All Eyes On NBA Star LeBron James

The biggest sports free agent in the world, LeBron James, is set to make an announcement today, via a one-hour primetime ESPN special, on his next basketball move. Host Michel Martin speaks with Pablo Torre, a writer for Sports Illustrated, about the highly-publicized chase for the Cleveland Cavaliers star and where he will land next. Also joining the conversation is William Rhoden, a writer for the New York Times and author of the book Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Yes, we're going to talk about basketball star LeBron James today. He's set to announce his big decision about where he'll play next on a televised hour-long special on ESPN tonight. And, yes, it's a big deal, whether we like it or not, professional sports loom very large in the lives of young people, communities, cities and towns. As evidenced in part by the massive campaigns waged to lure LeBron to one place or another. So we are going to try to talk about not just what's happening, but what it all means, this morning.

We'll also head down to the Gulf on day 80 since the explosion that first blew open a hole in a deepwater oil drilling effort. We'll hear about the psychological impact of the spill across communities. And we'll hear about one group in particular where many feel they are being overlooked, that is the deckhands many of them African-American.

And we'll also hear about what's being called the first major Hollywood release with a plotline that features a lesbian couple. That's all coming up.

But first, the odyssey of 25-year-old LeBron James, who may well be on his way toward becoming a billionaire, and perhaps changing the world of sports. The obvious question is which team in the National Basketball Association will LeBron James pledge the next several years of his playing career? Now, word on that will come tonight. But this is what he told Charlie Rose on PBS not long ago.

(Soundbite of show, "The Charlie Rose Show")

Mr. LEBRON JAMES (NBA Basketball Player): It's humbling to know that you that you have fans all over America and all over the world and they want you to play on their respective basketball team. It's very humbling that they respect the way I play the game of basketball. I can do I can't discredit that. I can't say I don't enjoy it or because you put in a lot of hard work to have fans. And for me to be a role model and for me to have fans all over is great. It's very humbling.

MARTIN: In a moment we're going to hear from reporter and columnist for The New York Times, William C. Rhoden. He's written extensively about African-American athletes and their impact on sports and their impact on community. But we want to start with Pablo Torre. He's a reporter for Sports Illustrated and he's joining us from our studios in New York. Welcome. Welcome back.

Mr. PABLO TORRE (Reporter, Sports Illustrated): Hey, Michel, good to be here.

MARTIN: So, first of all, can I just ask, why is this such a big deal just from an athletic perspective? I mean, LeBron's worked for seven years, no championship ring yet, which is obviously part of the issue for him, but why are people salivating over this so much?

Mr. TORRE: That's a good question. And from the purely athletic standpoint there's no question that LeBron James is the most physically talented NBA played. In fact, I often have this argument with my friends, if earth were to be attacked by aliens, the one human nominee to engage them in athletic competition would be LeBron James. He's just that specimen, a guy with all the mythical upside you could ask for in a basketball player. So he represents hope. I mean, this immense package of talent and skill and youth that no other player can really match right now.

MARTIN: And what about it? Why is that? Is it just a pure, physical ability and also got basketball sense, what - the total package? He's also very personable, I think that's fair to say, too. I mean, and I don't mean that in a trivial way, I mean, he's just extremely charismatic, as you can see from all the interviews he's been doing.

Mr. TORRE: That's right. I mean, he has the basketball acumen. He's also, I mean, he's not just this brute who goes out there. He's an excellent, excellent basketball, like, a wonderful passer, has every tool in that basketball toolbox that you'd want. But you're right. It also extends far beyond that. He's a personable character, a guy who plays to the crowd, and a guy, quite frankly, who, you know, seems to have a little bit of that Michael Jordan aspiration.

Obviously that hasn't been matched by the on-court results, which is the biggest criticism by far of him, but he certainly has the ego to match that we all sort of whether we like it or not always look for in that guy you'd expect to be the marquis figure in the NBA.

MARTIN: And who are the key contenders? What are the I am going to ask you to give a prediction, I am.

Mr. TORRE: That's fair. You know, I stare into my crystal ball and the image that comes up is always just this 25-year-old who's laughing and laughing, holding bags of money. So it's hard to tell. But it would seriously the morning, today, it came out that he's looking at Miami most heavily. And that's...

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. TORRE: And that's because Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh are there. They just signed earlier this week and LeBron, ostensibly, is all about winning. And so that would be, by far, the best team a team of all-stars, not much else. Beyond those all-stars, but certainly the most talented big names on any one squad in recent memory.

So that's why LeBron is at least allegedly thinking there, but there's certainly the Knicks are in play, his hometown Cavs are in play and also Chicago and then a lesser extent, it seems at this point, the New Jersey Nets.

MARTIN: Well, of course we get the New York, we get Chicago, but why is Cleveland still in the running? If you could just give us a little bit of his bio and explain why Cleveland is still even in contention after seven years of frustration and not winning a championship.

Mr. TORRE: He's the hometown guy. I mean, rarely you have a hometown superstar in this day and age drafted to their hometown team, signing extension as he did in 2006 to stay with that hometown team. And he's really, you know, a guy who surrounds himself, well, if not in Cleveland specifically, then in folks from Akron. His marketing team, obviously wants to be a mogul, is all friends from Akron that he grew up with.

He calls himself on his Twitter page, for example, the king of Akron. He has loyalty tattooed on his body. I mean, this is sort of an image he's also had of the hometown boy making good and ruling the kingdom, as it were, from little Akron. And so there is that strong element. I'm sure the I mean, in Cleveland, the psyche of Cleveland, they haven't won a major championship in any major sport since 1964. And certainly that weighs on LeBron also.

He's a guy who's not an idiot. He is has a macro sense of sports history. So he also knows one has to think what it would mean to win a title in Cleveland for those people who are right now at the ledge as far as wondering what he's going to do.

MARTIN: Let's bring in William C. Rhoden right now. He's a reporter and columnist for The New York Times. He's also the author of a book titled "40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete." He's also with us from New York. Welcome to you also.

Mr. WILLIAM C. RHODEN (Reporter, The New York Times; Author, "40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete"): Hey, how are you doing, Michel?

MARTIN: Well, great. Well, let's go to the title of your book and relate that to what's happening now with LeBron James. I mean, let's talk about how this is going to be announced. A primetime one-hour special, which his marketing company is controlling the ad his marketing company controls the ad dollars, which they say they're going to donate to one of his favorite charities, to The Boys and Girls Club. But it doesn't sound like slavery to me.

Mr. RHODEN: Well, he's buying his way off the plantation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: In fact, he's buying the plantation. He's going to own the plantation. I guess we'll all be his employees.

MARTIN: What was the significance of this, do you think? Not just the way this is being announced, but this whole hype around where he goes next.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah, well, it's really fascinating, number one, you got this 25-year-old African-American having the entire world. I mean, I just came from South Africa in the World Cup and, you know, I mean this was outside those people love soccer in there, this was sort of even over there there were people wondering, where is LeBron going? You know, so you've got this 25-year-old African-American high school graduate who basically has us all eating out of his hands.

And, you know, obviously I've been thinking about this as everyone else and he said, you know, LeBron has said he wants to be Muhammad Ali. And I realize I was examining that statement through the wrong prism, through the prism of someone who grew up loving Ali for his ideological stance. But that's not where LeBron was coming from. He was saying he wants to be like Ali the showman.

There's never been a showman like Ali before, you know, somebody who could command a world stage, you know, the whole Gorgeous George thing and making the predictions and just being a tremendous show person. And that's the LeBron, I think, constitutes winning as much as anything else.

So I realize, you know, I was analyzing this guy the wrong way. He wants to be like Ali, not in terms of not going to war, you know, but in terms of being this tremendous showman. So for that reason, I think that the only logical place is for him to be in New York.

I mean, that's why all of us I was born in Chicago, but I grew up thinking, you know, if you're going to make it, if you're going to make it, you got to make it in New York. That's why Charlie Parker came here. Everybody wanted to make it, had to make it in New York. Otherwise, it's kind of and I don't want to say trivial but this is sort of a major, major, major stage.

And, really, based on what he wants to be the Muhammad Ali figure and that, you know, it makes sense for him to be in New York, because that move, coming to New York would probably be the most important move in recent NBA history.

MARTIN: Well, of course that's an entertainment capital, a financial capital, a marketing capital and so forth. But what about his impact on Cleveland? Part of the catch here is that...

Mr. RHODEN: Who cares?

MARTIN: Well, I think people in Cleveland care and it also has a sense of he's a community figure there. I mean, he's talked, for example, in interviews about his relationship with Warren Buffet, the sort of the internationally known investor who also is giving him financial advice, apparently, and some mentoring. And who he talks about visiting him in Omaha, where Warren Buffett still lives, and walking down the street, it's, like, hey, Warren, like he's one of the neighbors.

And I wonder if that is part of the calculation and should it be? Does it matter about the impact you have on a particular community, and I'll ask you this first, Bill, and then, Pablo, I'll ask you if you'd mind jumping in on that.

Mr. TORRE: Sure.

MARTIN: Mr. Rhoden?

Mr. RHODEN: Yes. You know, it is important, Michel, obviously it's important. Loyalty is important. But we're in sports and there isn't a lot of loyalty in sports. And, frankly...

MARTIN: There is not. You're saying there is not.

Mr. RHODEN: No, no, no. At the end of the day, I mean, things well, let's put it like this, to answer your question in terms of loyalty in Cleveland, he will have a greater impact on Cleveland by doing great things in New York. You know, he's already done his paid his dues. He's been in Cleveland. I think he's hit the ceiling. He knows he's hit the ceiling. It's time to leave home. It's time to leave home.

And you come to New York. This is the for all the reasons you mentioned the economic seat, cultural seat and, also, basketball and the NBA is kind of dying. And basketball in New York is dying, and they desperately need a savior figure. And LeBron is that savior figure. He's the one who calls himself the chosen one.

And I think that for a lot of reasons and for a lot of different analogies, is it going to be easy coming here? No, it's not going to be easy. It's not going to be easy. But he's got the broad shoulders to pull this off. So this is really the only place for him to come. And doing well here is going to mean a lot more to the people in Cleveland, I think that LeBron even understands.

MARTIN: I'm still holding out for the Wizards, but that's another story.

Mr. TORRE: What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Pablo, finally one can dream. Pablo, tell me, we only have about a minute left, tell me about your thoughts about that. I mean, does his impact on a community matter? Do you think it should matter? Is that fair, is it even fair to ask that question?

Mr. TORRE: I think, you know, I think it's such a personal decision. I mean, I don't think you can really fault the guy for wanting to go for bigger and brighter pastures.

But the irony is that if you were to make a mark in sports history, I think there are two ways and Bill's absolutely right. One way is to win with the Knicks. The other is to win a championship in Cleveland, which has not won in so long, and be that figure of civic pride. It wouldn't have the global impact, but as far as America and as far as the state of Ohio, it would be something that would make him an immortal for sure.

MARTIN: Okay, so, Pablo, you're betting on the Heat. Do I have that right?

Mr. TORRE: You know...

MARTIN: Quickly. Yes?

Mr. TORRE: Yes.

MARTIN: And, Bill Rhoden, you're betting on the Knicks?

Mr. RHODEN: New York, New York. The Big Apple.

MARTIN: All right, well, we'll see. William C. Rhoden of The New York Times. He's author of "40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete." Pablo Torre of Sports Illustrated and they both joined us from New York. Gentlemen, thank you.

Mr. RHODEN: Thank you.

Mr. TORRE: Thanks.

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