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Undeserving Finalists

They conspired. They manipulated. They hatched a wicked plan nearly three years in the making and executed upon it with deadly precision in the span of less than forty-eight hours, to the shock and awe of supporters and detractors alike. They changed the rules for defining success in basketball’s greatest league to such an unprecedented extent that we’re all left searching for ways to invalidate the possibility in any new collective bargaining agreement to come. Hate the Miami Heat for it.

Hate them for what they did.

They bought themselves a contender. The league essentially gave them a blank check to buy every big name on the free agent market, and they did. They didn’t plan carefully. There weren’t countless other teams pursuing the very same plan. They didn’t execute their plan in a way no other team could. They just opened up their wallets and paid what nobody else would. There’s simply no honor in that.

It is far more honorable to draft and develop, to struggle season after season without taking steps to improve the franchise if the fruits of those struggles are consecutive lottery picks rather than freed up cap space. It is far more honorable to strong-arm smaller-market, salary-dumping teams that cannot otherwise afford to keep their talent into making lopsided, megastar trades.

Hate them for how they did it.

There was the issue of timing.

We, as a nation, have such a high standard of morality as to cry foul when impending free agents wish to speak with each other about the possibility of teaming up if such conversations happen in the few days leading up to the official start of free agency, because even though the timing of such conversations has absolutely nothing to do with the ultimate outcome, they are a violation of a set of rules we each understand completely and believe in deeply. Not a violation of league rules, as the commissioner emphatically confirmed, but rather a violation of moral character. We find it appalling that a couple of friends approaching the ends of their contracts would have the audacity to discuss the possibility of seeking employment together.

There was the issue of loyalty.

We should vilify the game’s best player for having the temerity to leave his hometown team after seven seasons of unrivaled individual success but little in the way of what really matters to show for it. This hometown hero, its heart and soul, its lifeblood, was nothing more than a caricature of loyalty. How dare such an incredible athlete put the prospect of winning a title above all else. He should be ostracized for such unthinkable behavior.

We’re okay if a certain star from Los Angeles crucifies his team in front of a national audience and demands a trade, and then goes on to demand that certain of his teammates be traded. We’re okay if that certain someone hails from Denver, and he holds his team hostage during the middle of an active NBA season while demanding a trade to a single team, providing his organization with no other options, and showing no apparent regard for his teammates or hometown fans in the process. We’re even okay if a certain someone leaves the only team he’s ever known for 12 NBA seasons in order to join a friend and chase a championship before he retires. We’re okay with these actions because our standard applies only to the best player in the game. All others are free to move without encountering our wrath.

We empathize with Clevelanders. Its residents are of too high a moral character for such a grand betrayal. Burning jerseys, death threats, pompous tongue-lashings from former owners – these are all perfectly appropriate responses to a single man’s decision to seek employment elsewhere. They are the actions of people deserving our sympathy. 

There was the “Decision.”

How could a man possibly use a national audience for such a sickening hour-long display of pure narcissism? When all fourteen million of us tuned in from around the nation with eager anticipation, we thought he was planning to discuss the weather. We were utterly floored when LeBron used such a grand stage to announce the team for which he was planning to start the next phase of his NBA career. That’s why we were sickened with disgust when it was all over, but perfectly okay with it as it was happening. We weren’t glued to our television sets to celebrate his decision on the off chance he named our own favorite teams, setting our own favorite teams up for a title run. We simply had no idea what was coming. We were blind-sighted. We had no idea he was such a narcissist.

How could we? It’s not like any other professional athletes are narcissists, certainly not recently retired seven-foot basketball stars. It’s not like he was our own creation. The media didn’t put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 years-old. Fans didn’t pack high school gyms so tightly that his Saint Vincent Saint Mary’s team had to find larger venues. ESPN didn’t nationally televise his games. We didn’t herald him as the ideal mix between Magic, Michael, and Dr. J, a force so great that his dominance would be unparalleled. We certainly didn’t expect anything but humility while we anointed him “King.” This wasn’t the life we thrust upon him before he even graduated from high school.

We’re not at all to blame. We’re not eviscerating a person’s reputation for something we created. We’re not hypocrites for revering him during his entire seven year reign in Cleveland, and branding him a narcissist the moment he decided to leave. That one fateful day in July truly was the day we discovered his narcissism. And the fact that we ourselves are not equally narcissistic gives us ample reason for hate. Dan Gilbert, the man who tried so desperately to retain a player who he called a “coward” and a “quitter,” has it all right.

But what really pushed it all over the edge was his failure to inform his former employer in advance. That would have made everything okay. That few minutes makes all the difference in the world. Because we all inform our contemptible former employers what we plan to do next in our lives, particularly when we suspect they will demonize us for our decision. We would all have the type of courtesy that Dan Gilbert showed LeBron in return for years of dedication to his team and city.

There was the premature celebration.

How could LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh take part in an act of such vanity, rising from beneath a smoking metal stage – before one quarter had been played, before one victory had been secured – and claiming to have orchestrated the birth of a historical dynasty right before our eyes? We, as a nation, understand that this blatant mockery and disrespect for the struggles a championship team endures was meant to humiliate the rest of the league and all of its fans. It’s not as if they were celebrating the best free agent haul in NBA history in their own city, in their own arena, in front of their own crowd. It’s not as if they were trying to inspire excitement from their own fan base. And it’s certainly not as if the media decided to broadcast the celebration across the country simply to capitalize on the pulse of the nation. The media would never do such things.

Hate these bastards for who they are. Hate them!

Hate them for their total lack of anything resembling character, humility, graciousness, or any other positive human trait.

Hate LeBron James for sacrificing his legacy and his worldwide fan base for a shot at a title. Hate him for sacrificing $16 million and, more importantly, the notoriety that comes with being a so-called “maximum contract player,” in part to create the cap space required to secure a roster spot for the long-time friend of his new teammate, a man he hardly knew (Udonis Haslem). Qualify his pay-cut as an attempt at perceived modesty, but not the “Decision” as simply a bad decision. Qualify his donation of the $2.5 million in proceeds generated from that bad decision to the Boy & Girls Clubs of America as just a byproduct of his narcissism, but ignore the impact it has had on the lives of thousands of children in desperate need. Ignore the entirety of a career of giving both his time and money to a wide range of charities, for which the NBA has bestowed upon him its Community Assist Award, unmatched by nearly every one of us who now condemns him. Call him a narcissist while casually ignoring that he’s likely donated more of his time and money than all who read this column combined, and somehow justify it in your minds as true.

Imagine the audacity of this man to create financial stability for himself through his profession, still have the humility to give back to those in need, and truly mean it. Imagine the audacity of a man to rise above his difficult childhood circumstances – born to an uninterested ex-con father and a 16-year old mother, growing up in the seediest neighborhoods of Akron, surrounded by criminals – and limit his lifelong off-court transgressions to perhaps the occasional traffic ticket. This isn’t a man best described as a role model.

Hate Dwyane Wade for considering the Bulls, contemplating the notion in order to do what was best for his family amid a custody dispute over his children at the time living in Chicago. Hate him for sacrificing $18 million, in part so that his team could create the cap space required to secure a roster spot for the long-time friend of his new teammate (Mike Miller).

Hate Chris Bosh for wherever it is you think he strayed from the path of perfection we all follow. Hate him for sacrificing $16 million for no apparent reason at all.

Hate Udonis Haslem for sacrificing $13 million in what could very well be his final NBA contract so that he could remain by the side of his dying mother and the rest of his family.

Hate James Jones for sacrificing $1 million in buyout money after he had already been waived so that his hometown Heat could acquire the necessary cap space for a third maximum contract free agent and make this whole dream possible, a team he no longer played for. Hate Pat Riley for doing right by the sacrifice and offering Jones a new contract in return for his selflessness.

Hate them for oozing arrogance and celebrating boisterously, but never disparaging. There were no “fake tough guy” snipes, no “great actors” accusations, no allegations of dirty play levied after all the choke-holds and take-downs, no blasting of players or officials or cities or fans, and no retaliation when such comments were laid upon them. About the best we could do was to criticize LeBron for muttering the phrase “that’s retarded” at the retarded notion that his teammate would intend to injure an opposing player and apologizing for it after the world ignored the context.

Do whatever you must to fuel that hatred and ensure its survival. Create an ever-expanding list of reasons to justify it, and apply it exclusively to the Miami Heat and its players, while casually ignoring its applicability to most players and most teams across the league.

Call them floppers, but ignore the reality. Sports Illustrated ran an informal player poll in April – just two months ago – asking for the NBA’s biggest floppers. More than a third of the league’s current players, 152 in total, were polled. Among the top 15 players named as floppers were Manu Ginobili, Derek Fisher, J.J. Barea, Kobe Bryant, and Paul Pierce. Not a single current Heat player made the list.

Call them whiners, but ignore the reality. Sports Illustrated ran an article at the start of the season devoted to the league’s most notorious whiners, in response to the league’s new crackdown on complaining. Nearly every major superstar made the top 15. The list includes Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Manu Ginobili, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki, among others. The fact of the matter is that everybody whines. The Heatles are no different.

Call them thugs, but ignore the reality. Not a single current Heat player has ever received any notoriety for dirty play prior to this, perception-altered-by-hate, season. Among the teams commonly associated with such behavior are the Celtics (Kevin Garnett’s swinging elbows and trash talking, Paul Pierce’s chronic jersey pulling and newfound affinity for head-butting, Rajon Rondo’s player-into-scorer’s-table launching) and Lakers (Ron Artest’s exceedingly violent behavior, Kobe Bryant’s notorious cheap shots, Andrew Bynum’s vicious forearms, and even Lamar Odom’s recent frustration-induced rage). It just so happens that these are nonetheless the league’s two most-watched teams.

When they lose, call them idiots for thinking they could make it work. When they win, call them inferior for not doing it alone. But ignore Chicagoans salivating at the prospect of pairing Derrick Rose with Dwight Howard. Ignore New Yorkers salivating at the prospect of pairing Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire with Chris Paul. Ignore Mark Cuban’s all out effort to pair Dirk Nowtizki with LeBron. Ignore the big three in Boston. Ignore the big four in L.A.

Ignore the fact that Wade is nice, James is fun, Bosh is sincere, the team is a family, and the way they play the game is so damn selfless.

Ignore the fact that any mistakes that may have been made along the way have been intentionally blown out of proportion by a media craving a headline.

Ignore the fact that we allowed ourselves to get manipulated into losing perspective.

And so now that the Heat has been taken out in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, you have your wish. We’ve been humbled. We’ve been humiliated.

And so now, as with all things left unsaid and undone, we can only wait for another chance.

Thank you to the Miami Heat for a wonderful season. You have shown class in the face of immaturity. You have shown poise in the face of irrationality. I, for one, appreciate it.

Congratulations to the Dallas Mavericks on being NBA champions.

Categories: Commentary Tags:
  1. Jay Esperanto
    June 13th, 2011 at 12:42 | #1

    No victory champagne is sweeter than your ocean of tears.

  2. Jon
    June 13th, 2011 at 12:45 | #2

    And Albert is back! Great article. Please keep ‘em coming.

  3. berkeley223
    June 13th, 2011 at 14:52 | #3

    oh man I knew I didn’t make a mistake in deleting this page from my “bookmarks”!
    this was a brutal last week but this post made me feel a bit better—hopefully all this season was was something to really motivate a multiple-title run. winning it all this year may have made this team soft in the years to come, hopefully that will never be a problem.

  4. Remote Heat fan
    June 14th, 2011 at 12:45 | #4

    Albert . . .

    Incredible man, totally incredible.

    I missed your writing. This shows that there are still people out there who can put ink to a thought.

    In regards to the Heat, sure, we didn’t win the ring. We could have won games 2 and 4. But if you were to ask any Heat fan 365 days ago if they would like the Heat to be in the finals, the answer would be yes. I think it was a successful season. A season that no one thought we would get past Boston, then possibly the Magic, and then of course, the uprising and surprising Bulls. The gauntlet has been thrown down, the East is now the Bulls and the Heat to fight over for a bit. I look forward to this timeframe.

  5. stephen
    June 14th, 2011 at 18:36 | #5

    Yes, this was an eloquent attempt to relativize Lebron’s shortcomings. But this is sports–and we must make our arguments vicious and dogmatic because the stakes are so low (to paraphrase a famous quote). The fact is that no NBA player in history has produced his own live TV broadcast about himself. No NBA player has every nicknamed himself “King” (yes–he gave that name to himself his sophomore year in high school). His post-finals comments dismissing his critics as having crappy lives further confirmed his arrogance. He refuses to ever engage in any meaningful spontaneous critique or self-reflection (his occasional after-the-fact pr statements don’t count). I’ve also sat near courtside for 5 Lebron games over the last 3 years, and have rarely seen a player treat ballboys more disdainfully. Clearly, in the trite realm of sports this is someone who we can all easily find good reason to root against.

    • June 14th, 2011 at 20:03 | #6

      You have every right to root against him. I would never object to anyone doing so. This post, in relation to LeBron, is not an attempt to defend him. I simply don’t know him well enough. But if I were asked to do so, I would point to how those that do speak of him, which is to say that, as far as I can tell, they almost universally love him. They describe his personality as light, sweet, caring, altruistic and funny.

      His actions certainly seem consistent with such a description. As far as I know, he’s never had any significant family troubles or legal troubles. We tend to forget that his ability to rise about difficult childhood circumstances without transgression is a genuine inspiration to those in similar circumstances. We tend to forget that his generosity of both time and resources to those in need is unrivaled by most professional athletes as well as by most who read (or write) this post.

      He does appear to have some character flaws. We all do. Most obvious is a certain degree of narcissism. It’s a trait I find quite common for those with fame and fortune. But he appears to have so many more wonderful aspects to his personality that it’s never warranted any degree of hatred from me. In fact, it’s much the opposite. The good he does that has a tangible impact on the lives of millions far outpaces whatever negative traits he shows.

      He made a mistake in the way he botched the announcement of his free-agent move to Miami. But perspective is needed. There are athletes who are presumed murderers and other criminals, adulterers, etc. and are nonetheless widely beloved. I can readily forgive a man whose biggest transgression over the course of his entire life is a PR mistake that nonetheless raised millions for charity. LeBron is, in my mind, a wonderful role model. A role model who made a mistake.

  6. bblake
    June 15th, 2011 at 02:49 | #7

    @Albert
    Well written article, though I disagree with some of your points and use of player opinions as references. However, I’m curious, what character flaws are worse than narcissism? Obviously sadism, and LeBron is not a sadistic person. However, it’s human nature to despise egocentrism. In fact, what we deem “immoral” is nothing more than selfish behavior. Narcissism is one of the worst human flaws one can have. It’s a central character trait that can lead to violent acts, conning others for profit, lack of remorse or guilt, etc. It’s a small step away from anti-social personality disorder. LeBron is certainly not the only narcissistic athlete and he is not solely to blame for it. He’s been idolized since he was 14. However, his complete lack of a world outside of his own existence is rather frightening. We, as fans, have tolerated and fed into these traits. Have we failed to notice that narcissism leads to a lack of empathy for others? Or that the most and vile, dangerous, and yet powerful people on the planet all share this exact “character flaw’?

    • June 15th, 2011 at 11:32 | #8

      Wrath and sadism are two significantly worse character flaws in my opinion. Unfortunately, many of us have displayed these very character traits, without compunction, in response to LeBron’s recent actions.

      I do not believe narcissism to be nearly as frightening as you suggest it to be. It is a trait inherent in us all, which tends to become more prevalent with fame and fortune. It is some of the extensions that you are drawing from it that are problematic (perhaps because you seem to be making a rather casual leap from narcissism to psychopathy), but those extensions don’t seem applicable to LeBron.

      Perspective is what is needed. LeBron’s narcissism is but one aspect of his personality. To suggest that a man who has risen above his difficult childhood circumstances without transgression (other than as relates to public relations), a man who has so graciously offered his time and his resources to those in need so consistently for so many years is disconnected with the world outside of his own existence is, in my opinion, both irresponsible and incorrect.

      This is simply not a man deserving of my hate. Those that more readily deserve hatred, in my opinion, are the many who allow their character issues to manifest themselves in willing and intentional acts of harm toward others. I reference a few such examples in my post.

  7. Leif
    June 19th, 2011 at 16:45 | #9

    Great article. Definately wish you posted on a regular basis, some of the best, if not THE best Heat perspective on the world wide web. Props Sir.

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