By Michael Rosenberg
July 01, 2010

Finally, LeBron James' moment is here. Forty-three years ago, we had the Summer of Love; now we have the Summer of Self-Love. James has had his eyes on this summer for the last two winters. It is, as he wants it, primarily about him. And with that comes this free-agency period's irony:

If LeBron James' ego is really that big, he will (unintentionally) do what is best for the league.

There has been talk, for several weeks, about a King-DWade-CB4 troika in Miami. (That's LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh to their mothers.) They can do this. They have a right to do it. Miami has the salary-cap space --assuming Wade re-signs -- to get LeBron and Bosh if one agrees to accept less or work out a complicated sign-and-trade. The trio could create the greatest team of all time -- probably not next year, but three years from now, after Miami uses its draft picks and various cap exceptions to fill in the rest of the picture.

They could dominate the league. And that would be awful. It would be like choosing sides on the playground and giving one team the first three picks. It would be like giving your cousin every pick in the first round of your fantasy league.

This is not how sports are supposed to work, and it is really not how the NBA is supposed to work. The league is set up so its best players play against each other, not with each other, every spring.

Arranging a superteam would be the easiest path to a championship for LeBron, but it would not be the best path. In fact, it would backfire on him.

Here are LeBron's stated goals, as far as I can tell:

1. Win championships.

2. Become the best player ever

3. Become a billionaire.

4. Purchase a small country, so he has somewhere to go on vacation after he purchases a large country.

5. Become a "global icon," because come on, how awesome would that look on a business card?

LEBRON JAMESGlobal IconDon't call him; he won't call you, either

James could achieve No. 1 (win championships) on a superteam. But he could not achieve No. 2: becoming the best player ever. Michael Jordan's legacy is not that he won six championships in Chicago. Heck, Robert Horry won more titles than Jordan. No, what made Jordan so admired is that when the Bulls drafted him, they were a dead franchise. If they had sent a limo to pick him up at the draft, it would have been a hearse. Jordan, through the sheer force of his talent and will, made the Bulls the most successful organization in sports. We saw him score 63 points against the Celtics in the playoffs and lose. We saw him get knocked down, literally and figuratively, by the Pistons. And we saw how much it meant to him when he finally won, in 1991 -- and how, from then on, he seemed unbeatable.

(Jordan eventually came out of retirement to play for the Wizards, of course, but that's not relevant to the discussion. By then, the public had already accepted -- rightly or wrongly -- that Bulls management had forced Jordan into an early retirement.)

And this is why James cannot achieve that whole global icon thing on a superteam. Like James, Jordan chased every off-court dollar. The man made a movie with Bugs Bunny. But fans always believed that Jordan's desire to win came first -- and Jordan seemed to understand that was essential to his mass appeal. He never would have bolted for another team to make his championship path easier, because that would have been a cop-out. Jordan's ego was too big for cop-outs. He was too competitive.

James sometimes seems more worried about becoming a billionaire than about winning championships. But if he is smart, he will realize that becoming a global icon depends on his image, and his image depends on winning -- and, just as importantly, how he wins.

And if he wins somewhere other than Cleveland, it won't be the same.

If James leaves Cleveland, he'll lose fans he can never get back. He will forever be the guy who ditched his long-suffering hometown to chase easier championships, money or fame. And that's a pretty good way for him to ensure that he won't get as much money or fame as he'd like.

James leaving would be unlike anything we've seen in sports. Shaquille O'Neal left Orlando for Los Angeles, but a) Orlando was not Shaq's hometown; b) Orlando was not the longest-suffering big sports city in America, like Cleveland is; and c) Shaq was not yet the dominant force in his sport. (Jordan was.)

Free agency is a big ego-stroke for James right now. Everybody loves him, because everybody thinks they have a shot at him. But once he picks a team, that ends. And that's when the backlash could begin.

If James goes to Miami, he risks always being A-Rod to Dwyane Wade's Jeter. Wade, like Derek Jeter, is a likable, future Hall of Famer who brought his fans a championship. James is more talented than Wade, just as Alex Rodriguez is more talented than Jeter. But James, like A-Rod, could be viewed as the cold, corporate mercenary who is simply using his employer to advance his own interests.

If James goes to Chicago, he'd surely win multiple championships: A core of James, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and either Carlos Boozer or Bosh would be the best in the league. But he would never be better than the second-most popular player in franchise history. And since the Bulls have tortured Cleveland fans as much as any team in sports, except maybe the Steelers, James would look like he doesn't care at all about his hometown sports fans. Cleveland would instantly loathe him. And by extension, much of America would lose respect for him.

If you live in Sacramento or New Orleans or Iowa, who would you rather cheer for: LeBron James, who turned his back on his hometown to chase fame and titles in Chicago, or Kevin Durant, who sounds like he wants to stay in little Oklahoma City and build something special there?

If James goes to the Knicks or Nets, he'll face a different version of the same problem: He'll look like he sold out. James loves New York, but much of the country does not. The A-Rod comparison resonates there, too: When Rodriguez became a Yankee, he became easy to hate.

The Cavaliers have done a lousy job building around James for the past seven years. They have not acquired one credible sidekick for him -- no ScottiePippen, no Pau Gasol, no Manu Ginobili. If James leaves, I won't have much sympathy for the Cavs.

But I'd have plenty of sympathy for Cleveland fans. And I suspect most of the country would, too. LeBron James would be an enemy in his hometown and viewed suspiciously everywhere else. He has been pointing to this summer for at least two years. But James should remember this about free agency: As soon as he signs a contract, he signs over a good chunk of his power. People will look at where he goes and make judgments on who he is. He should think long and hard about what he wants them to see.

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