At the ceremony to make things official, the three executives got to talk around the trophy first.
Owner. General Manager. Coach. In that order.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had just become Eastern Conference champs, and this is how their prize would be presented, at the center of the court in the center of the city's celebration, by first asking the questions of the men who hoped it before talking to the one who had actually made it so. When the time for reward-reaping came, and it was packaged for the masses on television, it immediately became about organization/chain of command/power hierarchy. Suits before sweat, by matter of official ceremony.
Symbolically, LeBron James stood apart from this, in the back, until he was summoned for his turn to talk after the corporate leaders. He approached slowly. He didn’t look like the man most responsible for this celebration, or even like someone who felt like celebrating it. Hands locked behind back. Head down. Looking at the ground a lot. He only unlocked his hands to paw at his face and fidget with his baseball cap, on an off, on and off, as if trying to find something under which to hide. It looked uncomfortable, being placed at the end of How Things Have Always Been.
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James is a paradigm shifter who believes in player empowerment. You wouldn't see his joy until after that starched ceremony, as his shirtless teammates took selfies in a locker-room hot tub with bottles of champagne. There, among his boys, and only among his boys, the player empower in LeBron James sang, and the most powerful man in the sport danced. There wasn’t an authority figure to be found in that snapshot. It looked like a lot more fun.
Maybe the juxtapositions of these two visuals means nothing. Or maybe, angels-singing sneaker commercials and Sports Illustrated essays be damned, it is why he left Miami.
James, alleged employee, wanted to be a boss and the boss while taking an axe to some familiar constructs. He got that power in Cleveland in a way he never could have in Miami. No one else is allowed to be The King in Pat Riley’s kingdom. Riley tried to share some of his power at the end in Miami, texting James to rank free agents in order of preference but never got a response. It was too late. James rented Miami for what he needed, and he was no longer interested in being a consultant. He wanted to be in charge.
There is this insulted feeling in the Heat organization that James used Riley as legendary leverage at the end, as a public pawn, flying him across the country and making him wait in Las Vegas for a short meeting with an already-determined outcome … so James’ men could negotiate all the power they wanted from Cleveland in the interim with the very public lie that Miami was still in play … and to show Riley who was really in charge. That may or may not be accurate, but this is: James, the paradigm shifter, didn’t look like he was working for the owner, general manager and coach in Cleveland as much as it looked like they were working for him.
Such an interesting thing, power. Sports customers and consumers tend to be more comfortable with management having it because management is aligned with the fan’s and team’s interest more than, say, that greedy millionaire punk who might hold out for more money even though he signed a damn contract. In sports, we often side with the little guy, the underdog, but not in sports business. That’s one of the few places where we side with the boss over labor even though most of us are, you know, labor.
What James did to Riley and Miami at the end is either morally wrong or simply business, and how you view that may be determined by your rooting allegiances or how much comfort you find in familiar constructs like authority. We wouldn’t mind so much if Riley had a player fly across the country for one last exit meeting before waiving him.
Dwyane Wade, who worked with the Heat organization to bring James back and lost roughly $8 million by doing so, does not blame his friend for this. Business, he says. And now Wade’s son is snap-chatting a Rihanna song dedicated to the Heat about “[expletive], better have my money.” It would appear that Wade, who is also about player empowerment and just saw all that James was given in Cleveland, is also done putting the idea of organization atop his power pyramid.
James appeared to be coaching his own team in The Finals. An ESPN.com report last week revealed that James ignored and “emasculated” coach David Blatt in huddles. After this report, Blatt held a press conference to talk about what an honor and privilege it had been to help a player of James’ stature.
A coach yells at a player, that’s the job. A player yells at a coach, that’s disrespectful. But only if you insist on holding on to old constructs. What if the player knows more than the coach, is more valuable, is respected more by his teammates and is a computer made of fast-twitch muscle fiber better at making decisions than anyone in the history of the sport?
In Miami, James was coached traditionally. Coach Eric Spoelstra doesn’t mind discomfort and often said things James didn’t want to hear. Spoelstra and Riley tried to coax James into the post for a year, unsuccessfully. He didn’t do it for himself after the shame of losing in The Finals to Dallas.
But James mastered his craft in Miami, and was rewarded for it, and probably doesn’t feel like he needs a coach now. Or he needs one the way a CEO needs an administrative assistant. Someone has to handle the dirty-work minutiae. Someone has to tell Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Kendrick Perkins — all of whom chose discounts to play next to LeBron — that they must sit without James being the bad guy.
But a guy telling him things he doesn’t want to hear? No. James wants veto power. He needs a coach like a golfer needs a caddie. That turns the power structure upside down in a way that can get uncomfortable for some. But Blatt is there to help, not push. He’s not in charge. He’s the help. That wasn’t ever going to fly in Miami, where the legend atop the organization made that legend as a coach.
James doesn’t just believe in player empowerment. He believes in empowering his friends in business, too. If James and his crew did indeed use Riley as legendary leverage, if they did get power over player personnel and promises of owner Dan Gilbert going deep into the luxury tax, is this the appalling greed of a power-hungry egomaniac punk? Or is it simply something all of us with value would want in his position? Hell, you could argue James is entitled to the kind of arrangement that gives him run of the downtrodden place.
Bloomberg reports the Cavs franchise value nearly doubled, from $550 million to $1 billion, the moment he decided to return. James only made $20 million last season in his capped sport, going by one-year contracts to keep leverage and insure against corporate mistrust. He is America's most valuable athlete and grossly underpaid.
The Cavs were 66-16 and 61-21 before he left, and 19-63, 21-45, 24-58 and 33-49 while he was in Miami. The Cavs were last in attendance in 2003 when James started and have always been near the top since … as long as he is playing there. Second in attendance this year, 16th, 22nd and 19th before that. And now, all of a sudden, great players also want to play in Cleveland to be at his side.
There were many benefits to James relocating his corporate headquarters. He fixed his image. He went from booing to applause. He went home to less pressure. “Almost” is good enough for now. He’s playing for one championship, total, one for his home, instead of having the win-or-bust burden of playing for one every single year.
Alleged employee LeBron James got something else, too, that he never would have gotten in Miami: