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First, full disclosure: It didn’t matter to me where LeBron James decided to next play basketball.
I enjoyed watching him as a Cavalier, and then I enjoyed watching him as a Heat, or a member of the Heat, or the fire that created the Heat … and then I enjoyed watching him again as a Cavalier.
Unless LeBron James suddenly enters basketball late middle age, I’m sure I’ll enjoy watching him as a Laker, too.
But what did fascinate me about the decision to go to L.A. — and this time it was a quiet decision, bordering, even, on dignified — is the way that decision was received in Cleveland.
When James left what was essentially his hometown team the first time, Cleveland fans burned his jersey. The owner of the team called him names. A local writer labeled him “the whore of Akron.”
According to the reports about LeBron’s recent departure, people who’ve reacted at all expressed gratitude that he’d stuck around as long as he did and brought the Cavaliers a championship. Even the twice-jilted owner said thanks.
This is the sort of response once reserved for players who spent their entire career with one franchise. The best of those players used to be called “the face of the franchise.”
Carl Yastrzemski was such a player in Boston. So was Bob Cousy. So was Bill Russell. If justice — or at least poetic justice — had prevailed, Bobby Orr would have been on that list, too, but at the end of his too-short career, he played 26 games for Chicago. Ah, never mind. He’s on the list, too.
But times changed a long time ago. Now a player like LeBron James — if there is another player like LeBron James — can wave goodbye as he leaves a franchise to sink without him, knowing people will be grateful for the spotlight he brought temporarily to their town.
None of this is to suggest that free agency is a bad thing. It’s not. The old system under which only the owners could decide where the players would next labor was unjust. Even multimillionaires deserve the opportunity to sell their labor rather than have it sold by somebody else.
But perhaps no recent change of team jerseys has so dramatically demonstrated the nature of the pro sports landscape today. LeBron’s gone from Cleveland, and this time they’re still applauding in Akron. I guess the same thing will happen in Westwood and Beverly Hills if he lifts the Lakers into contention and then decamps to become a Knick.
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