It’s rare for me to write on this blog about sports divorced from law—law being, at least, the pretense for my writing in the first place. But anyone who follows sports with a passion knows that it’s all about storylines, and this year’s NBA Finals have them in spades. There’s the obvious one of The Chosen One seeking his first title, but the events of the last offseason, together with the seemingly unlikely rise of the Dallas Mavericks seeking their first championship, make this year’s championship round a bonanza for those of us who love a good soap opera mixed in with the games.
For those of you who were asleep for the early part of last July (or who turn off the television whenever the sports section of the news comes on), LeBron James made history on July 8, 2010, with “The Decision”—one of the most arrogant appropriations of a supposedly independent journalistic organization’s resources that has ever been seen. In a one-hour, intensely orchestrated live-broadcast television special (one for which ESPN donated its air-time in a pretend act of charity) aired that day with the cooperation and collusion of James’s agent and handlers, James announced that he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers in order to “take his talents to South Beach” and join the Miami Heat. To be fair, no one forced ESPN to throw in with James and his handlers. That decision was theirs. But with those few words, James left the team that originally drafted him and supported by many in his hometown of Akron for the bright lights and bikinis of Miami and simultaneously became one of the most hated men in all of professional sports.
There was nothing wrong with what James did, at least, not insofar as his leaving the Cavaliers for a team that he believed had a better chance of winning a championship. But the way he conducted the exercise—the public announcement, seen by many as a televised belittling of the city of Cleveland as well as a shameless publicity move—left a bad taste in many mouths. In one hour, James became, deservedly or not, the face of everything that was wrong with professional sports. It was a harsh and unfounded criticism. Winning is supposedly what it’s all about, and it seems hypocritical to criticize an athlete for going to the ring, instead of waiting for it to come to him.
But victory need not come at the cost of shaming a foe. Or a former friend. James has plenty of defenders—a number of them, sycophantic ESPN employees. It’s easy to defend the decision, but it’s not so easy to defend The Decision.
And in light of all this, James has met his perfect foil in this year’s finals: the Dallas Mavericks, and specifically, their star forward Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki is an unusual story in the NBA. European-born players are an anomaly, and European-born players who become the central focus and stars of their teams are even more so. Nowitzki—a native of Wurtzberg, West Germany (back when there was such a thing as West Germany)—has played his entire thirteen-year NBA career for Dallas. That makes him another unusual story—a star player who has never left “home” to chase the ring, though he certainly left home to get where he is today.
It stretches themes and strains credibility to suggest that Nowitzki is entirely motivated by a desire to dance with those that brought him here as much as it does to suggest that James’s decision was completely unjustified. In seven years, the Cavaliers failed to surround James with a team that truly complemented his skills, and that would seem to be enough to test anyone’s loyalty. But the way you leave says a lot about you, and James’s exit from Cleveland said little that was positive. By, not just leaving but humiliating his old team and city, James became the “anti-Dirk” and put new pressure on himself to lead the Heat to the promised land. And as a result, again rightly or wrongly, Dallas has a new “America’s Team.”
A lawyer I used to work with told me that, at the end of a jury trial, as the verdict is being read, you keep a stony disposition and a stiff upper lip, win or lose. You don’t crow about winning, and you don’t berate anyone when you lose. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me. Any celebration—and any venting—happens in private. Nothing good can come from a public spectacle of any sort, and it can make you a target for derision when you eventually come up against your opposite, even if that opposite is a presumed and not an actual one. Maybe it’s a lesson someone should have told the Chosen One because, now, these finals are a referendum, not just on the decision, but on The Decision, too.