Saturday, July 17, 2010

Go, LeBron!

LeBron James knows what business he's in.

Sorry to stray from my usual dour topics, but the recent LeBron James saga has thrown some interesting light on labor in America. Commentators have been piling on about his narcissism, his breathtaking gall, his callous rending of Cleveland's heart, and the botched PR that will see him rot in hell. Or something like that.

Topping it all was the Cavalier's owner, who threw a titanic snit at losing James to Miami and apparently learning about it on TV along with the rest of us. To which I say, tough luck!

James put the NBA owners through their paces, subjecting them to the most abject groveling, before arranging a prime time extravaganza to burn his bridges to all but one. Where else have we seen a powerful and energetic black man, sometimes referred to as "the one", calling the shots? Firing generals? Showing the man who's boss? Being the man?

So let us not cry for the NBA owners, with their anti-trust exemption. Through their ministrations, the NBA has far more teams than talent. Way too many games are scheduled and as a result, injuries are rampant. The game has become relentlessly physical and combative under NBA refereeing. In Cleveland, James was expected to carry the team mostly by himself, and was unable to make it work. In desperation, they imported Shaquille O'Neal, creating a situation more comical than effective. James did the rational thing and created a better situation for himself elsewhere. All NBA teams try to nurture and milk home-town sentiments ... until they don't, trading players as though they were slaves on the auction block. It was nice to see the tables turned for a change, frankly.

The way I see it, James's primary motivation was to play with his friends and fellow stars, Wade and Bosh. And these are very honorable motives. The US army relies first and foremost on comraderie to build units that fight effectively. This seems lost on the modern NBA, where players are shuffled around on the basis of little more than management hunches, statistics, and needed positions. My local team, the Warriors, has seen season after season end up high in the draft due to terrible chemistry, starting from its top management. One player went so far as to physically choke the coach. Thankfully, both are retired now and resting peacefully. Conversely, the Boston Celtics assembled a star threesome several years ago of Paul Pierce, Ray Allan, and Kevin Garnett, which worked on the levels of both chemistry and talent, to ensuing acclaim. Few thought that Garnett should have slaved on in Minnesota to the end of his career.

In this way star players are taking control of their careers, and in turn, of the league, typically not to make more money, but to play with colleagues they like, and thence to be successful on premier teams- teams that the NBA is structured by its owners to avoid, based on its collusive drafting and salary cap rules. The owner-player tension is evident, and we shouldn't mind the ball going into the player's basket every so often through canny self-promotion and sheer talent.

Lastly, why do it on TV? Wasn't that shockingly self-aggrandizing? Well, the high ratings speak for themselves. If nine million people watch, then it is by definition not self-aggrandizing, it is entertainment, which is, after all, the business the NBA is in. To which, I say, well done, LeBron!


  1. Interesting perspective! I haven't followed the LeBron saga in a big way, but as an OKC resident, I am all about the intangible element of chemistry (and talent) that is required for success. The Thunder are very exciting in this regard.

  2. Thanks, Steven- Yes, you are blessed with a charmed franchise in OKC. Kevin Durant is a real gem.

    I certainly understand the Cleveland perspective, and was personally surprised that James decided to vamoose. But on thinking it over, and especially hearing the owner's amazing outburst, I realized that the other side made a lot of sense as well.

  3. I am also a Cubs fan, so I understand the agony of a sum which is less than the parts. I will keep an eye out for the Warriors this season!