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July 9, 2010
LeBacle
The Feel Bad Story of the Year

by Bradford Doolittle

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In the hours since what was been branded as "The Decision," I find myself almost irrationally filled with negativity, bloated with feelings of shame and annoyance stemming from the mere fact that a basketball player exercised his right to sign with a new team. Believe it or not, not much of it is directed at the player. Really, Iím not entirely sure to whom my animus is directed.

Sure, I blame LeBron James for acquiescing to the made-for-TV spectacle that so many have complained about and even more watched. I donít blame him for the over-hype during a free-agent process in which he said almost nothing. I donít blame him for a group of handlers that played the complicit media like a finely-tuned banjo. I certainly donít blame James for his ultimate decision, no matter what it turned out to be. I might disagree with it for any number of reasons, but I wouldnít presume to wear the shoes of another person with whom Iíve had exactly one person-to-person exchange. (One question, one answer.) Those shoes wouldnít fit, anyway.

The aforementioned exchange came in the hostile setting of a post-game press conference, after the Bulls had beaten the Cavaliers 108-106 on April 22, Chicagoís only win in that first-round series. In Clevelandís two prior trips to Chicago, I hadnít been able to even lay my eyeballs on James, much less ask him a question. He doesnít talk pregame, except to the national guys, and the scrum around him after the game is like watching a flock of seagulls descending upon a crust of bread. Worse, the Cleveland PR staff grants favored access to the teamís primary television partner, which makes it impossible to position yourself. Itís like going for a rebound from the bench.

During the closing minutes of the April game, James had switched over to Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, who had torched the Cavs in the fourth quarter. The Bulls escaped with the win, but James made Rose look pretty average with his lockdown defense. In the press conference, I asked James if the strategy might be something that we could expect more frequently as the series progressed. James sat at the podium, his wrists splashed with shiny jewelry and a watch that surely cost more than my car. He was also guilty of the inappropriate wearing of sunglasses. He sported shades even though we were sitting in the windowless room where, before the game, the media eats tater-tot casserole. James answered my question without really looking at me. Mine is just a voice from the gallery and he hears hundreds of those every day. From behind, a voice followed my question by asking James if then-Cavs coach Mike Brown had made the decision to move James to Rose, or if The King had taken it upon himself to make the switch.

"I did it myself," James said, or words to that effect. He then perked up and added, "You know me, Chris."

He was addressing ESPN writer Chris Broussard, who has cultivated a relatively tight relationship with James and his inner circle. That relationship, and the one between ESPN and the star athletes it covers, is a double-edged sword for us all. It's all about relationships, but those relationships can and are exploited and manipulated. It's a disservice to fans, who are spurred to leap into the rumor mill with their hearts, not their brains, and are led to invariable disappointment. It's also an object lesson as to why the current media mania to break stories first is misguided and wasteful. In the end, no one outside of the media itself cares who was first. However, fans are going to continue to be subjected to misinformation and gut punches as long as they lack the patience to wait until news actually happens and not fall prey to the avalanche of unsourced stories that accompany every major sports story into today's overstuffed media climate.

Last night, right after James announced he was going to "South Beach," I wrote on Twitter that while I didnít begrudge James his right to go where ever he wanted, the Heat immediately became my least favorite team in sports. I still feel that way after a nightís sleep and a little further reflection, and it bums me out big time that I feel that way. In my Twitter stream, Iíve only noticed a couple of comments reflecting excitement over the new "super team" in Miami. Thatís sad. I canít speak to why other basketball fans are lukewarm to the pairing of Dywane Wade and James. (Chris Bosh, because heís an interior player and a tier below the other two, is a different case.) For me, my disapproval is based on four reasons, two of them personal and a bit unreasonable.

First, I think itís bad for the league to have two of the biggest stars on the same team at the same time, or at least these particular stars. Allusions to other great pairings of the past donít hold water with me. I donít think there have ever been two wing players in their prime on the same team at the same time who were one-two in the league in terms of usage rate. These are two stars who shine the brightest by dominating everything their team does on the offensive end of the floor. Now they are going to have to change. Thatís not to say it canít work in terms of wins and losses. It very well might. To me, however, itís better for NBA fans to have these players competing with each other instead of co-existing. Itís more interesting. After all, just how interesting are those Olympic blowouts? Besides, these guys are too young and too good for mere "co-existence." To be sure, this new version of the Miami Heat will be a fascinating experiment from a basketball standpoint, both in terms of on-the-court meshing and the evolution the numbers of each of these players take as they focus less on scoring the ball. At the same time, I canít help but root against the success of this experiment because if it works, then the new model will be for stars to congregate on a handful of super teams. That wonít be good for anyone, especially those fans who would like to see competitive basketball in places like Memphis, Minneapolis and Sacramento.

Second, I just donít think it was the right decision for James, though only he can know that for sure. The right decision was probably to stay put in Cleveland, which did after all sport the leagueís best record the last two seasons. However, if he left, I still feel like Chicago was the best fit for all of his aspirations, on and off the court. He would have been joining the NBAís best rebounding team, a squad whose solid defensive profile is likely to be greatly enhanced by new head coach Tom Thibodeau. He could have been paired with Carlos Boozer, a player who is at the very least close to the same tier as Bosh, and Rose, who I feel will become a first-team All-Star as soon as this season now that he will be surrounded by better offensive talent and installed in a more logical offensive design. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, whatever designated shooter the Bulls would have signed Ö this is the supporting cast that the Heat will now attempt to replicate with no cap room. If it is championships James wants, Chicago was the place to get them. The super team concept in Miami might work, but itís an experiment, one which has failed over and over in NBA annals. In Miami, itís Superteam. In Chicago, it would have been super Team.

My last two reasons, as mentioned, are personal and I list them both to underscore the biases from which this commentary is written and to point out that we all have our strange, selfish reasons for wanting things to go a particular way in the sports world. First, I wanted James to come to Chicago because the Bulls are my favorite team and, on top of that, it would have made my job as a freelance sports writer that much more enjoyable. Second--and this is where we get into the realm of the unreasonable--I donít feel like Miami deserves the team Pat Riley has assembled. I donít think the city deserved the two World Series titles won by the Florida Marlins. I donít think it deserved the title won by the Heat in 2006. Fans in most cities are bandwagoneers to a degree, but South Floridians take it to an extreme. Thatís more true of the Marlins than the Heat but, still, the Heat have been in the middle of the pack in attendance the last two seasons despite having a winning team and one of the NBAís most exciting players. The Bulls have been the best-supported team in the NBA since Michael Jordan retired. Beyond that, it confounds me why anyone would choose to live in Miami rather than Chicago. As best I can tell, the only cultural advantage is being able to wear shorts in January. No thanks. So, as I say, we all have our reasons for being raw at LeBron James today and not a lot of those reasons make sense.

Even after acknowledging and articulating the reasons why I donít like Jamesí decision, which I canít emphasize enough I believe he had every right to make, Iím not sure I understand completely why I feel so negative about all this. At this time last week, I was on a catamaran off the coast of Cabo San Lucas on my way to snorkel in the most idyllic little cove Iíve seen since I was on the Greek island of Paros in the Aegean Sea over a decade ago. I was unplugged from news, Tweets, Facebook, e-mails--everything--for over a week. When I sat down on Monday to get caught up, my spirits could not have been higher. Then I began to sift through the free-agent rumors, which I tried to track in chronological order. One by one, the hearsay mounted, phrases like "a league source" and "multiple sources" and "a team source" and "sources say" piling up like a landfill of bad information. Iíve harped on the unreliability of unsourced reports over and over. When it comes to the coverage of the first week of NBA free agency, the paucity of legit information was almost unbearable. Indeed, I was no better informed than when I was flopping around in fins down in Cabo.

The explosion of the sports media in the last 15 years has led to an all-consuming goal of being first on every story. Why this may be is hard for me to understand. Isnít it better to be right than to be first? To me, anonymous sources should be reserved strictly for investigative reporting on topics that have real gravitas. Iím sorry, but few sports stories rise to that level. The question of what team a player is going to sign with certainly does not meet my standard for the type of story that justifies the use of anonymous sourcing.

Hereís the problem: The more it becomes the industry standard to report information without getting sources on the record, the less reliable information becomes, to the point where you canít believe anything you read. Also, reporters become less prone to push sources to go on record and insiders are less willing to put their names next to their words. And because everyone is doing it, it becomes impossible to sort good reports from bad. The reading of rumors becomes a complete and utter waste of time, yet good writers and reporters are logging long hours in pursuit of those rumors. On top of all that, the most-visible sports reporting jobs go to those whose network of contacts outweigh their writing, reporting and analytical skills. Thatís not jealousy on my part Ö I have never had any desire to be in a news-breaking position. In fact, the idea scares the bejeezus out of me.

Finally, the insipid practice of anonymous sourcing leads to all sorts of chicanery. Agents, teams, athletes and player entourages learn quickly which reporters and media outlets can be played and because no one is going on the record, no one can be held accountable. Bad information is purposely leaked in order to further selfish agendas. This is the state of sports journalism right now and itís really sickening. Until we as consumers of this information quit running up those page views, nothing is going to change. People just have to learn to be patient Ö news happens when news happens. When it does, weíll find out. Of course, thatís a pipe dream. Accountability is a pipe dream. Is ESPN accountable for the almost surreal conflicts of interest that came with the way the James story was covered and ultimately resolved? ("Sources tell ESPNís Chris Broussard that LeBron Jamesí will reveal his decision on a special broadcast on Thursday night Ö on ESPN.") Reports of an overnight 7.3 rating for the broadcast of "The Decision" suggests they donít have to be.

One could rant forever about these things. Other than the 12 bona fide Miami Heat fans in South Florida, who exactly feels good about all this today?

The media certainly shouldnít. They shoved LeBron James down our throats for an entire week, agreed to broadcast his decision in prime time, then vilified him for being an attention hound. They also, quite ironically, fell over themselves in praise of Kevin Durantís humble decision to announce his contract extension with Oklahoma City with a simple Twitter post. Cleveland fans donít feel good, we know that. Neither do fans of the Knicks, Nets or Clippers. (I actually think the majority of Bulls fans are doing just fine.) James, unless he has his head completely up his hind quarters, has to feel like the devil himself today. Again, he shouldnít necessarily feel bad because he made a decision that he thinks will bring him the titles he thinks he needs to cement his legacy. But to do it on national television smacks of vanity and narcissism of the worst kind. Just ask Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who also shouldnít feel too proud today. His vitriolic letter to Cleveland fans may have given voice to the frustration of his teamís supporters, but it wasnít smart business. What superstar is going to want to join that team now, knowing that if things go bad, heís going to get lit up like a pinball machine by the guy who signs the checks? Finally, anybody--myself included--who tethered themselves to the Web the last few days, gobbling up every morsel of NBA gossip, can't feel too good because we are the co-dependents in this whole mess.

What we witnessed last night was without precedence. Never had a player in a sport of Jamesí magnitude orchestrated such a spectacle and the fact that he used a national forum to turn away from the fans of his hometown team is tough to stomach. I canít and wonít torch him for it because I just canít imagine walking in his shoes. I cannot fathom the reality of being surrounded by handlers and sycophants, of being the most famous athlete in the world, who thinks he knows best because everyone has always told him that he does. Itís a different world from mine and, for that, Iím grateful. I hope James is proud of himself, because if I were in his position, Iím not sure I could be. Then again, there is little reason for any of us to be proud today.

Follow Bradford on Twitter at @bbdoolittle.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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