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Cavs owner opens up about his scathing reaction to LeBron's exit

Dan Gilbert had cooled down when we spoke Saturday morning.

"I know I made that crazy promise," the Cavaliers' owner said of his response to the departure of LeBron James, "but it was more of a rallying cry to get people to rally around that message."

The message he was trying to send was that James' exit to the Miami Heat did not mean the death of the Cavaliers. That's why he was e-mailing the following to his fans within two hours of James' announcement:

"I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE."

Gilbert is sticking with that prediction.

"I don't think their experiment is going to work," he said. "But that's just me. I just don't see Dwyane Wade and LeBron James gelling together on the court."

It's the rest of Gilbert's message that is now backfiring on him. In both his e-mail and a subsequent interview Thursday night with The Associated Press, he vilified James as "narcissistic, self-promotional" and "cowardly." James' move to Miami and the way he announced it was a "betrayal," and in hindsight, Gilbert viewed LeBron's performances in Cleveland's second-round playoff loss to Boston as the work of a "quitter."

Rev. Jesse Jackson responded with an open letter of his own Sunday that accused Gilbert of a racist point of view.

"He speaks as an owner of LeBron and not the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers," Jackson wrote. "His feelings of betrayal personify a slave-master mentality. He sees LeBron as a runaway slave. This is an owner-employee relationship -- between business partners -- and LeBron honored his contract.

"LeBron is not a child, nor is he bound to play on Gilbert's plantation and be demeaned."

By attacking James in a personal way, Gilbert ceded the high ground. If he'd limited his statement to the promise of celebrating a championship before Miami, Gilbert would have emerged as a sympathetic figure because James had very few supporters (apart from Miami fans, obviously) who liked his decision or the way he announced it. Not only did he not personally inform the Cavaliers or their fans that he was leaving -- apparently because he didn't want to ruin the suspense of his shameful TV show -- but he also was viewed as walking away from the challenge of leading a team to the championship (his hometown team at that) in order to take the easier way out (as Charles Barkley, Orlando general manager Otis Smith and others saw it) by teaming with Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

A league insider who is African-American explained that Gilbert actually did James a favor by attacking him in a personal way.

"The players were all mad at LeBron," said this insider, a former player of enormous influence. "Nobody respects him for going after a championship like that. They want to beat him now more than ever.

"But when the owner acted the way he did, he was letting LeBron off the hook. Now the players feel like they have to come to LeBron's defense and back him up against Gilbert."

Gilbert's best move would have been to make a defiant stand without personally attacking James. In that case, he might have enjoyed universal support. But his comments have had the effect of dividing the argument along the age-old racial lines as well as enabling James to suggest he left Cleveland, and didn't confide in the Cavs during his departure, because Gilbert is an unreasonable person.

"To hear my former owner's comments," James said Friday, "I absolutely know I made the right decision."

I asked Gilbert if he worries that his comments will prevent him from acquiring a franchise star to replace James.

"People know what the truth is," Gilbert said. "Because I say it or because I don't say it, people know what it is. All players are not alike. There are players who understand what it's all about. Could there be a few guys who don't want to come, like Chris Bosh? Probably. We're looking for guys who are tough and want to compete.

"I absolutely believe we can bring a championship to Cleveland, and that will be a very happy day and a day of redemption."

Gilbert denied that he gave across-the-board privileges to James or his friends. He admitted the team would allow James to review the travel itinerary, and that the Cavs would alter their plans -- staying an extra night in New York, for instance -- as he wished. Gilbert said they had begun to cut back on those allowances in the last year, though it's hard to know how they could have done so while they were trying to recruit James to re-sign in Cleveland.

"Family members were getting a couple of suite passes, it was that kind of thing -- but we did those things for all of the players," Gilbert said. "He really never did ask and go above and beyond for material things. We were 'enabling' -- not on that stuff -- but probably just on how he conducted himself and the respect level.

"I wish I'd brought the hammer out on that stuff earlier. Returning people's text messages -- whether it was the p.r. people or my own. Overall, he showed up to the key things, he was never late to practice. But in certain meetings he was kind of like the kid in the classroom looking at his BlackBerry."

Gilbert acknowledged that he was unable to reach James in the weeks before he left for Miami. He looks back on it and realizes as a new NBA owner that he didn't appreciate the need to establish firm guidelines from the beginning in his relationship with James.

"I asked [Bulls owner] Jerry Reinsdorf, 'Did certain things happen with Michael [Jordan]? Did he not return your calls?' " Gilbert said. "He said, 'No, that would never happen, never.' I did hear this was very unusual,'' Gilbert said of his inability to communicate with James.

When James signed the three-year contract that would make him a free agent this summer, the Cavs felt the pressure to make moves to re-sign him. One reason for pursuing Michigan State's Tom Izzo as coach, according to Gilbert, was the need to make a long-term hire, even if Izzo would not have been prepared to lead Cleveland to the championship in his rookie NBA season.

"You asked about LeBron and what it would take for him to get to that [championship] level -- I think it has to come from the inside," Gilbert said. "[Izzo] is one of these guys who is extremely passionate and emotional, and I think that's what LeBron needs. Mike Brown [who was recently fired as coach], as great as he was, he wasn't going to have that one-on-one relationship like Phil [Jackson] had with Jordan. [Izzo] had that right stuff without having the NBA experience, and so we probably would have wanted to bring him some extremely experienced assistants.

"But then LeBron wouldn't even talk to [Izzo]. Wouldn't even talk to him. Those are the things we let him get away with."

Even so, the Cavs remained confident that James would return.

"We really believed until the end that he was staying," Gilbert said. "We were pretty shocked, to be honest with you.

"When [LeBron and his advisers] announced they were going to do [the team presentations] in Cleveland and not go on their tour, for us that was another sign that this guy and these guys can't muster enough energy to go on the road -- how is he going to move? Going through the process, we felt really good. We felt our meeting went good, and we had another meeting at his house 10 days or two weeks before that.

"The last few days when it got set up in Connecticut [to broadcast his announcement], we couldn't figure it out. It was just very bizarre. Why is he going to the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn.? We started thinking to ourselves, It doesn't make sense. We can't think he's going to go on national TV and build it up and humiliate and disgrace Cleveland, Ohio, by saying he's leaving. The only way he comes out of this positive is if he announces he's staying, because otherwise he's going to destroy himself. That was our thought process.

"We knew it was more than a 50-70 percent chance he was going to stay."

Now does he wonder if the Cavs ever had a chance to re-sign James? Gilbert wonders how much better his team might have been if James had tried aggressively to recruit players to join him in Cleveland.

"I just don't know," Gilbert said. "It wouldn't surprise me if it was all a charade and he had us going on for months. Some people point at the Boston series that maybe he didn't want to go too deep into the playoffs knowing that he was going to leave -- it's a theory. I just don't know. It wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't a last-day decision."

In hindsight, Gilbert notes that the Knicks never appeared to be in the running to land James. Now he wonders if the burden of leading his hometown franchise was too much to ask of James.

"It goes back to the pressure," Gilbert said. "Miami is a good town, but is it a basketball town? Where is the pressure? For him, I think he does not like that burden, that pressure, and Miami is not going to be the pressure cooker of New York City, especially now that he's there with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and Pat Riley. That's what it really comes down to. I think that's where his decision comes from."

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