Sports Nut

“A Shameful Display of Selfishness and Betrayal”

Can LeBron James forget Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s letter? Should he?

LeBron James.
I’m going to take my talents … somewhere.

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Update, July 11, 2014: It’s official: LeBron James is returning to Cleveland.

If Adrian Wojnarowski’s sources are to be believed, and they usually are, LeBron James is now considering just two possible destinations: Cleveland and Miami. Various reports, all sourced anonymously, indicate that James’ “entire inner circle” wants him to go to Cleveland and that there’s a 90 percent chance it will happen. Though it’s fair to sniff at those rumors, as well as the claim by a cupcake shop that LeBron to Cleveland is a “done deal,” the Cavaliers believe they’re in the running for the King’s services. The Cavs made a trade on Wednesday that’s a transparent maneuver to clear salary cap room for James’ return, and they may also be pursuing LeBron’s pals Ray Allen and Mike Miller. And this week, the team also finally removed Dan Gilbert’s unhinged 2010 post-breakup letter from its official website, the one in which he referred to LeBron’s choice to take his talents to South Beach as a “cowardly betrayal.”

In that Comic Sans–ified missive, you’ll recall, the Cleveland owner described James as callous, narcissistic, and heartless. Gilbert declared that James’ “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal … has shifted our ‘motivation’ to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels.” (It’s unclear why Gilbert put “motivation” in quotes, but then again that’s only about the 43rd strangest thing in this nutso letter.) The Quicken Loans chairman also noted, “The self-declared former ‘King’ will be taking the ‘curse’ with him down south. And until he does ‘right’ by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma. Just watch.”

Four years hence, it’s clear that Gilbert is as bad at foretelling curses as he is at controlling his temper. For his part, James has apologized several times for departing Cleveland via television special—in 2012, he told Sports Illustrated that in the wake of the Decision, he “had to become a better person”—and has said that he’s no longer mad at Gilbert. While the Cavs owner did write a banal tweet in 2013 saying that LeBron had a bright future, he has seemed less willing to examine his own role in the contretemps. “I would’ve reworded the language in the letter, but I don’t regret sending a letter out to our fan base,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal this February. “People forget the letter was not to LeBron, it was to our fan base.”

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that James desperately wants to go back to Cleveland. He grew up in Ohio, his wife grew up in Ohio, and he feels he has unfinished business in the Buckeye State. That brings us to the Decision within the Decision: Could LeBron bring himself to work for an owner who called him a selfish turncoat and essentially demanded that he do “right” by Cleveland? An owner whose open letter made James “furious,” and whose petulance led LeBron to declare, “I absolutely know I made the right decision [to leave Cleveland].”

In matters such as these, I often turn to my colleague Emily Yoffe, aka Slate’s Dear Prudence columnist. I asked Prudie how she would advise someone who, in general terms, had a great opportunity to go back home and work for his former company. The only potential pitfall was that this man’s former boss was an enormous jerk who had demeaned him publicly and privately.

“The asshole at work is bad enough,” Prudence told me. “The asshole who’s your boss—that’s really tough.”

Prudie wondered if it might be possible for this employee to move to a satellite office after three months (the D-League’s Canton Charge?), or if maybe the boss was a short-timer. I said there was no chance of either of these things happening. These two would be stuck together for a good long time.

In that case, she said, it would be imperative to bring in a third-party mediator to determine the areas of hurt. (“I didn’t like it when you produced a one-hour special to tell the world you were jilting me.” “I didn’t like it when you claimed I quit in the playoffs. Oh, and it bothered me when you said, ‘It’s time for people to hold these athletes accountable for their actions. Is this the way you raise your children?’ ”) There could also be weekly private check-ins to make sure that the relationship is on track. (“You didn’t say that I betrayed a major American city this week. Thank you.”)

The best analogy here is to a marriage that ends in an acrimonious divorce. At the very end, things are said or written in anger, things that you don’t really mean, and in fonts that no one should ever use. But there are also underlying reasons for the breakup, patterns of behavior that must be changed for these two people to be civil with each other or—in certain extraordinary circumstances—take the plunge and get back together.

Though James is the one who supposedly “betrayed” Cleveland, in this instance he’ll be the one with trust issues. For the Cavaliers, re-signing LeBron would be an amazing coup. The team would be an instant championship contender, and Gilbert’s coffers would spill over with added revenue. Cha-King!

By contrast, if LeBron goes back to the Cavaliers, he would have to sign a long-term contract that would lock him in to a committed relationship with the team and the owner. Given the bitterness of the previous split, it seems likely that this would be a till-retirement-do-us-part situation—LeBron won’t have to go through this craziness again. James, then, would have to trust that a franchise that has a proven track record of failure and poor decision-making would reverse its course. The only reason the Cavaliers were any good during the LeBron James era is that they were so bad that they lucked in to drafting LeBron James. The only reason the Cavs have a semiappealing young roster now is that they’ve been so bad in the post-LeBron era that they’ve “earned” three of the last four No. 1 overall draft picks. (And it’s looking like they screwed up at least one of those selections.)

Just as important, James would have to go in to business with someone who’d behaved as if his move to Miami in free agency had been a betrayal on the order of surrendering West Point to the British. And this someone still seems to believe that fanning the flames of LeBron hatred was the right thing to do.

During our conversation, Prudie noted that as a general rule, it’s good to “get out of horribly dysfunctional relationships, and don’t go back.” Then again, if LeBron really does want to return to Cleveland, then he’d be shortchanging his own happiness if he decides to stay away just to spite Dan Gilbert.

There are no easy answers here, which reveals the absurdity of all of the talk that LeBron is in an unusually powerful position, able to dictate where he wants to go and under what circumstances. The likely reality is that he’s grappling with a pair of imperfect choices, both of which would require him to cede control to a higher, richer power. Does he believe that Heat President Pat Riley and owner Micky Arison can retool an aging roster? Does he think that Miami is where he wants to spend the dwindling prime years of his career? Does he trust that Dan Gilbert will control his worst impulses, and that Cleveland general manager David Griffin can solidify the team’s young core? Does he believe that the value of returning home and winning a championship in Cleveland exceeds anything else he could possibly achieve in the NBA?

The whole point of free agency is that you’re free to go wherever you like, for whatever reasons you feel are most important. Going to a new team isn’t a betrayal, and it isn’t an act of cowardice. It’s simply a decision, whether televised or not, that you make after thinking through the pros and cons. If it were me, “Owner wrote an insane note in a weird font that deemed me a blight on humanity” would get a prominent place in the con column. But it’s not my list, and my opinion doesn’t matter. If LeBron wants to get hitched to Dan Gilbert once again, I’ll wish him well. I just hope they get some counseling, because nobody deserves to see this again.