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Friday, July 9, 2010
Name the crimes of LeBron James

By Henry Abbott

LeBron James, by objective measures the best player in the NBA, and a strong candidate to be the best ever in the sport, has created an experiment. Instead of joining the best team he could, he cast his lot with two very talented friends and a savvy organization.

The rest of the roster is essentially a mystery, and cheap one at that.

Could that possibly work?

Maybe. No one -- not Pat Riley, not Erik Spoelstra, not LeBron James -- really knows. But they're about to try.

It ought to be fun to watch, especially as there's a feel-good, almost fairy-tale angle: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh really like playing together. This is sports at its most basic. You and your friends feel good when you meet at the park? You like how your skills mesh?

Often the difference between superstars and other NBA players is work. It's not a hard and fast rule. But a lot of superstars have unbalanced lives. They put work first. They have more passion, more drive, more willingness to improve every little thing. In this, these players saw birds of a feather, and they flocked together.

And it was no small whim. While their actual salaries are yet to be determined, they will be taking fairly massive pay cuts -- tens of millions -- to bet on their conviction that they'll find what they want playing together.

Before this whole thing started, I was asking all kinds of NBA people what they thought would happen. An agent told me confidently that you almost never go wrong assuming every player will go where they can get the most money. So Wade would stay in Miami. James would stay in Cleveland. And Bosh would go somewhere by sign-and-trade.

That is not what happened at all. Instead, the three united in the only city of the six on James' list which, according to a sophisticated study presented by the Knicks, gave James a zero percent chance at becoming a billionaire. In many ways it's one of the most amazing, selfless and unabashedly positive stories in sports.

But that's not how people are seeing things for now.

Instead, people are livid at the reviled James. The feeling is that the arrogant James has finally revealed his true self.

I get that from Cleveland. This is a divorce. Miami is the new girl. Cleveland is the high-school sweetheart who did the hard work of raising the kids. Cleveland was always going to be pissed.

But somehow strong emotions have been stirred all over the country. People hate the Heat. I have heard people say they will buy NBA League Pass for the first time in their lives just to root against the Heat. Poke around on Twitter, or even on the Cavaliers' official team website, and you'll see that James is being called every name in the book, from cowardly to egomaniacal.

What is James' crime, exactly? I have been hashing out this issue with e-mailers over the last few hours. Most accept that he had the right to choose whatever team he wanted. Most accept that Cleveland was not the best team. Most accept that he played hard for the Cavaliers and -- this year's playoff disappointment notwithstanding -- got better results than could have been expected.

Pretty much it boils down to the fact that he put himself on TV to make this decision, which sends the twin messages that he has an overblown view of his own role in the world, and that he's insensitive to how the whole thing would play in Ohio.

And OK, fair enough. Quibble with his media philosophies if you'd like.

But realize, if you're bitter, you're bitter about the format of his expression. Not the contents of his soul. And absent evidence he has done something actually wretched, it's a little extreme to call him nasty names on the Internet, isn't it?

In this world of ours, you will find some truly terrible people. There are murderers. There are rapists. There are abusers, bullies, polluters, dictators and everything else.

And this is the guy you need to single out?

Even in the NBA's own pantheon, you will find Magic Johnson who once got a coach fired, Kobe Bryant who stood in a parking lot on hidden camera cursing his own team and coaches, Michael Jordan who fought with and bullied teammates. The list goes on and on. The point is, if you're in the mood to be charitable, you can love just about anybody. If you're in the mood to hate, you can hate just about anybody.

Why is it that so many are in the mood to hate LeBron James?

A theory: It's because he stepped out of place. Players play. That's how it was. They are quiet and sweaty craftsmen who ought not to be heard from except to call out plays and say "yessir" to the coach. The way sports used to be, owners did things like make billion-dollar decisions and general managers and agents did things like agonize over personnel.

But that was always a myth. The owners, GMs and agents may have seemed like they held all the cards, but that's only because players weren't great at wielding the power they had. The players always drove the value, because they are what motivated the fans who paid for everything. It has taken decades, but eventually a player -- this player -- figured out how to really put himself in the driver's seat, with billionaire owners lining up, one by one, attempting to earn his valuable affections.

He took the power of free agency and instead of just quietly using it to slip out the back door, he milked it. He played it out. He built his own roster. He played kingmaker.

He went beyond exercising his rights. He demonstrated his might in the worlds of business, team management and media.

It's not a role we're used to seeing athletes in, and it startled many. But I'm certain it's a role athletes belong in. People have analyzed how much a superstar like James is worth to a team. It's many times what he is paid every year, and has been throughout his career. It rivals what the whole team is worth. He has been paying the bills, in no small way, for the Cavaliers for years. That might not be appealing to think about, but it's true. James knows that, and -- even though it's not in the playbook of how athletes typically speak to the public -- he acted like it.

Powerful people flexing their muscles in public is not uncommon. Have you seen Donald Trump? And even though James could not have been more respectful -- he thanked the six teams he met with, and didn't say a bad word about anybody -- he knew he was in the power seat. Some preferred a world where no athlete had ever done that. But that day is gone, and it's never coming back.

My best guess is that the trappings of July 8 will fade quickly from view, and, as before this event, winning is all that will matter in how James is ultimately judged. If he gets titles, like Johnson, Bryant and Jordan all will be forgiven.

But if I'm wrong, well then I guess that's OK too. The NBA just gained a ton of new must-see games. The Heat vs. the Cavaliers. The Heat vs. the Bulls. And the Heat vs. the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, Nets, Magic and everybody else. The show will go on, and James will be in the role he created for himself years ago, and cemented tonight, as the center of attention.