As a rule, I avoid discussing sports here. It's a political blog, after all, and I know that some of my readers find sports trivial. But the hysteria surrounding LeBron James's free-agency and his decision to join the Miami Heat shows no sign of abating. James was a high-school phenom who entered the NBA without undergoing the usual seasoning which, in baseball, requires you to play in small towns like Troy, New York, but in basketball means going to college. He was signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers and instantly became one of the country's top sports celebrities. He led Cleveland to an NBA final, but in seven seasons failed to win the championship he coveted. He became a free agent this summer and was courted by franchises from wealthy cities with desperate teams. The New York newspapers urged the owners of the Knicks and Nets to spare no expense in attempting to land James. All the interested teams attempted to acquire other talented players, believing that James would be more attracted to teams with stronger lineups, as it is his greatest desire to win a championship. The first stage of frenzy climaxed last Thursday night, when James appeared on ESPN to announce that he was going to Miami. It emerged that he and two other players, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, had essentially made a pact three years earlier to time their free-agencies so they could all join the same team. This seemed to take the concept of free agency to a new level. Basketball players seemed closer to Hollywood star talents; as movies are initiated by coalitions of actors, writers and directors rather than oldschool studio moguls, so James and his two friends have not so much joined the Miami Heat but remade it in their own image. This takes us to a new stage in the evolution of professional sports, in which the alleged representative nature of any local team grows still more chimerical. Miami is only the most convenient place for James, Wade and Bosh to join forces. They are expected, in fact, to earn less money than they might in other cities. But their supreme interest is to win championships for themselves. This was probably the story's most scandalous aspect to most fan observers. Professional athletes have always wanted to win championships, but fans still think of the process in Kennedyesque terms: ask not what your team can do for you, but what you can do for your team. Franchises made huge promises to James thinking that he might help them win titles. But James, apparently, wanted the franchises, the teams, to make it easier for him to win titles. The balance of power between players and team owners appeared to shift, and fans didn't like what they saw.
James's decision provoked a backlash. The Cleveland Cavaliers' owner denounced James for a "cowardly betrayal" of his onetime team, and fans in that city made a show of burning imitation James jerseys as the star watched on live TV. Sportswriters across the country expressed their dismay at the presumed selfishness of James's motives and his apparent collusion with Wade and Bosh. Over the weekend came the backlash against the backlash. Rev. Jesse Jackson found the Cavaliers' owner's rhetoric, a white man addressing a black man, reminiscent of a slave owner publishing an advertisement for the retrieval of his runaway property. Jackson appears to speak for many others who question anyone else's objections to how a brother gets paid. Finally, a black sportswriter, Jason Whitlock, denounced Jackson as a spotlight-stealing interloper who didn't know what he was talking about. His column on the subject pretty well sums up the absurdity of the whole controversy, in which, it seems, there have been no good guys. While the nation's traumatic response to these events might well look contemptibly absurd from some perspectives, it may prove another eye-opening moment of our Bailout era, another exposure of the arrogance of wealth, the entitlement mentality of "talent," and its ultimate lack of loyalty to anything greater than itself. LeBron James is most likely the right sports star for our time -- and I'm sure they love the hell out of him in Miami.