It felt like it would never come, but the farcical ESPN special finally got to the point around 9:30 Eastern time and confirmed what everyone had heard during the day on Thursday: LeBron James is joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat.
The reasons why James made the choice are evident right in that sentence. It's about playing with Bosh and Wade and creating a basketball version of SuperFriends. That's something we've never seen before. The best player in his sport has passed up what could be a better chance to win a title (Chicago), the biggest stage in the world (New York) and his hometown (Cleveland/Akron) so that he could hang out with his friends.
The NBA has changed instantly, with the Heat suddenly going from just another team to the most hated enemy of every other team in the league. They may even be more hated right now than the Yankees, which is really saying something for a team that has existed for a blink of an eye, won one championship and hasn't elicited any emotion from an opponent since Jeff Van Gundy was riding Alonzo Mourning's leg.
That's a lot of impact from one decision and it hasn't even really sunk in yet. This is a game-changer in every way imaginable.
What it isn’t is a decision fit for a man who proclaimed himself the King. Kings are rulers and they are leaders, LeBron is a guy who looked around at the prevailing winds of the NBA and asked for help. For years we’ve been waiting to see him mature into a 21st century Michael Jordan. What we wound up getting is a poor man’s Scottie Pippen.
Seriously. Remember in 1994 when Pippen refused to go into a game when Phil Jackson drew up the last shot of a playoff game against the Knicks for Toni Kukoc? It was a childish reaction but it was the childish reaction of a guy who wanted to be in the spot and wanted to have the deciding moment in his hands. LeBron isn’t that guy. He proved through his whole Hamlet routine and his ultimate decision that he'd be just fine with someone else doing the heavy lifting.
That’s not what we've been conditioned to expect from great athletes. We've been conditioned to expect them to rise to the occasion and approach every challenge with fangs bared and caution thrown to the wind. James didn't do that on Thursday night. That's the biggest disappointment of all of this.
It’s not the only one, though. Every NBA season that features James, Bosh and Wade in Miami will come down to one of two storylines. Either it will be the inevitable superiority of a team stocked with quality players or the monumental failure of a team stocked with quality players. Everything else, from the intriguing Thunder in Oklahoma City to Kobe’s unyielding quest for more rings to whatever this means for the Knicks, will be, at best, secondary to the fortunes of the Miami Heat.
This is where you make the argument about how hard it will be for this team to win titles even with a big three, how you need guys like Derek Fisher, James Posey, Robert Horry and Steve Kerr to actually succeed in the biggest spots. It’s all true and it won’t make a whit of difference to the narrative that will play out every season.
This free agent class could have been the best thing to happen to the NBA in years. It could have reshuffled the deck to make new contenders, revitalize old champions and put a new face on a product that hasn’t sold all that well in recent years. Now, though, that dream is dead and the league will exist in the shadow of the Miami monolith that cowardice built. What a massive letdown.
James said on Thursday night that this was about the best chance to win a title. That's a lie.
What James has done is try to take out the blood, sweat and tears involved in winning titles. What the NBA and the people who watch it and care about it must now live with is this prepackaged simulacrum of a great team. If it works out for the Heat, bully for them.
Hopefully, it won’t work though. The journey is the part that’s truly enjoyable to watch, whether it is the journey from a group of individuals to a true team or the journey of one player from neophyte to champion. We'll never see that from James, which is a huge loss for the game of basketball. It might be the biggest loss if not for the fact that Erik Spoelstra is now racing to Heat headquarters to clean out his office before Pat Riley returns to coach and erases Spoelstra's keycard.
On the plus side, fans of the league’s other 29 teams now have a new pillar to bear the weight of their loathing. Anyone who found James’s self-aggrandizing behavior -- question to ponder, how could someone with such a desperate need for attention be so lacking in self-confidence? -- in the last few weeks despicable, particularly the way he chose to publicly diss Cleveland two months after letting them down in the playoffs, should take great joy in the fact that by choosing the path of least resistance, he has done far more damage to his blessed brand than anything short of triple homicide could have done.
A silver lining on a dark cloud of missed opportunity.