With the suspense of the NBA Lottery now over, the hopes and dreams of the NBA wretched turn once again to LeBron. There are many exceptional players in the Association, but there are very few who can elevate a lottery team into a title contender by his mere presence. It is a testament to LeBron James’ prodigious talent that the choice of his next team will probably alter the NBA’s balance of power for years to come. The national media have been abuzz about LeBron’s potential destinations, of course, with nary a mention of the Clippers. Fortunately, both Kevin Arnovitz, on this site, and Steve Perrin over at Clips Nation, have made compelling cases for the Clippers as a possible destination for King James and his championship aspirations.
It is interesting to note that even the New York Times suddenly weighed in with multiple LeBron articles when Cleveland was unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs. Though they did not come right out and say it, what the Times implied was clear: A star of LeBron’s caliber is too luminous for a declining Midwestern city like Cleveland, that he belongs on a bigger stage under the brightest lights of America’s greatest city. On the surface, civic pride is not a bad thing. People in New York, South Beach, Hollywood and Chicago can all claim the virtues and exceptionalism of their city. Coveting a star of LeBron’s caliber is a dream for any franchise. But there has always been something special about LeBron’s relationship with Cleveland from the very beginning; when the Cavs landed the number one pick, they selected the local prodigy from nearby Akron, a sublime talent that the city has long yearned for, someone who can finally exorcise the demons of Jordan hitting heartbreaking shots over the outstretched hands of Craig Ehlo.
In any other time, in any other place, any professional athlete deserves the right to pick his team and a city of his choice. It is his life and his career, after all. But for someone like LeBron, who grew up in Akron and witnessed the slow deterioration of his industrial hometown, the choice between staying in a fading city or leaving it for the larger, more glamorous stages of New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, must be an excruciating one. After eliminating King James, Kevin Garnett told him that loyalty to a city comes with a steep price, for youth can never be regained, and knowing what he knows now, he would have left Minnesota years before he did. The career of a professional athlete is brief, after all, and he must make his mark while his flame burns bright.
No less than an authority than Buzz Bissinger, the co-author of LeBron’s recent book about his youth team, “Shooting Stars” (and the author of the acclaimed, “Friday Night Lights”) has recently mentioned that it is LeBron’s ambition to be the first billion dollar athlete, and by implication, that ambition will likely lead him to Madison Avenue and New York City. It would be a logical and natural progression for LeBron to follow in the footsteps of Michael Jordan, and to surpass him as the greatest corporate pitchman of all time. In the last decade, the intersection of money, advertising, entertainment and athletics have dovetailed nicely for the league’s brightest stars, fueled by the rise of ESPN, Nike and a phalanx of corporate sponsors.
The NBA has come a long way since the tape delayed midnight broadcast of Magic and Dr. J in the 1980 championship game. Before Magic and Bird, the league was staring at possible bankruptcy, as it weighed the dissolution of smaller market teams like Utah and Denver. When David Stern hired Rick Welts in 1982 to secure some corporate sponsorships for the league, most companies never bothered to return his phone calls and Welts never made it past the lobbies of Coca-Cola and GM, so poisonous was the league and its players’ reputations. Magic and Bird changed all that, and Michael Jordan seized the reins of the NBA’s resurgence and corporate sponsors to a level never before seen or imagined. The average salary for an NBA player rose along with the league’s stars, from a mundane $35,000 a year in 1970, to $180,000 in 1980, to $927,000 in 1990, and to $4.2 million a year in 2000. It’s interesting to note that in 1970 the average American household also made $35,000 a year, on parity with an NBA player. But by the year 2000, the average American household income has inched up to $44,800 a year, while the salary for an average NBA player was now 100 times greater than the fans he played for.
Long gone are the days when professional athletes sold cars or insurance during the off-season to augment their income, when players dined in the same restaurants and shopped in the same grocery stores as the people in the stands. The modern NBA player now has more in common with Hollywood celebrities and corporate CEOs, their lifestyle and income level far beyond the imagination of the average fan. In recent years, the public personae of marquee athletes have become increasingly engineered, as every public utterance can mean millions of dollars in lost advertising revenue, such that it is increasingly difficult to see a real person behind the corporate shill. An interviewer once asked Jordan who he planned to support in the North Carolina election for U.S. Senator between Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms, and his Airness shrewdly answered that both Democrats and Republicans buy his sneakers. The few who aspire to Jordan’s throne admire both his fierce intensity to win and his ruthless business acumen. In this light, LeBron’s decision to leave Cleveland for the brighter lights of New York or Los Angeles is a natural progression.
To be fair, LeBron has shown tremendous loyalty to his closest childhood friends from Akron and to his hometown. But he has also made plain his ambition to carry the mantle left by Jordan, to become the first billion dollar athlete, to win multiple championships on the world’s grandest stage, and to establish his case as one of the greatest players of all time. Much has already been written in recent days about Cleveland’s long futility in professional sports; the city has not won a major sports championship since 1964. But more depressing than Cleveland’s athletic drought, is the economic fragility of the city and the inexorable decline of the rust belt. After LeBron’s final home game at Quicken Loans Arena this year, when he walked off the court to a chorus of boos, a local comedian joked that the people who booed him that night weren’t real Cavs fans, because real fans in Cleveland can’t afford to buy playoff tickets. It was said in jest, but it has a sting of truth to it. Just as the salaries of NBA players has skyrocketed to the stratosphere, the average income in Cleveland has fallen below the national average. In places like Akron, the economic disparity is even greater and that gap yawns wider with each passing year.
Though Cleveland is in slightly better economic shape than some of its rust belt neighbors, the ruins of America’s once great industrial cities — Youngstown, Gary, and Detroit — lie smoldering just beyond their doorstep. If our deep recession and credit bubble have hit this country hard, these Midwestern industrial cities have been in the grips of a depression since the 1980s, when the Big Three automotive giants began to lose their dominance. Thirty years later, the slow-motion collapse of America’s once great industrial base is in the final stages of being swept away by the tides of globalization. The identity and pride which these communities once had as the industrial heart of the nation is now gone. Urban planners in Detroit are now trying to shrink the municipal footprint to accommodate a rapidly diminishing population and a smaller tax base. Small farming communities, mining towns, railroad towns, have disappeared before in the vastness of this country’s interior. But the thought that a once great metropolis like Detroit is on the verge of becoming a ghost town is difficult to grasp. If a metropolis that was once America’s fourth largest city can fall to such depth, what does it portend for the rest of the country? Is the decline of the rust belt a harbinger of things to come?
It is in this deteriorating economic landscape that LeBron James came of age, and perhaps, like Derek Fisher said after the Utah series, if he were a plumber, people would have understood if he left for another city to accommodate the needs of his family or his own professional ambitions. But professional athletes are no longer a part of our community like in the old days. They have become less real than your neighbor and more like a movie star upon which you can project your imagination and ideals. And thus they represent something more, even as they have become something less.
The people of Cleveland have been relatively good-natured about the possibility of LeBron leaving. The “We are LeBron” on YouTube is pretty funny. There is a bit of fatalism there; the knowledge that Cleveland and the state of Ohio doesn’t have much to offer LeBron except to tug at his heart strings as his birthplace and home. New York and Los Angeles, and to lesser degrees, Chicago and Miami, can offer the glitz, glamour, and the spotlight of a truly global metropolis, befitting of someone who has crowned himself King. Perhaps, in this post-industrial America, the large metropolises on both coasts, with their vast concentration of wealth and innovation, will increasingly grow richer as the cities in the interior grow poorer, and it will be to these big media markets that great athletes and celebrities gravitate to leverage their talent across multiple revenue streams. Just as the salary gap between an NBA player and their fans has grown, so too will the economic disparity between different parts of the country, and with it, certain big market franchises will hold vast economic advantages over smaller market teams, which will extend far beyond the league’s salary cap rules. It is to these cultural, social and economic advantages that LeBron is now contemplating, along with his oft-stated desire to win.
If someone of LeBron’s caliber were to leave his hometown team — which had the best record in the league but failed in its ultimate goal — what does it say to the rest of the NBA’s smaller market teams? What hope do they have of ever holding onto a superstar should they ever be fortunate enough to land one in the draft? For people in Cleveland this summer, the spectacle of New Yorkers happily celebrating the Cavs’ demise and circling LeBron like vultures must be infuriating. It is left for LeBron alone to determine his future, and to a certain extent, the future of the league, though perhaps not in a way he intended. King James can choose to further his career ambitions, to conquer the extent of the known basketball universe, to surpass Jordan in his endorsements, and to surpass Bill Russell in his rings under the incandescent glow of the country’s most glamorous city. But he has to ask himself; is one championship in Cleveland greater than ten rings in New York? Can the King be satisfied with earning only $500 million instead of a billion dollars? What is the price of loyalty when measured against such lofty personal ambitions? And what does it say to a city, to a region whose glory has passed, if its brightest and only star were to decamp? Is it finally time to turn off the lights? If LeBron were to leave for New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, it would be entirely understandable. The legacy of Jordan has led us to this; the elite athlete as a global brand, the image of a multinational corporation. But if James stays, he will have essentially decided that hearth and home is more important than the calculus of hard currency. It will have been a genuine and personal choice. And maybe, in some small way, it will imply that the rust belt is not quite finished yet, as long as people with talent and ambition are willing to stay and rebuild it anew.