There isn’t a lot of precedent for this spectacle we are presently Witnessing. So much power. So, so, so much power. LeBron James is the most powerful athlete in sports, by a lot, and what is going on around him these days is equal parts lunacy and chaos.
It isn’t just that a basketball legend has to fly across the country to get a few minutes with him because James has 100 percent of the leverage and champion czar Pat Riley somehow has exactly zero. (Come over here and kiss the King’s ring, Pat, and he’ll get back to you at his earliest convenience.)
It isn’t just that James has hijacked the sports-news cycle in a way that is overwhelming and annoying, turning ESPN into the Worldwide Leader In Covering One Player, drained fans all over the country losing sleep and spraining fingers refreshing Twitter accounts for any microscopic crumb of information or misinformation or speculation or lie.
It isn’'t just that James has two NBA teams behaving — with millions of dollars and James-appeasing player transactions — as if they both think they are going to sign him very soon … and that all the rest of the teams in the league would behave the same way if he so much as winked in their direction.
It is the deli line of basketball power taking a number just to stand in line behind James, waiting to please be fed after the biggest dog finally decides that, yes, now is the time he shall eat.
Look around. Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love — that’s 18 All-Star appearance between them, mind you — all seem to be waiting around to cash in or make decisions because they might yet have the blessing/chance to play with him.
Dwyane Wade opts out of a contract that would have guaranteed him $42 million in order to please him, so that James may get his maximum if he so chooses.
Guys like Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger commit their careers to the mere possibility of playing with him, with no promises, and guys like Mike Miller and Ray Allen wait to follow him even if it means relocating to Cleveland.
This while the piranha agents for excellent players like Pau Gasol and Luol Deng and Trevor Ariza are preventing their players from signing for millions and millions of dollars because they are waiting for whatever leftovers might be available in Miami if James decides he doesn’t want the Heat’s mountain of dollars.
Seriously, you could beat the Spurs and win the championship with the players waiting to play with James.
This is only insane and just.
Hope you valued him, Miami.
And now, amid your fear and doubt and expectations, you will value him even more if he chooses to indeed return.
A sports King has never received quite this kind of sport-hijacking genuflecting. Businesses pay Pat Riley more than $75,000 — plus first-class accommodations — for an hour of his speaking time. That Riley would feel grateful on Wednesday to get the first hour of the King's free-agent time tells you where we are with this spectacle. Carmelo Anthony is flying to cities for face-to-face meetings; James has not yet deigned to give anyone but Riley an audience … and a brief one at that. Player's league. Player's power. And he’s using it like we have never, ever seen.
We crushed James for turning this into a televised spectacle four years ago, but now we are in the middle of a programming feeding frenzy even though he hasn’t uttered so much as a single public word to help feed us. And to think, back in 2010, it looked like James had maxed out his power when Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, trying to decide to leave his legendary college coaching career for Cleveland, couldn’t get so much as a return phone call from James while making his career decision.
South Florida is worried, of course. It is kind of startling how much fear and doubt there is suddenly, given where we were just three games ago. James could end this with but a few words, but has chosen not to do so, and so the doubt and fear climb with the silence and with every day of delay — while hope grows in poor, forsaken Cleveland. Miami should feel huge gratitude that he gave us four years in his prime, but fandom is not a place for the rational, so there will be anger if he leaves.
He takes so much hope with him, wherever he goes, and that is why Cleveland is now begging for his return even after calling him all sorts of names. If James were again to inflate that city’s hopes, and crush them again, it would be a humiliating kind of cruel. But it would also be what Cleveland’s owner deserves after calling him a coward and a quitter. It would be an amazing kind of vindictive for James to use his power this way, to spite Gilbert as Cleveland already is in the process of clearing out contracts to make room to beg him some more to give them hope once again.
His return to Cleveland has never felt as possible and real as it does at this minute. His exit from Miami seemed almost impossible three games ago. But there is uncertainty and silence around him now, and those infernal anonymous sources are filling it with all manner of conjecture, everyone a gossip and voyeur. Add this to the list of things on James' resume: He has all but wrecked, between 2010 and now, what used to be something closer to accurate and fair sports journalism.
That said, his return to Cleveland would be something worth applauding, a tremendous story. You can’t ever blame a guy for going home. He always represented this city with regal dignity when he wore its name on his chest, and it was an honor to watch him work. If Wade is a real friend, as he seems, he will thank his friend for the help and the shared joy of the journey. But, first, he will hope and pray that James decides to just give Miami one year or two, and not have Wade’s 7 for 25 in the last two Finals games be the punctuation on their partnership.
If James does indeed leave, there will be plenty of blame because unhappy fans will always find ways to spew when they are made to absorb something that feels bad in sports. Wade will get some of that, for the cruel way he has aged, even though he is the one who put together this, the most interesting team in the history of South Florida sport — and at a discount.
Riley will get scorched for letting his team age and getting blindsided, even though this is the same risk he took back in 2010 with two championships as the result. It would be fairly startling, James leaving the city of Miami for the city of Cleveland, and you aren’t going to find a lot of examples anywhere in history of a star in his prime leaving any team after four consecutive visits to the championship round.
The Miami Heat has lived at the very height of sports for four straight fun, glamorous, amazing, historic, breathtaking years.
The most powerful athlete in sports now gets to decide if that continues or it is time for a loud and painful goodbye.
He’ll make this decision whenever the hell he pleases.
And we will wait breathlessly until he does.