A Sad, Strange Night for LeBron James

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Phil Masturzo / Akron Beacon Journal / AP

Cleveland Cavaliers fans in Akron, Ohio, set fire to LeBron James jerseys after the star player announced on July 8, 2010, that he's leaving the Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat

He looked so nervous, so guilty. During his unprecedented 70-minute ESPN special on Wednesday night, The Decision, LeBron James was talking about how much he enjoyed the wining and dining of the free-agency process while it seemed like it was making him absolutely miserable. With that kind of tortured body language, you just knew he was about to ditch his hometown.

So when James finally announced, at 9:27 Eastern Daylight Time, that he was signing with the Miami Heat, it felt somewhat anticlimactic. Especially since media outlets like Newsday — and even ESPN itself — had been predicting this move since Wednesday evening. James even whispered his intentions to the Heat a few minutes beforehand, news that enabled Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer to tweet the news about a minute before LeBron announced it. Heck, he set up all this drama and even kind of scooped himself.

Still, the small crowd gathered to watch the interview at the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, Conn., even audibly gasped, as if they had witnessed a wreck. It was just sad.

Granted, it might wind up being a happy day for basketball fans. The Miami Heat will be an awfully fun team to watch this year and likely years to come. Two of the three best players in the game, James and Dwyane Wade, will be joined by electric big man Chris Bosh to form an All-Pro core the NBA hasn't seen in years. The Heat could be an all-time team, in the same company as Boston's Larry Bird–Kevin McHale–Robert Parish triumvirate; the Lakers Showtime teams of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy; or the record-setting Michael Jordan–Scottie Pippen–Dennis Rodman Bulls squads of the 1990s.

But none of these players left their birthplace in his wake, or failed to deliver on a promise that he would win a title for a city that hasn't seen one in 46 years. In a follow-up interview, ESPN commentator Michael Wilbon showed James a picture of Clevelanders burning one of his jerseys. It wasn't quite the "nuclear" bomb that the Plain Dealer's Windhorst — an impeccable reporter who made a somewhat unfortunate analogy during the ESPN preannouncement show — predicted would befall Cleveland if James didn't return. But that's still got to hurt.

Coming into this TV spectacle, James wasn't winning any empathy. Was he really going to go on national TV, for an hour, to talk about how he was screwing Cleveland? Yet he looked miserable enough on camera to leave the evening with at least a shred of sympathy. James is savvy guy who knows his NBA history, and realizes that this move to Miami probably gives him the best chance to win (though you could certainly argue that a Chicago Bulls team with James, Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah would be even stronger, since at this point Miami doesn't have much talent besides its new Big Three). He'll be taking less money to join Miami, and he certainly wasn't gloating about his move.

ESPN, James' partner in this strange athlete-celebrity-media dance, isn't winning any points from this either. After originally saying that the choice would be announced within the first 10 or 15 minutes after the Decision special started at 9 p.m., the network needlessly stretched the big announcement out to nearly 9:30 — nothing criminal, but a pain nonetheless. A delayed announcement likely netted the program higher ad revenues. Since proceeds from the show were being donated to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, it's hard to gripe too loudly, but, to fill the time, did we have to hear 8 million times that reporter Chris Broussard was sticking by his sources who were telling him the Heat were going to nab LeBron? Congrats to Broussard for getting it right, but if James had gone elsewhere, Broussard might have had a meltdown. Couldn't ESPN have come up with better filler than showing how LeBron looked in several different uniforms, images that a) weren't the least bit interesting and b) most people watching this program had already seen ad nauseam?

Give ESPN analyst Jon Barry some credit for at least mentioning that, in the few glimpses we got of James before the moment of truth, he didn't look like he was having any fun. When the camera finally panned to interviewer Jim Gray, sitting across from James, Gray asked James about five minutes of frustrating questions. Gray should have asked the big question — Where are you playing? — right away. There's a fine-line between high drama and angering your audience, and ESPN crossed it. After James finally explained he was going to Miami, the rest of the show consisted of fairly bland interviews with the star (the burning-shirt moment aside) and eventually morphed into an unfortunate, if not unwatchable, infomercial for James' sponsors.

The real headliner in this story is Cleveland itself. In an unhinged letter to fans on the Cavaliers' website, team owner Dan Gilbert wrote, "You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal." He called the ESPN special "narcissistic" and went on to add "this shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown 'chosen one' sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And 'who' we would want them to grow-up to become." He guaranteed that Cleveland would win a title before LeBron would.

This isn't just about the clichéd psychic wounds to an economically depressed area that needs sports for a lift. Some Clevelanders will be truly worse off because of James' move. The bars, restaurants and other retail establishments around Cleveland's area are sure to lose traffic in a post-James world. Local media outlets will take a sponsorship hit: Who's going to flock to the Plain Dealer website without LeBron James news to follow? Is James really convinced that a potential title is worth this cost to Cleveland? Not to mention the cost to his legacy, since even if he raises the trophy with Wade, he'll still be dogged by questions about his playoff failure with the Cavs. Perhaps he thinks it will be worth it. But his prime-time performance wasn't too convincing.