LeBron's breakup with Cleveland is personal

July 9, 2010 6:55:22 PM PDT
The elimination ceremony boiled down to a single sentence, uttered by the most coveted bachelor of them all.

And it ended, as such endings always do, with tears - and the self-righteous fury that inevitably follows being rejected live on national television. Millions of Americans glued to their television screens watched in anticipation and curiosity as LeBron James handed that coveted final rose to the Miami Heat, eliminating his remaining suitors in one cruel instant.

In Cleveland, grown men cried into their beers. And for crestfallen viewers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the moment of truth stung like a personal betrayal.

But isn't this what America asked for? We wanted the show, the spectacle, the slow build-up to the big reveal. We love watching contestants get mercilessly booted into oblivion in front of the cameras - but we certainly don't want to be the rejects ourselves, thank you very much.

And that's exactly what happened Thursday night. The morning after, people are wondering: How did a decision by one basketball player jump clean out of the realm of basketball and become an American cultural moment that will be talked about for years to come?

That's called masterful marketing. James played coy for weeks, dragging out his decision as the frenzied speculation went into overdrive. Rather than leave his home turf, he invited teams from various cities to come visit him instead. Meanwhile, hope and anxiety built like a balloon about to pop.

Preliminary Nielsen Co. ratings showed more than seven of every 100 homes with TV sets were tuned in to the ESPN special. In Cleveland, the attention was extraordinary: one in every four homes watched James announce he was leaving his hometown. Nielsen's estimate of how many people watched nationwide, expected on Friday, was delayed until Monday.

"It built suspense. It kept sequencing or ratcheting up what would the choice be," said Gerry Patnode, who leads the school of business at York College in York, Pa. "Everybody started to speculate what it would be like if LeBron came to my city."

It was also, at another level, a bit of well-played psychological warfare. James tapped into fans' insecurity, their need for constant vindication, says Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.

"Everybody wanted to be able to say, 'he chose us,"' Hilfer says. "That means we're the good guys, we're a good city. We're a good team."

But for all the hype and the oft-repeated comparisons to Michael Jordan, James hasn't won a single championship in his young career, a fact that was duly noted on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Friday morning in the form of a full-length image of James seen from behind as he walks away. An arrow pointing to the fingers on James' right hand is accompanied by this caption: "7 years in Cleveland. No rings."

As the city's anger swelled on Thursday night, with people burning jerseys in the streets, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned a furious open letter to fans, sounding very much like a jilted boyfriend penning a bitter missive about an old flame.

"This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown 'chosen one' sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn," wrote Gilbert, who also called James a "coward" and a "narcissist."

Like many a prodigal son, James must now deal with the disillusionment of people like Gilbert, who is acting like a disappointed father, Hilfer says.

"The loyalty factor is something that everyone can be forgiven for," says Hilfer. "The fact that he wasn't loyal was unforgivable."

The sports memorabilia business Fathead Inc., a company owned by Gilbert, offered LeBron James wall graphics online Friday at price reduced from $99.99 to $17.41. (Famous traitor Benedict Arnold was born in 1741. Coincidence?)

Most experts say James should have seen the vitriol coming from miles away.

"Surely he's seen enough of those old TV sitcom episodes where somebody tells three people they're going to go to the prom," says Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University. "It never ever works well."

It was like the finale of the cult ABC drama "Lost," which finally ended in May to much fanfare, Thompson says. Like "Lost," James set himself up with too many complications, too many plot twists, to allow for a satisfying ending, Thompson says.

Had James picked Cleveland, fans probably would have been more sympathetic. That's a narrative we would pay to watch. The hometown hero forgoes the temptation of sunny, wealthy Florida to stay in chilly, recession-hit Ohio - all for the love of his doting fan base. That's the rosy Hollywood story that even fans in Chicago or New York would have been hard-pressed to criticize.

Loyalty is a strange word in the world of professional sports, where money trumps all on both sides, Patnode says. Sports franchises and athletes have proved many times over that they'll inevitably choose business over loyalty, although James rejected both loyalty and more money from Cleveland in hopes of winning a championship.

"Friendship and talent and such is wonderful, but James himself said it last night: It's a business," says Robert Passikoff, founder of Brand Keys, a New York-based brand loyalty research group.

And in an age where reality television rules the airwaves, Americans should brace themselves for more sporting spectacles in a similar vein, experts say.

"The Decision," as James' special was famously titled, may inspire marketing executives to try to create sporting events out of behind-the-scenes athletic choices to lure an audience and drum up revenue.

"There are only a few athletes out there with the juice to hijack an hour of ESPN," Thompson says. "Tiger could do it. I have a sneaking suspicion we may see a lot more of that kind of thing."

And as for fans, they should know better. Herein lies the age-old problem of idolizing sports heroes, a one-way relationship that has a high probability of ending badly. You're making an emotional investment in someone who's not returning the favor.

"LeBron James is not worried about you," says Lou Manza, professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. "You might go to the games and cheer and everything, but he's not hearing your cheer. He's hearing the crowd."


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