King? More Like Emperor…

Basketball fans in Cleveland currently live in what may cheekily be called “interesting times.”

That statement is based upon the report this week that their all-powerful god, LeBron James, just might, you know, want to play with some guys other than every single person involved with the Cavaliers organization.

James mooning over his pals Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade may ultimately not have much impact on the Cavaliers roster–but it does lead one to wonder just how long LeBron can continue to be considered the face of the Association.

The DFR logo with BasketballIt should be said right off the bat: that report came to light this week, but it’s hard to say exactly when James expressed his thoughts of unrequited playing time with his friends. The original Bleacher Report article that is the source of those quotes comes with no date/time stamp. It’s probably safe to say that the article dropped within the last few days. However, given the length of the piece, its length and its content–it retraces the relationship between James and Anthony from meeting during their prep days to today–it’s also pretty safe to assume that author Howard Beck was crafting this feature for quite a while, and the pearls of insight James shared probably were spoken a while ago. Whatever other twitchiness James might be currently showing about playing for the Cavs, the desire expressed to Beck may not be of recent vintage.

“King James may turn out to be an Emperor after all: an Emperor who is wearing no clothes, and who is just on the verge of being told that he’s naked by the people who are wising up to him.”

But James’s sentiments, about gathering his buddies on one roster for a year or two and having a time, do make you wonder about him. James seems to be perpetually in search of some magical, mystical moment in time when all his stars line up and make his NBA playing days everything he ever dreamed they could be. The question is, why?

Other star players have moved around the league, either through free agency or demanding and getting a trade, to suit their tastes in location or teammates or revenues. But only LeBron seems to have this need to collect friends on his roster in order to feel fulfilled.

Or, perhaps, to fulfill his competitive aspirations. After all, James still has not won a championship without Wade at his side. That’s not especially unusual. Most superstars in the NBA win their championships with one or more specific–and usually unchanging–sidekicks: Jordan with Pippen, Bird with Parish and McHale, Magic with Kareem and Worthy. The guys who win championships with different casts of characters around them, for different teams perhaps, tend to be not stars, but mid-level role players who move around and fill roster holes. (Robert Horry and Steve Kerr spring immediately to mind.) James would just be following a usual pattern if he winds up only winning those two Miami titles with Wade.

What’s not usual is James’s pattern of constantly trying to shape the list of his teammates to his own desire. Remember, not only did he help engineer the “Heatles” with Wade and Bosh; his first Cleveland run featured constant roster changes to try to satisfy LeBron’s title hopes, and he also was a driving force in the trade that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland as soon as LeBron made his return. His comments about wanting to get his posse together on one team may be driven partly by his “buyer’s remorse” on Love.

Aside from being unusual, James’s tendency towards teammate machinations is rather unbecoming for someone who is regarded as the greatest player of his generation, and perhaps of all time. That’s especially true if it’s a desire to craft an unbeatable title contender that’s surreptitiously motivating what is, on the surface, just an “aw, shucks, I just love my boys” sentiment. This kind of roster engineering does not befit James’s image and legacy. Simply put, if you are the G.O.A.T., you should be the reason your team wins the title–not the guys who are playing around you. Besides, it’s his own damn fault that James is no longer playing with Wade; no one forced him to go back to Cleveland.

Basically, the whole thing is a bad look. James’s sentiments, which for anyone else might seem harmless or even admirable, come off as unflattering. In fact, they might even stir bad memories for many sports fans. In his words, if not his deeds, LeBron calls to mind that kid everyone knew when they were growing up: the gifted young athlete who would show up at the playground with a couple of his buddies (generally, good athletes themselves, at least better than the average kid) and say, “Me, him, and him against any of you guys.” And then of course the stud and his entourage would beat the crap out of everyone they played, because they were better than everyone else, and they knew it, and they didn’t care about playing a fair, competitive game. They just wanted to show themselves off and lord it over the other kids. That’s how LeBron James comes off every time he starts musing about what players he’d like to play with next.

The kids in the playground usually solve this problem easily enough: make two best players captains and have them pick their teams in turn, distributing the talent to each side. You do it that way because it’s fair. It makes for a fair game, a better game, when the talent is not getting together to beat up on everyone else.

Of course, pro sports basically do the same thing; it’s called a draft. The draft disperses all those great players–no matter how good their friendships might be–throughout the league, because it’s better for all to have a fair, competitively balanced league. LeBron James doesn’t seem to understand that. He has never seemed to understand that. And, really, that fact makes James seem like something of a jerk. Which is not how you want your greatest player ever to seem.

At last, one has to wonder how long James gets to keep playing these games before his image winds up tarnished beyond polishing. All of his commercial endorsements are based, at least in part, on the idea that LeBron James is such a great guy. But if he keeps throwing coaches and teammates under various buses in favor of his buddies, don’t people have to start drawing the conclusion that he’s not such a great guy after all? And how many cars and sodas and phones can you sell when people start to not just root against you on the court, but actively dislike you off it? King James may turn out to be an Emperor after all: an Emperor who is wearing no clothes, and who is just on the verge of being told that he’s naked by the people who are wising up to him.

If LeBron himself were to wise up, he might see his best course as focusing on being the best he can be on the court, with his current team and his current teammates, in pursuit of that elusive third title, and save his quality time with friends for the off-season. But that level of insight may be beyond him. And if the Cavs don’t get it together and win that championship this year, the consequences for James–as he gets older and his abilities slip, and as his broader set of relationships continue to sour–may turn into something he has never imagined: that he’ll finally get his chance to play with his good friends, but only after they’re all over the hill and completely irrelevant.


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