No, I don’t know where LeBron James is going to play next season. In the past week I’ve been asked that question in online chats. I’ve been asked on air. I’ve been asked off the air, by everyone from make-up women to chefs. I even was asked about LeBron by singer John Legend on a red-eye flight.
I can only guess based on what I’ve been told, and what I’m told by people I consider reliable keeps changing. So that’s why there’s no definitive statements from me.
But I do have my belief about what should and shouldn’t factor into his decision. With apologies to a former “Around the Horn” host, these four things I know are true:
1. LeBron doesn’t need to stay with one team to solidify his greatness
Sure, Bill Russell, Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird wore the same jersey for their entire careers. (Well, not literally the same actual jersey. That would be nasty.)
That was a different era. Free agency wasn’t a part of the NBA until the 1970s and true unrestricted free agency didn’t arrive until 1983 -- but with it came the salary cap. Bird and Magic played their prime in the years before agents and teams figured out loopholes and strategies to move players despite the cap’s restrictions. The concept of trading good players for expiring contracts was unheard of, so there weren’t as many legitimate opportunities to move as there are now.
If we’re going to ask LeBron to adhere to the way things used to be we might as well ask him to play in canvas Converse Chuck Taylors.
Shaquille O’Neal didn’t win anything for the team that drafted him. His greatest days came when he won three championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and another one with the Miami Heat. What did that make him? A four-time champion.
2. Playing with other stars won’t diminish LeBron’s success
Do we dock Magic Johnson because he played with the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
Do we hold it against Larry Bird that three of his core Celtic teammates in the 1980s are in the Hall of Fame?
The strongest argument Kobephiles have over LeBron Lovers is that Kobe has five championship rings. They don’t bother to mention that three of those rings were won with Shaquille O’Neal. Anyone that watched knows the Lakers would not have won those championships without both of them.
For the past 30 years, NBA champions have featured at least two Hall of Fame players at or near their peak. Playing with another star isn’t a pejorative, it’s a prerequisite. If I were LeBron I’d be much more afraid of not winning a championship at all than being knocked for winning a championship with Dwyane Wade.
Yes, it is important that at some point in LeBron’s career he is the Finals MVP. But it’s doubtful he even gets in position to win the Bill Russell Award unless he has another strong candidate for it with him.
3. LeBron doesn’t need to be afraid of Michael Jordan
Because of the high standards set by Jordan, the argument is that anything short of six championships in Chicago would leave Bulls fans unimpressed. That’s nonsense. Even one championship would be savored, because that’s one more than the Bulls were likely to win in the next 10 years without LeBron. Multiple championships are more essential to LeBron than they are to Chicago. The city is tied to the Bears, not the Bulls. Any Bulls success is a bonus.
Even in cities where the NBA is more deeply embedded, the past doesn’t detract from present success.
Ask Celtics fans if they despise Kevin Garnett because he is still a decade’s worth of championships behind Bill Russell. Of course not; they thank him for helping them get their 17th banner.
Laker fans showered Kobe Bryant with unconditional love even while he faced a sexual assault charge -- and that was when he “only” had three championships, two shy of the five Magic and Kareem won for the franchise.
And just because you might remember the old days doesn’t mean everyone does. There are Chicago kids celebrating their 12th birthdays this month who weren’t even born the last time the Bulls won. He has the chance to win over a whole new generation of Bulls fans who would then ask, “What was the big deal about that bald-headed No. 23 guy?”
A decision to come to Chicago would make LeBron instantly beloved upon arrival for two reasons: he would have dealt a knockout blow to Cleveland, the Midwestern sibling Chicago loves beating up, and he would have chosen Chicago over New York. Chicago always views itself in the context of New York and loves topping the Big Apple in any possible way.
4. LeBron doesn’t need to be in a bigger market
I’ve gone over this before, but since it was such a big part of the Knicks’ pitch and continues to color some people’s handicapping of the LeBron Derby, it’s important to reiterate the flaws in this argument.
Market size is irrelevant to individuals in the era of YouTube. Anyone with a camera and an internet connection can become a worldwide star if he records a memorable enough video clip (It helps to have a pet who does silly things). And if you’re big enough the network cameras come to you. Even 76-year-old Larry King got on a plane and went to Akron for the chance to get an exclusive interview with LeBron.
LeBron, playing in Cleveland, already makes more money in endorsements than Yankees Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, who play in the biggest city on the most famous team in the country.
Before Tiger Woods gave a good chunk of his fortune over to Elin he reaped endorsement millions playing in places like Augusta, Ga., and Dublin, Ohio. Those places make Cleveland look like London.
What aspect of the way LeBron has dominated ESPN for the past week tells you he needs to be in a bigger market?
I don’t care how or where LeBron wins championships. I just want him to win so he can move past the qualifying rounds and enter the knockout stage in the discussion of NBA all-time greats.
Man, I’ve been watching too much World Cup.