliate them. LeBron James can never go home now. He's the Browns leaving town, The Fumble, The Shot, all rolled into one colossal disappointment.
Now, Clevelanders truly see it for themselves: He was a fan of the Cowboys, the Yankees – never the Browns and Indians. He was a frontrunner, and he just made the most frontrunner move in the history of the NBA. Off to Miami with Riles, D-Wade and Chris Bosh(notes).
New York would've been hard, and maybe Cleveland would've been the hardest. With those state tax laws in Florida, he isn't taking less money with the Heat. He's just taking less risk and less burden in his championship chase.
"This whole idea that he makes his own decisions, that [bleep] went out the window with this," one NBA executive said. "Someday, he's going to look back at this and not believe that he let those kids at LRMR talk him into doing this. This idea that he's his own man … Come on, he's a follower. And he's following all the way to Miami now."
This was the train rolling down the tracks from miles and miles away, and James never saw it coming. He should lose his obsession to become the richest athlete ever, because the people surrounding LeBron James are much more likely to leave him broke than a billionaire. Someday, he will fire his business manager Maverick Carter for turning the two-time MVP's free-agent moment into Geraldo and Al Capone's vault. Carter used the cover of charity for a historically horrible event and completely destroyed the credibility of his client.
So now people are cheering Dan Gilbert's manifesto tearing apart James, but no one contributed more to what the world witnessed on Thursday night than the owner's enabling of James and his inner circle for seven years. Gilbert is the biggest con going, a man who makes his fortune peddling mortgages, and he'll make his next on casinos in downtown Cleveland. He sells illusions for a living, and now he's selling the biggest of all: that he's a victim here, that James betrayed everyone. That's a lie, and no one ought to dare buy it.
Everyone searching for a scapegoat here – Mike Brown, Danny Ferry, Delonte West(notes) – well, just understand that it was the man screaming loudest with LeBron out the door, the man most determined to deflect blame onto him now.
Now, Gilbert is the tough guy with James leaving the Cavs behind? Listen, Ferry and Brown always warned Gilbert that giving James everything he wanted – giving it when and where and how – wouldn't be the way they would keep him. LeBron didn't respect them because they never demanded it.
Gilbert always believed he should do everything James wanted – hire his buddies into jobs, throw them on summer-league rosters, allow him to do those stupid pregame choreographed dances – that James would love him, that he would never leave. Only, James is a taker, and he took and took until he had bled Gilbert and that franchise to the bone.
So now, Gilbert unleashes the most revisionist and self-serving screed that a scorned owner's ever done. Gilbert is a bully and a baby. As much as James, Gilbert revealed himself, too. He asked for this humiliation and deserves it. Only those fans in Cleveland don't deserve this. They were loyal, true, and ultimately they must know Gilbert lashed out to make James the villain for a most self-serving reason: to avoid the blame himself. Damn right James quit on the Cavaliers in that playoff series, but that was because Gilbert was always there to make it easy for him. All those times Ferry and Brown warned the owner they had to make stands with James, that they had to force him to have some level of respect within that organization or there would be an ultimate price to pay.
And here it came on Thursday night, in this bizarre, sad set-up that turned LeBron James into a caricature. His puppet seems more human than him. Listen, James' people tried to leak this story to soften the blow on Cleveland, but here was the problem: He's so insincere, and they're so over their heads, that most of us were uneasy with believing what they were selling in the hours leading up to Jim Gray holding everyone hostage. There had to be an agenda, a bait-and-switch, and yet source after source within LeBron's world insisted: He's leaving. He wants out. They had been doing this for weeks, even months. So, armed with that knowledge, why would they ever stage this event to rub it in the face of James' hometown? Lots of stars have moved on, but never one that had such a unique history with a town, a city, a franchise.
We kept writing it with qualifiers because deep down a lot of us doubted his courage to leave that cocoon. He would make Cleveland feel like it had lost him, and then swoop back into town and be celebrated all over again. Only, LeBron's people were telling the truth. He was gone. He was always gone. He never considered staying, and that's the most frightening part of all.
For the hand-wringing out of Gilbert and James' apologists who protected him – and who would still be protecting him had he simply said, "Cleveland," on Thursday night – they need to stop with this nonsense that somehow LeBron James has transformed into someone else. This is him, and it's always been him. He's a creation of our times, of an industry and system that wants to manufacture the next M.J. at the expense of a young man having a sense of himself.
So there was LeBron James, the MVP, the man of the hour, sitting in the middle of his own "Truman Show" on Thursday night. His personal network ran his commercials and celebrated his greatness and let him hijack a platform to build his brand and break hearts. He can never go home again now, and he can never completely rebuild what he let his cast of buddies talk him into losing that night. He's taking his talents to South Beach, and the kid going away for the first time will have some party down there. After all these years, it was clear he had been coddled and protected and ultimately prepared to do one thing: Take the easy way out. Wherever he was going, he looked conflicted, lost and completely confused.
What a spectacle, what a train wreck.
What a shame.