Growing up as a Connecticut native caught in the middle of the Boston-New York rivalry, one has to pick a side. Thanks to my Mom’s Boston roots, I learned early on that rooting for the Red Sox and Celtics is not for the faint of heart. Being ridiculed by championship-winning Yankee fans and watching the deterioration of the Celtics after Larry’s heyday was brutal, yet this dark night of the soul is the way true fans prove their mettle. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the hometown team and true fans, each one encouraging and shaping the other. This is why true fans want to believe the players they’re watching share their loyalty to the team and the place called home. Admittedly, the vast majority of players just don’t have that luxury. Role players are lucky to have a job at all and as a fan I can’t fault them for doing what they need to do to stay employed. But a star player has options and in their choices fans can see into a player’s heart.
For this reason, I’m cringing at what LeBron James is doing right now. Honestly, I like LeBron. He seems like a really good guy, gifted at his craft and devoted to his family. I want LeBron to succeed and achieve the legacy of greatness his skillset deserves. With that said, the way LeBron is making decisions regarding which team will benefit from his services demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how a legacy is built.
The idea that a legacy of greatness is secured by collecting championship rings is an unfortunate oversimplification. If this were true then Robert Horry, with his 7 rings displaying three different team logos, would be the greatest player in our modern era. But he’s not even in the conversation. The player that is, whose legacy LeBron is chasing, is Michael Jordan. Prior to the arrival of Jordan, the Chicago Bulls had never won their conference, let alone a championship, and in the previous three seasons they had a combined winning percentage of .362. When Jordan arrived, nothing became magically easy – as in each of the next three seasons the Bulls failed to put up a winning record while combining for a winning percentage of .439. In the face of this adversity, Jordan could have given up hope and thrown in the towel. The fact that he didn’t, that he remained loyal and true to his team and the City of Chicago – made the run of six championships in the 1990s all the sweeter – and made him the legend he is today.
So as LeBron is interviewing teams trying to figure out the easiest path to a championship, he’s simultaneously undermining his legacy by trying to skip all the hard work, struggle, and loyalty required for greatness. While the views may be the same, everyone knows there’s a big difference between taking a helicopter to the top of the mountain and climbing it yourself. First, by always leaving when things get difficult, LeBron is not going to be able to shake his reputation for being soft. Then by consistently joining teams with the highest of expectations, LeBron will not get the same satisfaction that comes from winning and a disproportionate amount of criticism for losing, than someone who stays the course and struggles through. Finally, if LeBron shows no loyalty to any hometown, to any base of true fans, he cannot reasonably expect true fans to show loyalty to him when it’s all said and done.
In the end LeBron is going to go where he’s going to go, but as a true fan, and for the sake of LeBron’s legacy, I’m rooting for him to return to Cleveland. It would be the perfect prodigal son story: the hometown hero, sacrificing the allures of beaches and good weather, returns home and delivers the city of Cleveland its first professional title in 50 years and the first ever for the Cavaliers. That’s the story of a hero and the stuff of legends.