Friday, July 9, 2010

The Decision will forever tarnish The Legacy

It's hard to believe, but it has been exactly five months since my last post on Through Irish Eyes. The majority of the posts in this blog focus on life at Notre Dame and my experiences as the Hannah Storm intern with the Notre Dame Alumni Association. Although the internship is over, yesterday's news out of the Greenwich, CT Boys & Girls Club prompted me to want to document my thoughts and reaction, not so much for others to read, but for my own time capsule, and something to look back on in a few years.

As anyone in the civilized world is probably now aware, LeBron James is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. The pride of Akron, OH has decided to take his game to South Beach, teaming up with friends Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to form the newest iteration of a Big Three in hopes of securing a championship ring. No one can blame LeBron for wanting to add "NBA Finals champion" to his résumé. As the story goes with most other professional athletes and sports, legacies are often measured in terms of championships won. Rightfully so, LeBron does not want to go down in NBA and professional sports history, as the superstar that never won a title. On some level, trading northern Ohio for southern Florida, seems like a logical move. LeBron will now join a team with two of the game's brightest young stars, and a proven leader, Pat Riley (of Schenectady, NY) at the helm of the franchise.

But for many other reasons, The Decision may come with a huge price tag, not only for LeBron's wallet, but for his place in NBA and sports history. LeBron is leaving a city where he was loved. Although many other cities have been deprived of championships, Cleveland is perhaps the hopeless romantic of American sports. After suffering decades of heartbreak, many Ohioans thought LeBron was The One. The One to finally deliver a championship to the city, thus establishing the hometown star as a legendary city icon. An icon with the same beloved hero status as Jordan in Chicago, Bird in Boston, and Magic in Los Angeles.

I will admit, I am a bit of an idealist, especially when it comes to sports. Last night was further proof that we, the fans, are more loyal to our teams than the athletes themselves. We schedule our dinners, our weekends, and our vacation plans around our teams, and oftentimes, our moods are directly correlated to how our teams are playing. We remember our teams' biggest games and championships as if they were important moments in our own personal lives. Yet in most instances, these teams never give us anything tangible, except for the priceless emotional rollercoasters and memories.

Almost everyone who knows me is aware of my love for the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Celtics. Still, as a sports fan, I admire the Derek Jeters and Kobe Bryants of the world, if for nothing more than the fact that they have spent their entire career with one team. There is something to be said about loyalty, and as LeBron showed the world last night, allegiance to a team is often a figment of our imagination - something that perhaps only we, the fans, still believe in.

Like Favre and Damon before him, LeBron snubbed a city that adored him. Cleveland fans, the "Witnesses" to LeBron's greatness, finally had a reason to be proud of their sports. Favre and Damon left Green Bay and Boston to join their bitter rivals, and although at this point in time, Heat-Cavs is not an NBA rivalry, that will soon change. Fans in Wisconsin and Massachusetts might curse their former stars like our Founding Fathers cursed Benedict Arnold, but they can appreciate and celebrate the fact that both Favre and Damon captured something that LeBron failed to deliver in Cleveland. A championship.

It is LeBron's failure to raise a championship banner to the rafters of "The Q" that makes his departure that much more bitter for Cavs fans. Several months ago, LeBron made a promise to the city ("I got a goal, and it's a huge goal, and that's to bring an NBA championship here to Cleveland. And I won't stop until I get it."), and it is his breaking of this promise that explains why The Decision will alienate thousands, if not millions, of The King's fans.

While the Heat have more star power than the Cavaliers, perhaps giving LeBron the best chance to win now, it is difficult to say that winning in Cleveland would not have been possible. The Cavaliers were the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference this season, and they have been one of the best teams in basketball in recent years. Under the leadership of new head coach Byron Scott, a three-time NBA champion and former Coach of the Year, the Cavaliers could certainly contend in 2010-11 with LeBron as their on-the-court leader. Winning in Cleveland would not have been easy, but it would have been more meaningful than winning in Miami. The Heat won a title in 2006 and the Florida Marlins have won two World Series titles in the last fifteen years. By no means is Miami a sports powerhouse, but the city is certainly in better shape than Cleveland with regards to championships.

Winning multiple titles in Miami may cement LeBron’s place as a basketball icon, but he will never be loved in south Florida as he was in Cleveland. The Heat are Dwayne Wade’s team. As long as he continues to play in Miami, he will be the leader of that team, and the face of that franchise. D-Wade will always be Batman, while LeBron will just be his sidekick, Robin - still important, but not the player the team is built around. As with Boston’s Big Three, Kevin Garnett may be the best player of the group, but Paul Pierce is still the centerpiece and captain of the franchise.

I have never been a LeBron fan. I have nothing invested in the city of Cleveland, other than the fact that I drive through it on my way to Notre Dame, that I enjoyed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that I have been to a couple of games at Progressive (Jacobs) Field. Without a doubt, he's one of the best basketball players of our generation, but the egotistic attitude that LeBron and so many other sports superstars have today makes it difficult to cheer for him. The spectacle of The Decision, the wall-to-wall ESPN coverage, the highly publicized meetings with team representatives, and the fact that LeBron joining Twitter was a recent headline, are among the many reasons he has become an unlikable star. With last night's decision, he had an opportunity to show fans that sports stories actually can play out how we all wish they would - with a storybook ending.

Only time will tell if Wade, Bosh, and LeBron can make Miami the center of the basketball universe, or if Dan Gilbert's Cavaliers will be able to back up the bold proclamation he made last night on the team's website. LeBron may ultimately go on to win several championships, whether in Miami or another city later in his career, but The King's legacy took a hit when he went on national television and seemingly struggled to say, "This fall, I'm gonna take my talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat."

Twenty years from now, when LeBron has retired and is being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, we will look back on The Decision as a turning point in his career. Perhaps the point that separated him from being The King, the leader of a franchise, and the face of a city, to being just another superstar with dozens of accolades and in the big scheme of professional sports, a couple of meaningless championship rings. If LeBron had gone on TV last night and said, "I'm staying at home," we would still be hearing the cheers coming from his home state, and he would have kept himself in position to be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats. The Jordans, Birds, Magics, Russells, and Kobes of basketball lore.