Re-read Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s letter following LeBron James‘ 2010 “Decision” to leave for the Miami Heat. It’s merciless. It’s cold. It’s almost unbelievable that it ever got published. Gilbert denigrated James, calling him “narcissistic,” “cowardly,” “selfish,” “heartless and callous.”
But was it racial? LeBron certainly thinks so. GQ’s Mark Anthony Green followed James for several days “from Los Angeles to New York to Toronto and back again, talking LeBron Inc., MJ, Cleveland, race, and the man we’d come to know simply as ‘U bum.'” The kicker was this question Green posed to LeBron:
Did you feel like Dan Gilbert’s letter was racial?
“Um, I did. I did. It was another conversation I had to have with my kids. It was unfortunate, because I believed in my heart that I had gave that city and that owner, at that point in time, everything that I had. Unfortunately, I felt like, at that point in time, as an organization, we could not bring in enough talent to help us get to what my vision was. A lot of people say they want to win, but they really don’t know how hard it takes, or a lot of people don’t have the vision. So, you know, I don’t really like to go back on that letter, but it pops in my head a few times here, a few times there. I mean, it’s just human nature. I think that had a lot to do with race at that time, too, and that was another opportunity for me to kind of just sit back and say, ‘Okay, well, how can we get better? How can we get better? How can I get better?’ And if it happens again, then you’re able to have an even more positive outlook on it. It wasn’t the notion of I wanted to do it my way. It was the notion of I’m gonna play this game, and I’m gonna prepare myself so damn hard that when I decide to do something off the court, I want to be able to do it because I’ve paid my dues.”
Green does a far better job than I could of detailing how LeBron may have come to that conclusion:
The way LeBron speaks on race threads a very fine needle. It’s healing and inclusive while also being extremely real. He’s the anti-conformist athlete. From tweets and Instagram posts about police brutality to the way he’s taken control of his career — off the court and on the court. The way he chose to leave Cleveland and then chose to come back. The way he broke the norms of free agency in the process. He’s liberated every NBA player from now to eternity. But at the time, in the summer of 2010, he was bludgeoned for it — by media, by fans, and, perhaps most controversially, by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who published an open letter to the city of Cleveland, effectively calling LeBron a narcissist and a traitor. It had nothing to do with business or sport, for that matter. Some argued that it read like he thought he owned more than just the team — like he owned LeBron.
Gilbert was not the only one who felt LeBron’s “Decision” — a half-hour ESPN show during which he broke the news live on television to both Cleveland and the Cavaliers that he was leaving the city — was shameless self-promotion unlike anyone had ever seen in the NBA. It was the dawn of a new era.
Ohioans burned his jerseys. The phrase, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” turned LeBron into a basketball villain, and it was only magnified when Miami hosted a rally to introduce the Heat’s new Big Three and James promptly promised “not one, not two,” but more than a handful of championships.
But nobody was more harsh than Gilbert. Take this portion of the letter, for example:
If you thought we were motivated before tonight to bring the hardware to Cleveland, I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our “motivation” to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels.
Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.
Sorry, but that’s simply not how it works.
This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown “chosen one” sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And “who” we would want them to grow-up to become.
But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called “curse” on Cleveland, Ohio.
The self-declared former “King” will be taking the “curse” with him down south. And until he does “right” by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.
That’s just mean. And it seems worse seven years later, if only because so many stars have changed teams since James popularized the trend that we’ve become desensitized to it. Kevin Durant caught flak for leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State, but the pushback was nothing like the Gilbert letter.
Most fans understand by now the NBA is a business and players should feel empowered to follow their own career paths. Otherwise, they risk teams choosing for them. Just ask Isaiah Thomas. The former Boston Celtics star was traded to the Cavs … where he plays with LeBron, who returned to Cleveland four years after his departure and the letter that followed.
That’s right. After winning a pair of titles in Miami, James came back to his native Northeast Ohio, returning to the Cavaliers in a less grandiose decision announced in a Sports Illustrated article.
“To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough,” James wrote in the 2014 announcement. “The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned — seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.’ But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
Shortly after LeBron’s return to Cleveland, Adrian Wojnarowski detailed for Yahoo Sports the healing process between James and Gilbert. The Cavs owner apologized: “I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back.” LeBron, for his part, expressed regret to Gilbert for how the “Decision” went down. That seemed to squash any beef between them.
Except, James also addressed the letter in an Uninterrupted video this past June:
”For me, personally, when I decided to go back to Cleveland, I had to decide, because our owner at the time when I left decided to put out this f***ing article that we all know about, where he completely bashed me and disrespected not only me as an individual, but disrespected my name. And my name is not just myself. It’s my wife, it’s my kids, my grandfather, my mother. So many more people.”
“So, for me, when I decided to go back, I talked to everybody, and I had to let them know, because some people were on the fence. Even my mama and my wife were like, ‘I ain’t with that.’ My mom was definitely like, ‘F*** that. We ain’t going back.’ And, for me, I had to finally just be like, ‘You know what mom? It ain’t even really about that. Me going back is more of a bigger picture, and it’s more of all these kids, all these people that need inspiration and need a way to get out, and I believe I’m that way out.’
“And so, as much as my mom, my wife and my kids mean everything to me … I had to be like, let’s not worry about the small s***. Let’s worry about us trying to build something that’s bigger than our name.”
But here we are, seven years later, and the letter still pops in LeBron’s head “a few times here, a few times there,” and apparently not just because of the bitterness Gilbert felt. The letter was cruel. It was merciless. It was cold-blooded. But was it racial? James thinks so, and that might be all that matters.
You can’t help but wonder whether that letter will divide them once again next summer, especially since LeBron has become more vocal about standing against hate. How does he really feel about his current employer? We may find out soon enough. I’ll leave you with Green’s final question to James:
What does LeBron James owe the city of Cleveland?
“LeBron James owes nobody anything. Nobody. When my mother told me I don’t owe her anything, from that point in time, I don’t owe anybody anything. But what I will give to the city of Cleveland is passion, commitment, and inspiration. As long as I put that jersey on, that’s what I represent. That’s why I’m there — to inspire that city. But I don’t owe anybody anything.”
Interpret that how you will.
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