Full confession time, I am a huge LeBron James and a huge basketball fan. I lived in Cleveland during his entire career there and was one of the few people in the city – if not America – who completely agreed with his “Decision” to leave and play for the Miami Heat. I knew that if he played right and won a championship that his decision would have major racial, financial and labor implications for the NBA and the country.
As of July 1, the NBA owners have locked out the players and by all accounts this one will be worse than the NFL. It’s a shame, because had LeBron stepped up in the finals he might’ve kept this from happening.
After the “Decision,” the stage was set for James to be one of the most powerful men in the world of entertainment. The “Decision” transcended sports and had everyone in America talking and taking sides. The racist old sports press and fans were seething that a powerful African-American player was actually controlling his own career. The Heat played better and better all season and with them the NBA had its best ratings season since Michael Jordan retired in 1998.
And then, suddenly “King” James disappeared in the NBA finals.
Less than a month later, the NBA owners and players association can’t agree on a new collective bargaining agreement and we have a lockout.
We all know that the NBA season was a chance for LeBron to strike a blow against classism and racism in professional sports, but it was a chance for him to become a labor icon as well. Yes, it’s well documented that many white fans resented LeBron “The Runaway Slave” James for choosing to play with a better supporting cast instead of being humble and “thankful” that he was “allowed” to play basketball.
Only in America can a majority of sports fans root for a white player from Germany (Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki) to win an American championship over two black kids from the Midwest (LeBron and D-Wade). But that dynamic was to be expected. Had LeBron won it, it would’ve been a huge middle finger to the racists that still populate much of sports fandom in America.
On a deeper level, however, LeBron had a chance to strike a blow for labor rights, and he missed that clutch shot too. The NBA lockout is happening because there are have- and have-not teams in the NBA. The have-not teams (such as Cleveland) have wasted money on bad contracts, can’t draft well and have overall poor management. The have-teams (such as the Miami Heat) draft better, invest in retaining their star players and work to make the franchise competitive so that fans will spend their money.
The have-not teams have lost money like a bad Ponzi scheme to the tune of $300 million last year and they want to restrict player free agency, salaries and contracts to take up the slack for their poor management decisions. LeBron was the epitome of this conflict. He left Cleveland for less money because he wanted to play on team with better talent and more effective coaching and management. Had he played better and the Heat won the NBA finals, he would’ve accomplished two very important things simultaneously.
First, he would’ve justified the position of the teams that do invest by showing that winning isn’t about being in a big market, or even money; it’s about luring good talent and coaching them properly. (Miami is a big market but their fans aren’t as loyal as Cleveland’s).
Second, by coming through in the most-watched NBA finals in years he would’ve left fans wanting more, making the threat of a lockout less appealing to owners. The only reason that NFL owners and players have been talking all summer is because the last Super Bowl had the highest ratings since ’07 and they don’t want to kill the golden goose.
In the end, we all know what the nation will cheer LeBron again, and we know that eventually basketball will come back, even if it costs a season. But the real tragedy of all sports is missed opportunities. LeBron’s “Decision” could’ve literally tipped the scales in a labor fight in favor of the worker/ player; instead he’s a cautionary tale for owners seeking to rip more power out of the hands of their employees. That’s not clutch.