LeBron James has redefined himself with his widely anticipated, and nonetheless, shocking decision to join the Miami Heat. In years to come, he promises to play less like Michael Jordan and perform more like an open-floor version of Magic Johnson, as he creates plays for Dwyane Wade and ChrisBosh.
He has chosen to play basketball of the highest level, and to do so at the personal expense of rejecting the larger markets of New York and Chicago. Most of all, he has signaled that he is no longer seeking to be universally popular. He is not going to be all things to all people anymore.
He turned a lot of people against him by showcasing his choice to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, situated less than an hour north of his hometown of Akron. The way he announced his decision is going to be more important to many people than his reasons for moving to Miami. Those reasons are understandable; some will call them laudable.
But this threatens to go down as a case of What You Say vs. How You Say It. How he said it drowned out the meaning of his words. If he was going to divorce himself from the fans who viewed him as one of their own, as a savior to their depressed region, then wasn't there a less painful way to do so? His former fans will make the argument that James was so concerned with the pursuit of his celebrity that he ran them over with this self-empowering TV special. A lot of people will be cheering against him now.
"Our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier,'' wrote team owner Dan Gilbert in a bitter open letter to Cavs fans Thursday night, in which he referred to James as "narcissistic, self-promotional" and "cowardly."
"This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown 'chosen one' sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn ... But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called 'curse' on Cleveland, Ohio.
"The self-declared former 'King' will be taking the 'curse' with him down south. And until he does 'right' by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma."
James surely turned many in his hometown against him. But other fans around the country can be reclaimed by simply winning in a big way. The amazing revival of Kobe Bryant's popularity had everything to do with triumphing in the last two NBA Finals, and James has now set himself up to do the same on terms that cannot be considered selfish. He has chosen to score fewer points, to adapt his MVP style of play, to accept not being the No. 1 player on his team every night and to leave money on the table by accepting a five-year deal (worth at least $30 million less than he would have earned in Cleveland) in which he'll share Miami's cap space with Wade and Bosh.
James repeatedly said that he wasn't looking to leave Cleveland, but then he belied those statements when he began to discuss the NBA's leading partnerships of the last 30 years. He worked his way through a number of championship teams while pointing out that Magic had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy, that Larry Bird had Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson, that Isiah Thomas had Joe Dumars and on and on. "You become a superstar individually, but you become a champion with a team and I understand that," he said. "I understand the history of the game."
In other words, he never was supplied with a star in his prime. After seven years in Cleveland he was lured to Miami by the promise of playing with talented teammates. The natural concerns that he and Wade will struggle to play together are of no concern to him, James insisted.
"The only thing that may change is the points per game," said James. "The way you see me and D-Wade approach the game every night and have that never-say-die attitude will not change. We don't have to have the pressure of scoring 30 every night or shooting a high percentage or logging long minutes and worrying about our team suffering because of that. The way we approach the game -- the same demeanor, the same grit, the same swagger to our game will not change, and that's the same thing with Chris also."
What became clear from James' televised interview is that he, Wade and Bosh had shared conversations in which each talked of the burdens of carrying a team on his own, as each has tried to do to ultimately disappointing results in Cleveland, Miami and Toronto, respectively, over the last few years. The downside of this new AAU era is that these rival players are friends in a way that Magic, Larry and Isiah never could have been in their day. The upside is that James, Wade and Bosh have shown that they -- as friends -- are more concerned with winning than with their individual stats or with boasting the biggest salary.
Two other conclusions can be drawn. One is that this partnership was in the works years ago when all three agreed to shortened contracts enabling them to become free agents simultaneously, in the final summer before the anticipated 2011 lockout and the likelihood of smaller, shorter contracts. It may not have seemed likely a few years ago, but it surely was a goal.
The other conclusion is that Heat president Pat Riley dominated this free-agent market. He was better networked and a much more informed and charismatic recruiter than any of his rivals, and that's why he won at their expense.
So where does this leave Miami? James and Wade have insisted that ErikSpoelstra will remain as coach with Riley continuing to serve as his highly demanding mentor. Much of Spoelstra's success next season will be determined by Miami's ability over the remaining summer to fill out the roster with role players on veteran minimum contracts. Now that forward MichaelBeasley's $5 million salary has reportedly been moved to Minnesota for a second-round pick in a move to clear further cap space, the Heat could have additional funds to pursue the following in addition to their three stars and point guard Mario Chalmers -- a starting center, two backup big men, a backup small forward and at least two guards, one of whom may need to start at the point. All of this to fill out the rotation, with at least two more players needed for the end of the bench. The quality of these acquisitions is almost impossible to predict because the Heat will have to wait and see which players are left unsigned through the end of the month.
Until we know more about the rest of the team, the Heat cannot be rated ahead of the Eastern champion Celtics or conference finalists Magic. But within a year or two, this surely will be a championship contender with the promise of a long run at the top.