(NOTE: A random thought before my take on the biggest story in American sports this week. The fact that “LBJ” now is regularly used as shorthand for NBA star LeBron James has given me a little pause in recent months, as I grew up thinking those were the initials of the 36th President of the United States. I had the same frame of reference problem a few years back when I found out that most youngsters these days know “Fergie” as a Black-Eyed Pea rather than the former Duchess of York of the British royal family.)
As I’ve noted in this blog before, I’m not much of a follower of professional basketball, so I haven’t been waiting anxiously for weeks to find out which team was going to get the services of free agent forward LeBron James, late of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But I have to admit it will be interesting even to the casual fan to see if his acquisition makes the Miami Heat the 2010s equivalent of the Los Angeles Lakers of the late Sixties and early Seventies. They created a similar high-powered “Dream Team” lineup when Wilt Chamberlain joined fellow future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor via trade from Philadelphia in 1968.
James and guard Dwyane Wade seem ticketed for the Hall of Fame already and the Heat’s other high-profile free-agent acquisition, center Chris Bosh, could have that potential. And the pundits are already speculating on the number of championships that Miami will win in the next five years.
But I’ve been much more interested in the event that the James signing became. Would he stay in Cleveland? Would it be New York? Chicago? It pretty much became a TV series, culminating in ESPN’s unprecedented one-hour special built around James’ announcement of his decision on Thursday. It all seemed so excessive, for something that could have been handled with a news conference or even a tweet. Even serious NBA fans I know were getting an overdose of this hype.
The show was a ratings draw, viewed by 7.3% of American homes, a very robust number for the current TV universe. But it got bad reviews, mostly for letting the telecast go on for nearly 30 munutes before James actually announced his decision. He did so in an interview with Jim Gray, a respected journalist perhaps best known for his on-air grilling of baseball star Pete Rose about gambling.
And journalism ethicists had a field day. The show was actually the brainchild of Gray, who pitched it to ESPN and James’ management team, which was consulted about possible questions that would be asked. ESPN turned ad sales for the show over to James’ team, which said they would donate revenue to the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America, a favorite charity of James.
It’s not the first time the World Wide Leader has entered into a questionable business relationship with someone it covered on the news side. In 2006, ESPN aired several episodes of “Bonds on Bonds,” a reality show that followed Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. It was highly criticized as being a PR vehicle for the embattled slugger, who was facing legal problems related to allegations of steroid use as he closed in on the all-time home run record. The show was cancelled before the end of its scheduled 10-episode run due to creative control issues with its temperamental star — who saw that coming?
Finally, I’ve been fascinated by the reaction to LeBron’s leaving his home state of Ohio, where he took the Cavaliers to one NBA final and brought the franchise back to respectability — but not to a championship. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s front page today summarizes the local mood pretty well. But I think it’s an overreaction to brand him a traitor in the fashion of Art Modell, the owner of the original Cleveland Browns who spirited the team away to Baltimore in 1996.
It’s as if people are shocked — shocked! — to find out suddenly that professional basketball is a business. Just like television.