Lebron James and the Balance of Power in the NBA (And how it is threatening to me as a fan.)

By: Norman Yallen

Before I write anything else, I want to get this out of the way. I personally cannot stand Lebron James or the Miami Heat. I took great delight in seeing them blow a large lead against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday. I really began to wonder what it was that made him earn my enmity after seeing him knock down shot after shot and making smart pass after smart pass. I say I want to see a basketball player be unselfish, Lebron always has one of the highest assist rates of any non Point Guard. I’m sure, and I would hope, that anyone reading this article is wondering what on earth I am talking about when I call Lebron selfish. They would tell me, I am sure, that Lebron’s Decision to leave Cleveland for Miami was a very selfish decision. They would discuss how his hour-long television show and premature celebrations belie a selfishness and arrogance deep within. Although I think both those things are true, they are not the main reason I hate “King” James. I personally I hate Lebron James not because he is selfish but rather I hate him because I am selfish.

 

In Myles’ article he got a few of the facts wrong. He asserts that free agency was given to the players in 1962, but believing that would be fundamentally misunderstanding how free agency came to be, and how power works in professional sports and the NBA.  Oscar Robertson was one of the greatest guards ever to play in the NBA. His size and strength led him to become the first and only NBA player to average a triple double over the course of a season. He grew up in Indianapolis, playing high school basketball for Crispus Attucks High School, a segregated institution. When his all African-American team won the city championship, the city would not allow the team to get out of the car and pose for pictures during the championship parade, something all the white champions were allowed to do. Unsurprisingly, Oscar was not a man who was interested in keeping the existing power structure in the NBA, which operated under a reserve clause system. This meant that teams could keep players as long as they saw fit and could offer any contract they wanted. The player’s choices would be to agree to a deal, or not play at all since they could not negotiate or sign a contract with another team. With this lack of leverage, player salaries were miniscule. Towards the end of his playing career in 1970 as head of the players union, Oscar Robertson launched a lawsuit against the NBA, saying this reserve clause was unfair. Finally, in 1976, after Robertson’s retirement, the lawsuit was resolved with free agency being instituted in the National Basketball Association. This victory in the courtroom was not handed to the players, and owners were forced to hand over some of the power to the players.

 

Seeing that free agency was fought for by the likes of Oscar Robertson changes what it is. It is not something handled to perceived spoiled brats such as Lebron James and Chris Bosh. It is something that players such as Oscar Robertson fought for tooth and nail. In the years since then, players got to choose what team they played for and several blockbuster free agent signings ensued. Someone such as Shaquille O’Neil was not nearly as widely criticized for leaving Orlando for Los Angeles. He left the Magic for a worse Laker team, for the fame of Los Angeles and for the fact that they offered him more money than the Magic. He quipped at the signing, “I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, I just want to play basketball, drink Pepsi wear Reebook.” This was not a quote that sparked outrage; it was a quote that was laughed with for its astounding self-awareness. I’m going to guess that Commissioner David Stern, although known as a good humoured man, did not chuckle along with O’Neil’s quote. In 1999, the NBA and the player’s association had a lockout that lasted half the season and changed the shape of free agency yet again. By the time Lebron James entered the free agency market in 2010, the rules were such that the power lied with the team the player previously played for. They could offer one extra year, and extra money for the player to return that other teams could not, meaning that it was the Cleveland Cavaliers who offered Lebron James the most money.

 

Lebron James was offered big contracts by numerous teams, essentially any team that could. If I were to ask for a stereotypically selfish reason for an athlete deciding a team, I am sure the answer I would get would be, taking the most money. I pillory athletes who sign somewhere purely for the money, hating someone such as Alex Rodriguez for signing with the Texas Rangers purely for the money. If I were to ask for a stereotypically unselfish reason to sign somewhere I’m sure I would be told, winning a championship. Well Lebron turned down the most money to sign with a team he felt had the best chance of winning a championship. The response of many fans and of myself was pure hatred for Lebron James, and I know that I personally found all sorts of justifications for it. There was the fact that he unveiled it in a callous manner, “taking his talents to South Beach.” The fact that he was going to play with his good friends, and that it seemed to be pre-orchestrated. Sportswriters such as Bill Simmons felt that teaming up with Dwyane Wade as opposed to winning on his own would tarnish Lebron’s legacy. I would say that taking the most money and caring about your legacy would have been much more selfish than making the decision you feel would put you and an entire city in the best position to win. He exercised his power in a way unprecedented for an MVP-caliber athlete, turning down more money to play where he wanted to play, and changing the competitive balance of the league as a result.

 

I think that in examining the question of who is selfish in this scenario, the answer is not Lebron James and the answer is not Chris Bosh. The answer is that the selfish ones are fans such as myself, who do not want to see the landscape of power shifted in the NBA. As fans we assume that a team’s ownership has the same interests as us in mind when signing players, an NBA Championship for our favourite team. Whether they approach it as a fan such as Mark Cuban or as a business such as MLSE, winning and attracting talent for our particular team is mutually beneficial. However my goals as a fan and an athlete’s goals are more likely to conflict when they decide which team to play for. For example, I don’t know what Chris Bosh’s goals were, but I know that last summer they conflicted with mine. He wanted to win a championship; I wanted to see him winning a championship with the Raptors, as did the Raptors. In the end he exercised his power making a decision to sign with the Miami Heat, where he had a far better chance than with the Raptors. As fans who want our own team to win, we don’t like that players can sign with the team that gives them the best chance to win, or the best chance to party, or for whatever reasoning they use in deciding for whom to play. I don’t like Lebron James because as a selfish fan that wants to see my team win, he is threatening my position.

 

I don’t want to see athletes exercising their power because while their interests may not align with mine, the owners more often will. Therefore when it comes time to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement, I will want the power to shift back more towards the owners. We cannot have a repeat of this season, where player’s decisions impacted whom won. Especially since my Raptors came out on the losing end of this arrangement. I will use all sorts of convoluted logic for that, such as that the league’s competitive balance is in jeopardy. I don’t care about competitive balance; my favourite sport is football, not because it is balanced, but because the Steelers are good every year. On the same token, I will protest the NFL’s new rules against illegal hitting because even if they may be good for the game they will not be good for my team. The truth is, Lebron has me more interested in the NBA than ever but as a fan that wants what is best for his team I need to see player power curtailed. Because we know that no player wants to sign with the Raptors. So I beg to you David Stern, please shift this balance of power, not because the players are selfish and arrogant but rather because I am.

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