There is already a big loser in tonight's Lebron James-ESPN-free agent-jamboree. It's Lebron James. No matter his choice at the end of tonight’s primetime special, he will have a diminished brand, a wounded stature, and a set of expectations there is little indication he can manage. It's one thing when an endlessly ravenous 24-hour sports media leviathan obsesses over the next move for the most valued free agent in sports history. It's quite another when the athlete himself chooses to bathe in the hype to such an embarrassing degree. Within the lat 24 hours, James has started a Twitter account with the handle "King James", launched a website, and made the decision to further enmesh reality television with the world of sports. It's bombastic nonsense for a player who calls himself King even in the absence of a championship crown.
Right now Lebron is acting less cool than Al Gore on Soul Train. He should be treating this remarkable free agent process like the Fonz. Instead the King is being pure Potsie. What would Fonzie do? Let's remember 1995 when Michael Jordan returned to the Chicago Bulls after a season and a half playing minor league baseball. Jordan sent a fax to the media that said simply, “I'm back." We had another Fonzie moment just yesterday when 21 year old NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant quietly re-upped for five more years with his thrilling, small market squad of infinite promise, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Durant is trying to achieve the ultimate goal, a goal achieved by only Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs before him: take a team with next to no tradition of triumph, and will them into becoming a dynasty. This should be Lebron's goal in Cleveland. Be the man who brings home the town's first championship since 1964 and change the very identity of a city. That’s what legends do. It would have catapulted him beyond Bird, Magic, and Kobe, who were part of dynasties in Boston and LA, cities that demand nothing less.
Instead the strong rumor of the day is pure Potsie: Lebron, as is being reported by his reality tv producers at ESPN, is leaning toward joining superstar Dwyane Wade and prime free-agent signee Chris Bosh in Miami. Immediately, Lebron would be joining Wade’s team. Wade brought Miami a championship in 2003. Wade would have the ball in his hands for many of the offensive sets. Wade would on some nights be the best player on the court. This is Lebron hiding in Miami. It’s the act of someone who doesn’t think he can create his own legacy, but has to ride on someone else’s. Wade would be Jeter, and Lebron would be A-Rod. It’s the worst possible choice because it immediately puts a cap on James’s career and mind-bending potential. He could certainly still change his mind and become the Man who Saved Cleveland, or the King of New York. But all indications are that he will be hiding in the Heat.
There are those who say that no matter where Lebron chooses to play, he is in fact the great winner in all of this because he completely took control of the process. As Henry Abbott of ESPN’s True Hoop tweeted this morning, “How you feel about LeBron James today is a test of how you feel about fully-empowered athletes.” This is completely wrong. There is nothing “empowering” about the full embrace of the media circus. There is nothing “empowering” in trying to claim and max out every last cent of the spectacle that defines celebrity culture. That’s what Paris Hilton does. That’s what Flava Flav does. It’s shouldn’t be the default move of Lebron James. These are the actions of a court jester not a King.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]