Sports

Why LeBron James Should Be Thanking The People Who Are Burning His Jersey

Jill Riegelmayer

hide captionJill Riegelmayer of Cleveland holds one of approximately 20,000 signs that were handed out to the crowd at Cleveland's Independence Day celebration on Thursday, July 1, 2010 as part of the cities effort to persuade LeBron James to stay "Home" and play for the Cleveland Cavaliers next season.

Jason Miller/Associated Press

Last night, during the one-hour LeBron James Spectaculavaganza on ESPN, James was shown video of his jersey being burned by Cleveland fans bitterly angry that he had decided to go to the Miami Heat. While he clearly didn't enjoy seeing himself burned in sartorial effigy by the same people who once literally called him a king, James said that he couldn't make it an "emotional decision."

Fair enough. It's a business. And what's more, reports that he formed very close friendships with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (whom he'll join in Miami) during the 2008 Summer Olympics, to the point where they vowed right then to play together, if true, would give him his own personal and emotional reasons to go — very understandable, especially at his age.

But when James says, "This is a business, and I had seven great years in Cleveland, and hopefully the fans will understand, but maybe they won't," you just have to shake your head, because while some will, the bulk of the fans? They won't understand.

Of course they're not going to understand. They don't look at him, or at the Cavaliers, or at what he means to the city of Cleveland, with that kind of cool detachment — and it's a good thing for him that they don't, or he wouldn't have been able to sign a contract worth $60 million when he was 21 years old. He certainly wouldn't have been able to sign a Nike endorsement deal worth $90 million. Nobody pays an athlete $90 million to endorse shoes because fans react to him rationally. Nike isn't hoping to appeal to his fans' sense of cool-headed logic. They're going for the gut, for the instinct, for the rah-rah part of a sports fan that says, "That's my guy." LeBron James has, for better or for worse, sold his own image as something greater than a business asset for seven years. This is the result.

That's not to say every expression of outrage is equally sensible: the open letter that Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert sent to fans last night, in which he not only called James' ESPN special a "shameful display of selfishness and betrayal" but also vowed to win a championship before the new Miami "superteam" does and (most wonderfully) seemingly purported to put a bona fide whammy on LeBron James, was supremely vitriolic but a little silly for a guy who is, one feels confident, a businessman in his own dealings with his team.

It's perfectly fair for James to relocate himself to Miami, or wherever else he deems appropriate. He signed a contract; it was for a limited time; everyone knew that. He never promised to stay, and there are lots of reasons a guy that young might want to move. Try something different, try a new city, go where he feels like he'll make more friends, live in a different climate, go to different clubs. It's all fair.

But the fans who are burning his jersey are being fair, too.

They never promised not to complain if he left. They never promised they'd pay and pay to see him and pay and pay for his merchandise and wish him well when he effectively announced on national television that their team can't win, so he'll be leaving to make it more likely that he can win. They never said they'd understand when it turned out that he didn't want Cleveland to get a championship so much as he wanted LeBron James to get a championship.

Moreover, the fans have a few reasonable beefs beyond the mere fact of his departure. The guy didn't go out in the way most likely to show respect for his existing fans; he went out in the way most likely to hype his big move. It's a little like throwing an extravagant party at which you publicly inform your spouse that you're leaving him for someone younger.

Fans can learn to hate you with all the unreasonable vigor with which they once loved you — just ask Brett Favre. Favre could have been the mayor of any major city in Wisconsin at any time of his choosing while he was playing for the Green Bay Packers; now Wisconsinites wear bitterly funny T-shirts that say "We'll Never Forget You Brent." The words "that's my guy" shift with surprising ease to "I hate that guy."

Of course the fans are angry. Of course they're emotional. Of course they're acting like it's not a business when really it is. But what could he possibly expect? Their bone-deep sense that LeBron James' relationship with Cleveland went beyond business is what made LeBron James obscenely wealthy. The fact that fans care about all this more than they technically should, or more than a purely rational person would, or more than people who don't watch sports can possibly understand, is why he's a 25-year-old who never has to work again unless he wants to.

Nobody actually pays anybody millions of dollars to play basketball — or baseball, or football. If you want to talk about what business sports teams and endorsement-deal companies are in, they're in the business of paying players millions of dollars to inspire fan loyalty that will translate into money. And without the loyalty, there's no sale. Without the heartfelt feeling among the people in the stands (and wearing your jersey, and your shoes) that it somehow transcends business, there is no business.

Cleveland gets dumped on a lot. Don't believe it if anybody tells you this is a current problem, based on the current economy, or based on the current state of Cleveland sports. This is in the blood in that city (an area where I spent some time). This goes back to the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. There are plenty of people watching LeBron James leaving who are still struggling with steel mills leaving.

A place like that? That's a dangerous place to latch on to people's hopes.

Sure, LeBron James gets to leave; he's playing his part as a professional athlete who does for himself what he thinks is best for himself. But all those jersey-burners are playing their part, too. He wouldn't be the same guy, or have had the same career, without them.

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