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Steve Aschburner

Some will see LeBron James signing again with Cleveland as shrinking from the challenge to win elsewhere.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

After all the hoopla, only thing left for James is to win

Posted Jul 8 2010 9:02AM

Games. Accolades. Trophies. Dollars. Instant Twitter hordes. Probably the ratings battle in his personal TV time slot for the second Thursday in July.

Those are things LeBron James has won.

Championships. Rings. New fans. Renewed fans. Admiration. Hearts. Minds. Respect.

Those are things LeBron James still needs to win, or win back, if he's going to come out of this with more than a guaranteed contract to play basketball for the next five or six seasons for $99 million or $128 million, respectively.

Some might say there's no coming out of this, period. Not really. Not without some residue, some taint, some permanent damage done from a process so relentlessly modern and joyless and narcissistic. What began a week ago in the most low-key way will have morphed over 189 hours -- from 12:01 a.m. Eastern time on July 1 to 9 p.m. ESPN time on July 8 -- into something overblown and embarrassing, silly and unnecessary. Cleaning that up is only the first of the chores James faces going forward.

Granted, short of signing paperwork at the stroke of midnight on Day 1, there really was no elegant way for James, the summa cum laude designate of the NBA's 2010 free-agent class, to be recruited by ambitious NBA teams. Had he privately jetted from city to city, a market's worth of media affiliates chasing his limos at every stop, James would have looked like a globetrotting dilettante, orchestrating coverage across the nation. By parking himself and his advisors in an office suite in downtown Cleveland, he looked instead like a stay-at-home dilettante, summoning billionaires and lifelong NBA executives to appear before him like so many court jesters.

At least James, while handling the week in his own not-great way (T-shirts? sweat pants?), didn't pop up on YouTube via local TV truck feeds or tweet his itinerary and his regal, chin-stroking impressions the way some of his free-agent buddies did.

This week, though, the little bubble of good will that James retained seemed to burst. His newly active Twitter account and a resuscitated Web site felt too calculated, too convenient, too clever. Then came the TV show, or rather "The Decision," in the grand labeling style the networks so love.

Leak his choice of team to a favored reporter the way some players do? Let the club announce the news and schedule the media event? Nah, not LBJ. He had to go prime time and block out an hour on ESPN, which the sports network immediately treated like the Super Bowl by clearing three hours in advance of "The Decision" for its pre-announcement show. The ratio seems about right: 60 seconds of information blown up to fill 240 minutes of air time.

Reaction has been swift, strong and largely unfavorable to the gifted 25-year-old forward, inside and outside the league. Oh, traffic on NBA Mobile and other league digital operations, including this Web site, is up dramatically in page views and visitors. Other national sites have experienced similar usage bumps, sports-talk shows are dominated by pro basketball buzz in the thick of summer and even Roger Ebert is tweeting about LBJ, so the James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh tide truly has lifted all boats.

In July, anyway. And not without a downside.

"It's gotten ridiculous," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy told the Orlando Sentinel Wednesday at the summer league in that city. "I mean it's almost like a parody of itself, this whole situation now. Come on, an hour long? It takes 15 seconds to say I've decided to stay in Cleveland but we've got another 59 minutes and 45 seconds to, what? Promote LeBron James? As if we don't do that enough."

That's one of the 30 head coaches, talking on the record. Now imagine what it's like behind the scenes, with coaches, executives, players and agents who wouldn't risk being quoted. A view shared by many: It's all too much. Too hyped. Too egocentric. Too removed from basketball and other team dynamics that really count. Too too.

If the reigning repeat Most Valuable Player re-ups with Cleveland, it has been argued, then all these summer shenanigans will be forgotten. Oh really? It's too late for that. Re-connecting to the Cavaliers shouldn't have required eight days and the series of hoops James and his advisors put the team and its fans through. The off-again, on-again hiring of new coach Byron Scott was just Exhibit A in a timetable that felt a little harried. Proven as Scott is, he was brought in quickly and paid lavishly mostly to impress James.

Can LBJ stay in Cleveland and find himself bathed in the adulation he knew for seven seasons? Let's put it this way: If your spouse speed-dated half of the significant others in the neighborhood before coming back and telling you, "OK, you're the one for me," would you feel more loving? Or less loving?

Staying with the Cavaliers won't enable James to substitute his particular brand of loyalty for the imperative to win a championship there. In fact, he could look like he's hiding behind that intangible, the way Thursday's TV extravaganza is using the good-cause Boys & Girls Clubs as a shield from harsh feedback. Win? With that crew, all capped-out and lacking in key spots (point guard, center, lockdown defender)?

Some will see James signing again with Cleveland as shrinking from the challenge to win elsewhere. It's safer to remain the hometown (Akron) hero than to shoulder enormous expectations in Chicago, New Jersey or New York. It's simpler, too, to remain No. 1 on a team of role players than to share the spotlight -- or worse, to so be No. 1A in Miami that you aren't even the player who dictates how the spotlight gets shared.

On the other hand, if James leaves -- if "The Decision" takes its place alongside The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot in Cleveland's sports ignominy -- then the burden on him becomes immediate and unyielding. He will have hand-picked the organization and the teammates with whom he will chase championships. Or maybe just his first billion. It's his choice: Either one requires LBJ to be standing at the end of a postseason very soon, at least once.

Championships. Rings. New fans. Renewed fans. Admiration. Hearts. Minds. Respect.

The only thing left for James is to win. Kobe Bryant is five titles out front. Kevin Durant is blocking from the rear in quiet and classy re-commitments. So James needs to win, and to win, and to win, as surely as MacArthur needed his Corps.

LeBron James is in control, for now, of "The Decision." Which must never be confused with the verdict, to be issued on him 10 or 15 years hence by people entirely outside his circle.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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