This weekend, the dinner bell rings across the NBA for the long-discussed and much contemplated "Summer of 2010". My, oh my, when we get to the "Summer of 2010" everything we know as basketball fans will change forever! Because the "Summer of 2010" will make all things different.
Well, it is here. The Summer of 2010 is now. The teams that have been doing everything they can to accumulate cap room will now be put to the test of whether or not they can do anything with it. It is nice to have some money, but what will we do if the players do not want to take it?
As anyone who even slightly follows the NBA knows, the "Summer of 2010" is only the "Summer of 2010" because it contains the unstoppable force known as LeBron James.
For a long, long time, I heavily doubted the idea of LeBron James leaving Cleveland to pursue those greener pastures elsewhere. I just didn't think it would really happen, as icons such as Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant never actually leave during their primes from their teams. They consider the franchise that hatched their legend as much a part of their legacy as anything in their story. To pack up and leave for another port suggests that they cannot handle their problems. Instead, the choice is to run to a new place. They no longer belong to one city and one setting. Their story loses a fair amount of symmetry and stability. Legends don't do this for reasons of pride and ego more than anything. They are convinced that they can fix any situation with a wave of their magic wand. Perhaps they will need to force a trade and fire a coach - but in the end, the true legends of the sport are not leaving town to reach the pinnacle.
I assumed LeBron was cut from that same cloth. But, I must tell you - the last few months has rocked my perception of LeBron significantly.
I wish I knew when things started to tip in the wrong direction for "King James". Come to think of it, maybe he was doomed when people started calling him "King James" when he was a mere high school student and handed him more money in a day than he would need in a lifetime. Days after leaving high school!
Bryant, Jordan and Tiger Woods are not unbelievable sports super heroes just because they have great athletic ability that we cannot comprehend; don't get me wrong - that is part of it for sure. But, certainly not the most important part. The most important part of being a sports super hero is that on top of being better than you at so many portions of their life, on top of being richer than you can ever imagine, and on top of being as famous as a human can be - they still want to beat you today.
The insatiable hunger for winning is not something that exists in great supply across the fruited plains of big time sports. It is sad, but quite surely, players play to get paid. And when they get paid, many of them put up the old "mission accomplished" banner across the deck of the aircraft carrier and put their feet up. It is all good. As the great Bob Gainey once told me, "It is tough to be hungry when you are always full".
But Kobe, MJ, and Tiger? They are never done winning. They really do embody the overused sports cliché that "he would play for free." I believe that Bryant would play for free next year. He won't. But, he would if he was told that is the only way he will be allowed to pursue championship No. 6. He is happy to enjoy the spoils of war, but he is not in the war for the spoils. He is in it to put his enemy to the sword.
Which brings me back to the "Summer of 2010," where it appears LeBron James will be headed to a new city because he never wanted to be in Cleveland to begin with. He is growing the LeBron brand, and that means that he must shed the image millstone of Cleveland, and go somewhere shiny like Chicago or Miami or New York. Somewhere far more mainstream and marketable.
What happens when we are too quick to place a person in the "MJ, Kobe, Tiger" bin when there seems to be a fair amount of evidence that he doesn't belong in this bin? I mean, after all, some of you have argued with me that he is better than Kobe Bryant already (I assume your apology e-mails are in my spam filter after these playoffs). I figure those arguments are based on the physical ability of LeBron and the regular season accomplishments and the commercials, right? Because it if is based on the relentless pursuit of rings and the never-ending desire to own the mountain, then some of you need your eyes checked. Kobe is shorter and older, but since none of that obviously matters, Kobe was grabbing a fifth ring by not backing down to the same Celtics squad that made LeBron go out with a very unimpressive whimper.
Now, are you asking me if I would turn down a chance to sign King James? Of course I would welcome him with open arms - especially to the Mavericks. But, do I believe that he belongs in a group with Michael and Kobe? No. And I never will feel that way the second he leaves Cleveland. Both Jordan and Bryant had plenty of help, but they both figured out how to do it without turning their back on their situation - and those who pledged allegiance to the LeBron flag. Yes, Doug Collins and Del Harris had to go. And yes, Michael and Kobe are both widely considered impossible to deal with at times and thought of as absolute jerks to those around them when they don't like what is going on - but they never ran. They never turned their back on those who bought all the shares that they could afford of what they were selling. They never tapped out.
If he leaves Cleveland - especially when the Cavs have tried to do everything they can to please him for the last seven years - then he is tapping out. Sure, he might be going somewhere to form a super team with Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh. But, you know something? It won't be the same. If you are LeBron James, and you are obsessed with winning, and you want to be in the same category as Kobe and MJ, then you make Wade come to Cleveland. You don't tap out.
But, why should we ever think he belongs in that group? What has ever led us to believe he belongs in that tippy-top group of basketball legends? His commercials that told us so? His fans? Has he ever had his moment of absolute "I will not be denied - I am going to win this or die trying"? OK, but besides Game 6 in Detroit back in 2007?
Look, there is nothing wrong with being in that next group of athletes. In the pyramid of greatness, what is so bad about the level below Tiger and Kobe? I just feel that LeBron has been interested in the last several years at trying to shovel as much money as possible into his corporate hoppers, and not spending time being obsessed with winning titles. He has been obsessed with growing his global brand. He has been obsessed with his celebrity circle of friends and his image plan. And yes, those are things that Jordan and Woods spent a considerable amount of time on as well, but only after they were done polishing all of their trophies.
You know what LeBron feels like to me? He feels like Alex Rodriguez. A corporation built to yield annual earnings. The whole thing is very nice to the shareholders. But in the big scheme of things, his lasting image is style over substance. And the city of his legacy? Like with A-Rod, there isn't one. Well, there may never be one, at least, if he blows out of Cleveland. Sure, lots of guys leave one city for the next in pursuit of scratching that itch, but the legends don't do it in their primes. They deliver on their promise and hype and then some. LeBron has delivered Cleveland about as much as Mark Price did.
I will concede to you that LeBron James is the second best player in the league right now if you concede to me that it is silly to compare him to Kobe or MJ any longer. In the words of the great Chuck D, "don't believe the hype" after LeBron shriveled up in the playoffs and now looks like he is ready to run from his problems to a new address. The greatest of all-time don't do this.
Since we are on the topic of Free Agency in the NBA, I must touch on the local team of interest, and the object of my basketball obsession - the Dallas Mavericks. It has been a few months since the latest fizzle and dissolve for Los Mavs, and it is time for the annual effort to get back on the horse and prepare for next season.
For some reason, no team in this city pulls my heart out of my chest and shows it to me as it is still beating before I die (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom reference) like the Mavericks. I spend plenty of mental time and space trying to figure out how Mark Cuban and the Mavericks solve the ultimate problem of how to get the team to a point of having a chance at the NBA Title. Wow, since Cuban has bought the team, they have always been in the mix, but never been able to quite close the deal. One year, that fateful 2006, everything broke right and it still didn't work out.
Now, Dirk Nowitzki is able to opt out if he so chooses, and is on the brink of the twilight of his career even if he stays. Cuban has told those around him that he is ready to make something happen and has fueled his jets to do it. But, what is there to be done? What can be done in this league where it is clear that the Title seems to go to those who can accumulate "Top Shelf" talent, and any movement of talent on the lower shelves like Jason Terry, Caron Butler, or Joe Johnson types just seems like moving around deck chairs on the Titanic.
Cuban is the polar opposite of Tom Hicks in his willingness to do whatever it takes. Hicks seems content not to do anything, and now that he is bankrupt he can't do anything anyway. But, Cuban seems like he might be more than happy to write a blank check if it meant he could finally put those Lakers and Spurs in their place once and for all. But, no matter how many ways he tries to fit the puzzle pieces together, he just can't figure out the code.
So what is his plan this summer? I have no idea. I trust it is Cuban-sized in its magnitude, but I also wonder if he will ever totally figure it out.
Meanwhile, we who follow this team sit by and wonder if we can take another season of this story that seems to resemble the little train trying to crawl up that impossible hill. And this is why sports seems so utterly silly to those who are not addicted to it; there is no promise of a pay-off. No matter how many years Mark Cuban and the Mavericks try to get it right, there is no promise that he will ever get a title any quicker than an owner who seems to have no addiction to winning whatsoever, like Hicks.
It would be easier to sign up for more heartache if you knew that you would someday see the Mavericks raise the trophy, right? If only it worked that way.
Good luck this summer, Mark. It appears you are going to need it. And then we are all going to need it, too, this winter when the little Mavs try to crawl back up that hill.