Every word and sound bite from the Cavs' superstar is parsed and processed like few others in league history
POSTED: Mar 28, 2016 11:57 AM ET
Nightly Notable: LeBron James
LeBron James scores 27 points, grabs 11 rebounds and dishes 10 assists against the Knicks.
In This Week's Morning Tip:
I am a man in love with words.
Given a chance to do something memorable or say or write something memorable, I will always choose the latter. (Perhaps it's because God, in the Supreme Being's infinite wisdom/sense of whimsy, looked upon me at birth and said, 'he shall have no athletic abilities whatsoever.')
Finding the right word to perfectly describe a situation or setting is very important to me. It delights me that there is a word that is used in one setting, and one setting alone, and it perfectly describes its situation.
The word is "rubbernecking."
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It refers to the traffic jam that occurs on the other side of a road or highway, opposite the side on which an accident has occurred. It is not used in any other context, because it is not applicable to any other context. (You usually only hear it on the radio on the all-news station during the local traffic report, as in "accident on I-495 West; rubbernecking delays on 495 East back to the American Legion Bridge.")
But why do people rubberneck?
What is it about seeing an accident on the other side of the road that compels us -- all of us -- to slow down and take a good, long look at what happened? We are fascinated, and horrified; ohmigod, look at that car. He's still in the car! Ohmigod. Is there an ambulance coming? Jeez, that's awful. We are repulsed by what we see; we can't get enough of it. We slow down, like the firefighters in"Roxanne," and take a good ... long ... look.
Yet, in a different context, I understand the concept of rubbernecking.
Because, what LeBron James says fascinates me.
And what LeBron James says horrifies me.
I can't turn away.
Fascinates, because James is the living embodiment of what every player dreams about becoming: the employee who answers to no one in the company. His world is the confluence of so many factors which never seemed possible: no player could ever make so much money off the floor that he literally doesn't need the (max) paycheck from his team (among his many investments: Blaze Pizza, which James said last week started with two stores, tripled sales last year and doubled the number of restaurants around the country).
No African-American athlete in a team sport has ever been given the autonomy to put his imprint on an entire organization, on the floor and off, and never be blamed/fired/traded after any failures. (Michael Jordan desperately wanted the Chicago Bulls to trade for Walter Davis. Jerry Krause never did so. That was, Krause thought, part of the job -- to say no.)
Horrifies, because James is not a boxer, or a tennis player, rightly concerned only with himself and his well being. In those sports, the individual is ascendant. If Serena Williams doesn't like what her hitting coach is doing with her serve, she would be expected to change the coach -- she's the one out there by herself trying to win and make money. Same with Tiger Woods, who's gone through any number of coaches over the years. It's his swing.
But James plays a team sport. Chemistry in a locker room does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it guaranteed to remain once acquired. It is in constant flux, always vulnerable to outside influence or internal discord. Every day in an NBA locker room is a question: why should I sacrifice for you? Or for him?
The Cavaliers, as we have seen much of this season, are still not sure about the answer.
This is not all James' fault. But he does not appear that he's leading his team toward solving the riddle. He leads by deed, by practice. His words are another matter.
James told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck last month, in a story published last week, about his desire, before his career is over, to play with his close friends Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul. James said he would like to play with them for "at least one, maybe one or two seasons ... I would actually take a pay cut to do that," as he put it. "It would be pretty cool. I've definitely had thoughts about it."
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I don't think James was saying he would leave Cleveland in June for, say, Miami or Los Angeles. But I don't think he was saying something off the cuff. He has thought about this, and he wants it to happen -- or at least as much of it as possible. Maybe not Wade, but Anthony and/or Paul, for example.
Here's the problem, if you're currently getting dressed in the same locker room with James is this morning.
James is 30, not 20. He's already in his 13th NBA season, with another two-plus years of playoff wear and tear on his body -- not to mention the strain of his three Olympic team appearances. He's not going to play another decade. If he truly wants to play with 'Melo, D-Wade, etc., it's not some far-off, next decade notion. It's something that would have to happen sooner rather than later. And keeping him in Cleveland would require GM David Griffin to take apart the Cavs' current core of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and/or Tristan Thompson.
Seriously: how do Irving and Love digest an on-the-record comment from James that he'd not only love to play with his equally high-profile friends, but that he's thought about it a lot? The whole preamble to what James said was significant detail on how James and Wade had tried to convince Anthony to sign a short contract in 2007 that would have made him, like them, a free agent in 2010 -- and free to come to Miami. (Instead, Anthony signed a five-year deal with the Denver Nuggets.)
James is his own nation-state. Nobody in Cleveland has the juice to publicly chastise him for much of anything, other than coach Tyronn Lue saying maybe he shouldn't yuk it up with Wade at halftime of a game the Cavs are trailing by 21.
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Of course Irving and Love knew the pluses and minuses of what being in the LeBron fishbowl would be. Both never seriously considered free agency when the opportunity was available. Irving took a five-year, $90 million max extension in 2014, the first domino that led to James' return. Love re-signed in Cleveland last summer for $110 million.
Some point out that James actually said all this Feb. 8, just before NBA All-Star 2016, when he was about to play with 'Melo and D-Wade on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and may have had the dream scenario on his mind. (Devil's Advocate here: one could argue that's even worse, as the Cavs were in the midst of one of their better stretches in late January and February, just after firing David Blatt, winning 10 of 12 games. Why would he pick that time to talk about playing with other guys?)
And: James is entitled to dream -- "fantasy basketball," as someone who knows him well said Sunday -- without it being taken literally. I'd love to date Halle Berry, except for one small detail. Well, she's not small; she's 5-foot-4. And we've been married for almost 17 years. (Hi, honey! Love you!)
And, yes, James' every utterance is parsed within an inch of its life by an insatiable media that overanalyzes everything he says and does (the words "click bait" are muttered in the Cavs' organization when discussing local and national stories written about James). Surely, his comment that he'd quit the game if he'd been on a team that blew a 13-point lead in the last minute of a game (as Northern Iowa did in the NCAA Tournament) played long and loud in the Hawkeye State. And that is not fair.
Nor is the speculation that James was sending some kind of secret message last week by unfollowing the Cavs' official Twitter account and other Twitter accounts. (The explanation from his camp was he was getting ready for the playoffs by eliminating potential online distractions; as he also unfollowed Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, to whom he gave his first-person account of returning to Cleveland in 2014. He has become a confidante, so this certainly seems like a reasonable explanation.) But that's also the reality of someone who lives a large chunk of his life on social media.
The bigger issue is not what James said, but that he once again has complete impunity to do so.
Dan Gilbert tried tough talk, in hilarious Comic Sans fashion, in 2010. Four years later, he begged the man he called "our former hero" in that missive to come home, mistakes having been made (the passive voice seemingly always the voice in which public figures acknowledge their errors; not "I screwed up," but "screw-ups occurred"). And Gilbert has been pretty quiet since.
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And there is no one in the locker room remotely capable of saying or doing anything that he would feel compelled to heed. Understand this: there are maybe four or five people on earth that could do so, which is part of the challenge of putting a team around James. His knowledge of the game is unassailable; his physical gifts still formidable. There really aren't that many other people who can tell him much about basketball. Alpha males don't have antennae for non-alphas.
That is Griffin's fault.
The Cavs thought tabbing Lue as Blatt's replacement would at least put a person in charge that James would respect, and hold accountable, and he does. But it's still a heavy lift for a young coach who's just finding his own voice and does have to coach the rest of the team as well.
This is the problem in Cleveland: James is still well worth all the drama. When he is feeling good and fully engaged, as he was at the Garden Saturday against the Knicks in a triple-double performance, he is still one of the two or three best players on earth. He is still capable of putting a team on his (aching) back and will it to The Finals. He can still bring that championship to the 'Land.
But the clock is always, always ticking in LeBron's world, with his next big thing always right around the corner.
We will all be rubbernecking.
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