11 July 2014
Is anything just a game? Part two: the return of the prodigal
When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, it was widely perceived as an act of treason akin to the most notorious relocations of entire franchises: the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis, etc. James himself became the epitome of selfishness, having made it clear that he left the team nearest his hometown for distant Florida because he'd have a better chance of winning championships in Miami. It seemed as if he felt entitled personally, as an individual, to play on a championship team, and didn't care which team it was. That went against the common idea of team sports; James should have wanted Cleveland to win the title. Instead, with Miami James has played in four consecutive championship series, winning the two in the middle before the Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs nearly as badly as Brazil lost to Germany this week. It seemed suddenly that the Heat were no longer viable as a team, much less a vehicle for LeBron James's ambitions. He quickly made it known that he would exercise an option to become a free agent, and the Heat as we've known them recently have for all intents and purposes broken up. James announced today that he will rejoin the Cavaliers, an outcome barely imaginable immediately after his departure. Explaining himself in Sports Illustrated, James says that it was always his intention eventually to return to Ohio. Having gone into the NBA directly from high school, he regards Miami as his college experience. He doesn't regret going there and believes himself to have matured as a player and a man in Miami. Having satisfied his personal ambition for championships, he now dedicates himself to doing all in his power to bring the crown to Cleveland. Cavs fans will cheer, no doubt, but don't the people of Miami feel a little betrayed right now? There was something distasteful about the abrupt breakup of the Heat, as if James had determined, once the team failed to get a third consecutive title, that there was no more Miami could do for him. Having recognized that, so it looks, he walked away immediately. For Miami, James was just another mercenary; he did what he promised, true, but the main thing was that he got what he wanted. Now there's a new world to conquer and he's gone. For Cleveland he becomes not only the returned prodigal but also possibly the sports messiah of a city that hasn't won a major-league championship since the original Cleveland Browns -- their owner moved them to Baltimore and renamed them the Ravens -- won the NFL title fifty years ago. If sports is a religion in Cleveland then James, not the Cavs, will be their god. It may as well be that way. I once speculated that his career offers a new paradigm for professional sports in which the individual athlete rather than the local team -- which rarely has talent as nearly local as James was and will be in Cleveland -- is recognized as the real attraction around which teams could be built on an ad hoc basis. Why not have LeBron put together a new team every year and barnstorm across the country with a reality-TV crew in tow? If this hasn't happened yet, I suppose it's because, despite the idolization of individual stars, sports fans still need to feel that players and teams belong to them in some way. The sort of perpetual pick-up league I envision would be more honest about things, and probably harder to love.