By Jim McCarthy Jul 9, 2010 9 comments

Lebron Passes Up the Opportunity for Greatness

I’m not judging Lebron James.  Really, I’m not.  I’m just disappointed.  (For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, well, you really should read something other than the Arts and Leisure section sometimes and/or come out of the unabomber cabin you live in every few weeks just to see what the rest of us are up to.  Read this to catch up.)

And I’m not disappointed because he was “disloyal” to Cleveland, his hometown and professional base of operation for his whole career.  After all, a person’s got to do what they’ve got to do professionally, and he doesn’t owe anybody anything.

And it’s not as though he did it for money.  Cleveland was actually offering him a little more than Miami, I’m made to understand.

To some degree, I’m disappointed by the ridiculously vain way he announced his leaving Cleveland, by demanding an hour of prime time TV on ESPN.  When I heard that, I assumed it meant he was staying in Cleveland, because really, how much of a tin ear do you have to have to dump your hometown in a one-hour TV special?  As a way of reinforcing his commitment to Cleveland, it made sense.  To announce he was leaving for a more glamorous locale, it just reeks of vanity.

But hey.  I can live with that.  He can be as vain as he wants.  We all have choices about how we want to be and be seen and being vain is typically its own punishment.

but I’m disappointed, and if you give me a few minutes, I’ll explain why.  Last summer, I was tremendously moved by the story of the Detroit Tigers baseball team and its owner Mike Ilich.  Here’s a little snippet from the piece that’s at the heart of what I found so powerful about it:

“They [the Tigers] were also 48–26 at Comerica Park [their home stadium], a record they attribute to the overwhelming responsibility they feel playing in front of their home fans, many of whom are presumably using what little discretionary income they have to watch the team play. In his first spring training meeting manager Jim Leyland told his players, “People are going to be spending some of their last dollars to come to these games, and we need to give them our best effort. This is not the year not to run out a ground ball.”

I still get chills when I read Leyland’s comments.  How many of us think that way about what we’re doing.  “We need to give them our best effort.”  Don’t you want to live that way?  Don’t you want to feel that what you’re doing is bigger than just what you’re doing?  How many ground balls have you and I metaphorically failed to run out on a day to day basis?

Cleveland is a city that’s in a very bad way.  It may not be in total distress that way that Detroit is, but it’s bad.  The future could hold better things, or it could hold a Detroit-like collapse.  TBD, right?

I’m mindful of Magic Johnson, just a year beyond announcing he had AIDS, standing at the scene of the LA riots in 1992 and telling us that this is where he was taking his stand.  That he was going to build on the ashes and make LA a better place.

And we were all thinking, secretly, dreadfully, that not only would he not be able to do that, but that he’d be dead inside a few years from a disease you just didn’t survive.

And while the corner of Florence and Normandie still might not be Beverly Hills , there’s no question that Magic’s influence on the city (and beyond) have been tremendous.  Here’s a snippet from a NYT article from way back in 2000 that gives an idea of what Magic was (and still is) up to:


“Johnson employs roughly 3,000 people who live in inner-city neighborhoods across the country. Over the next two hours, as Johnson sips herbal tea and tirelessly plays host, he talks about the satisfaction of employing people. In his recent venture in Harlem, Johnson’s multiplex, which opened in July, and the Harlem USA mall it is part of, have sparked a renaissance of 125th Street. Last summer, after the Harlem theater hired 100 people from the 5,000 who had waited in line to apply, Johnson decided that he wanted his new staff to go through four weeks of rigorous training. On opening day, dozens of young men and women stood before him in pressed uniforms. “Just looking at those faces, the hope and pride,” he says, remembering the scene, “that may have been the best moment of my life, right there.”

Not winning the five NBA championships or an Olympic Gold Medal.  Not surviving AIDS.  The best moment of his life is seeing the “hope and pride” of the young people in Harlem that were going to work for him.

What Magic did, and what Lebron could have done, was transcend basketball.  He was a great player, and yes, others, like Michael Jordan, have used their on-court greatness to make bucket-loads of money, but Magic Johnson’s not just making money.

He’s making prosperity.

Lebron James says he wants to “win championships” so he’s going to a team in a city with a healthier economy, more marketing power, and a couple of high-priced stars to help him win those “rings.”

Here’s a newflash for Lebron James:  in your wildest dreams, you’ll have the same number of “rings” Magic Johnson has.  Probably not, even on your new, stacked team, but maybe.

But Magic Johnson has so much more than that.  His wildest dreams, apparently, are much bigger than Lebron James’s because they include greatness that only starts on the basketball court.

Some of us thought you might have that in you too.  I’m not a Cleveland Cavaliers fan and have absolutely no personal connection to Cleveland.  I’m not even a particularly big basketball fan, but I’m a huge Magic Johnson fan.  (Hell, even Larry Bird is a huge Magic Johnson fan.)

Not everybody has the opportunity for true greatness.  Few people have the platform to contribute to the world quite as big or quite as publicly as Lebron James or Magic Johnson.

Lebron James doesn’t owe the world anything.  He’s just a basketball player.

And that’s too bad.

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    9 Comments

    • mom2jazz

      BRAVO!!!

    • SinoSoul

      LBJ’s 25. MJ didn’t open his theater/starbucks til his mid 30s, years after he retired. Cut the guy some slack.

    • Tony Adams

      To play devil’s advocate. Lebron is 25. Leyland is in his 70’s, Magic was 41 in 2000.

      Is it unfair to expect a 25 year old to see the world the way someone in their 40’s or 70’s does? Oother than the rings, there’s a lot in common with Magic’s early years in the league. (and Lebron didn’t have Kareem on the court with him.) There’s a profound difference between Mike Illich and Dan Gilbert as well.

    • Jim McCarthy

      I agree with both of you that he could do any number of unbounded great things, no question. And I don’t blame him for doing what he did because, hey, it’s his life.

      I’m just saying I thought perhaps he saw the chance that he had to do something truly special, and apparently, I was wrong.

    • Jim McCarthy

      And Tony, you’re right. Dan Gilbert pretty well proved he’s no Mike Ilich, didn’t he?

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