The Decision II: LeBron James and the New Owners

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“Who owns this body, this body of work?” asks David Shields in his great book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine.

Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony

As I write, we’re amidst the NBA Free Agency Period, 2014: Carmelo Anthony is touring Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles (where he, too, has a home), while still holding on to the Knicks – at least on paper; the Houston Rockets have “ramped up their pursuit of Chris Bosh”; and King James is on vacation while his agent contemplates offers.

“Who owns this body, this body of work?” Indeed.

In “The Bottom Line Should Decide,” Forty-Million Dollar Slaves author and New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden asks, “Who makes the game?”

Answer: “Networks televise the game. Advertisers buy the games. Fans support the games. Players are the game (italics mine).” Rhoden, consistent with his seminal work, Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, continues:

Anthony should keep that in mind and not accept a nickel less than he feels he is worth. Athletes are conditioned early on to feel grateful to be on the team. The reality is that their schools, and, later, their franchises, depend on the athletes to have a program. Athletes are the show.

 

If the Knicks ask Anthony to take a pay cut, or when Pat Riley appeals to James’s sense of loyalty, the Clippers’ pending sale should be a glowing reminder to say no.

 

In an often coldblooded industry focused on the bottom line, players still invariably lead with their hearts, often to their detriment. The new rules of engagement should be, simply, money first.

Who owns the body – and the game? Players.

LeBron James

LeBron James

This a decisive moment in the business of sports, particularly the NBA. For us, the fans, the spectators of the modern age, we began to see this change with “The Decision,” LeBron’s move to Miami, which, says Rhoden, “showed how valuable he was not just to his team but to an entire region, with Cleveland’s economy seeming to take a hit.”

We’ve seen this kind of thing when Tiger Woods plays golf – or doesn’t and TV ratings take a hit; we see this in tennis, too, when the Williams sisters cherry pick which tournaments to play, unlike any other player on the tour, including the top names.

We saw this in the great Muhammad Ali who, says Rhoden in Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, “brought home the concept of principle, that there was something greater in life than wealth, though wealth has its place; something greater in life than fame, though fame has its place. And he taught [me] that in the right hands wealth and fame, the fruits of athletic success, could be used as a tool in the ongoing struggle.”

This is where we are – an ongoing, historical process. We’re fixated on tweets and on headlines, going back and forth between salary caps, salary commitments, how much is this guy or that guy leaving behind, but failing to see that we’re moving into uncharted territory where ownership of the game, by star players, is dominating.

The Decision II – yet to be made as of this writing – will put a hole through the old plantation model. What commentary is missing, but, I think, management realizes, is that, “the history of African American survival in the United States is the history of teamwork and a history of individual expression within the context of the larger group,” as Rhoden tells us.

We’re witnessing an unprecedented amount of teamwork – at the business level; in turn, the business of basketball is showing how powerful these great players really are. I agree, these players own the game. They’re moving into ownership without knocking on doors – something Michael Jordan tried with the Wizards in 2000 and was rejected, even fired; they’re simply walking through, commanding leadership roles that will determine the future of the game.

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Mental Discipline and the Darkness Within: Mavericks and the Heat

Going into the fourth-quarter of the 6th game of the NBA playoffs, Sunday night, June 12th, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, looking a bit dazed, a microphone in his face, came to a conclusion — perhaps an epiphany that escaped him earlier in the series.  He said, “We have to be mentally disciplined.”

Mental discipline, two such simple and easy words. Mental discipline.  Games 5 and 6 of the NBA playoffs demonstrated that the Miami Heat have a long way to go before gaining mental discipline. Understanding mental discipline is the Heat’s journey into a darkness of their own making. But on Sunday night, they got a lesson in this necessity in sports and life from Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and, let’s not forget, Jason Terry.

Swagger is easy, mental discipline is difficult.  It comes by releasing yourself to your heart and soul; it comes from giving yourself to instincts, trusting them — and trusting that the diverse others around you are feeling the same thing, experiencing things as you are inside the enabling constraint, discipline.

In a fourth-quarter timeout, Terry said to Nowitzki, “Keep pushing. Remember ’06.”  These are the tools of discipline; they involve knowledge of the self, leadership and an understanding of history. The Heat have no history; theirs is disparate, broken apart. They have histories.  James, Wade and Bosh are individuals, not a cohesive whole. They looked lost when their eyes met, wondering who would drive to the hoop, who would take the next shot; who would lift them past the malaise.  Their eyes told a story of confusion — and a lack of discipline.  Sometimes, they confused defensive alignments. They were confused by the Maverick disciplined execution on defense and offense.  In fact, the Mavericks gave the Heat a lesson on how defense is played in the NBA playoffs, particularly in the fourth-quarter in games 5 and 6.  The Mavericks understood discipline and cohesion, where the Heat lived in chaos, as if children needing guidance.   The Heat personified unknowing.  The experienced adult won the NBA championship.  Age beat brawn.

When LeBron James left Cleveland, a darkness followed.  He was embraced by the Gordon Gekko-like president of the Heat, Pat Riley.  The Heat organization — and James — believed that by buying talent, an empire that could win championships would be forged and make history ad infinitum.  This is an age-old story, a false history, a misunderstanding of history. What happened to the Greeks?  The Roman Empire — anyone hear of the Fall of the Roman Empire? Anyone hear of the Empire of Illusion when referring to the American decline?  Somehow James and Riley thought that they could exist outside history.  We mortals, unfortunately, cannot.  We mortals tend to repeat the mistakes of history, rather then learn from them.

As I sat watching the Mavericks tutor the Heat, I thought about us, Americans; I thought about the state of us.  I wondered,  with an ironically named Corona (crown in Spanish) in hand,  why hubris seems always to be the stalwart guide when what we need is a calm, slower and reasoned approach. We need discipline. It comes from understanding diversity, opening up to it. James ran into this notion when the diminutive J.J. Barea battled him for a rebound early in the game.  Barea effectively boxed out James — a classic move young kids are taught as soon as the can shoot a basketball.  The giant James forgot this, thinking that he could overwhelm tiny J.J. . What James didn’t know is that David and Goliath is always ongoing in history; it never ceases — rebels vs Gaddafi, the Egyptian Revolution, Rosa Parks.

Barea (David) Boxes Out James (Goliath)

Can two events happen simultaneously in time?  Yes, of course, and they can.  Death, for instance, is always ongoing and we, the living, experience those that have left us in different forms, different ways of being.  This is undeniable. Historical events, personalities — is Gordon Gekko Iago? — even thoughts, all of which create causes, leave a residue that revisits us in time. Our recession is being compared to the Great Depression. In many areas — education, the environment, and definitely in foreign policy, President Obama is following the policies of George W. Bush.  Tragically, Obama is following Bush on matters of race, too. We are fallible, and it’s because we are that self-interest — “Greed is Good” — wins out over historical truths and we become blind and repeat the mistakes of the past. This is destiny. This is also how and why empires are always destined to fall. The fall is already present in the creation. Understanding entropy might help here. Ice always melts. Systems fall apart. Humans fall apart, age.  What lives must die.

LeBron James’ Gekko-like, Iago-like, dark decision of the soul to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers because management there couldn’t build an empire around him, is pregnant with decay.   Decay is ongoing.   While James must have felt that the Cavaliers were at their end, the end — the seed of decay and endings — now germinates in the Heat enterprise.  It comes, first, in the form of fear and anxiety — the notion of ending a career without a title, which Bill Rhoden expresses so well in his post game article, “Two Veterans Finally Access an Elite Club.”  Rhoden says that not reaching that NBA title ring is a “haunting gap” on the athlete’s psyche, his résumé.  James’ move to Miami is the fear of this “haunting gap.”  A fear such as this one can be debilitating, which is what we saw in James’ — and the Heat’s–performance once they reached game 5. They broke down.  Even on television you could see the fear in James’ eyes. He was paralyzed, as was the rest of the team.

The fear in James’ eyes, we’ve seen before.  We saw it in Tiger Woods’ comeback, for instance. We see it now in Obama’s second bid for the prime seat of power as he tries to “Win Back Wall St. Cash,” only, sadly, Wall St has never left the White House or politics, suggesting that it’s irrelevant who sits in the White House (Obama or Mitt Romney) since it’s Wall Street and the corporate class that run government, politicians their foils — a marked return to the Roman Empire of there ever was one.

The fear in James’ eyes is our very own, too.  It is the exhausting, paralyzing fear we feel as we look around at the world.  No matter how one may feel about the “evil empire,” Miami, and LeBron James, secretly, we wanted them to win. We wanted to see James victorious because in doing so, it would have meant that history doesn’t repeat itself; that history is not fraught with failures we repress and repeat; that even with our fallibility, we can somehow move forward and secure our luxurious futures by expending large amounts of capital to buy it.  But, of course, this didn’t happen. The only hope left is that we might reflect on the meaning of this event in our lives, the meaning of the narrative of James and the Heat and the stalwart Mavericks (not surprisingly, the team is lead by an old German!).

What might we learn from this lesson?  What we witnessed is who we are.  And sometimes, like Ishmael on the Pequod, we get on the wrong ship and, well…

What Happened?