The Chicago Tribune had a drawing of LeBron James dressed up as Santa Claus with the headline “Christmas in July” on the front page of today’s sports section, but since we’ll have 8 full days of speculation before any NBA free agent can officially sign with a team, it’s a little more appropriate to call this once in a lifetime holiday “LeBronukkah: Where Joe Johnson Gets $120 Million Because Teams Get Trigger-Happy Happens”.
As far as sports blog topics go, speculation about where LeBron and other of the top NBA free agents end up is right up there with Big Ten expansion. My personal connection to all of this is that Henry Thomas, my old sports law professor, is representing both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the NBA free agent sweepstakes. Thus, he’ll be receiving what will likely be the largest sports agent haul in history over the next few days. Thomas is a classy guy that built up a Chicago-based agency over many years and put himself in a position to join the Hollywood sports and entertainment super-agency CAA last year while steering clear of all of the Jerry Maguire stereotypes, so kudos to him. I hope that he remembers that he gave me an A on my paper analyzing the line of cases pitting the Bulls and WGN against the NBA regarding national TV rights and cable superstations and maybe send me a little of that 4% commission that he’s going to bank.
As many of you know (and probably to the chagrin of many of the Ohio State readers out there that double as Cavs supporters), I’m a massive Bulls fan that will be partying for the next 10 years if LeBron ends up in Chicago. Personally, I believe that he’s going to choose the best long-term basketball situation when push comes to shove, which points to the Bulls (who happen to also offer a massive media market), although no one (including myself) can discount the power of him wanting to stay close to home. On that front, I’m just another Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer with an opinion.
However, I can’t accept the main argument that I continuously hear being brought up as the main reason why LeBron wouldn’t go to the Bulls: Michael Jordan’s “shadow”. Supposedly, LeBron wouldn’t want to deal with the legacy of MJ and wants to make his own mark somewhere else. Well, ESPN’s Chad Ford presented one of the more intriguing (or at least different) stories from this free agent period on a Bill Simmons podcast (near the 39 minute mark) which Deadspin also picked up on:
Michael Jordan, after games in Chicago, would go down to Gibsons Steakhouse on Rush Street, and he had a particular table that he would sit [at] in the back, and he would smoke cigars, and he would eat, and he had his own waiter and everything else. … When LeBron had heard that story — when he’s in Chicago, he goes to Gibsons, sits at the same table, has the same waiter. … When I was [at] the draft camp in Chicago, I went to Gibsons, and I heard this story from I think a pretty good source. So I started asking around: “Who was Michael Jordan’s waiter?” And I found him, and I came to ask him, “Whaddya think?” Because this guy was apparently a confidant to Jordan. Jordan knew him well. … I said: “Whaddya think about LeBron. Is he coming to Chicago?” He said, “He’s coming to Chicago. He already told me to reserve his table.” So a waiter is going to scoop the story.
Now, Ford told this story in a light-hearted manner and doesn’t actually believe that this is concrete evidence of where LeBron is ultimately going to end up. However, it does provide a lot of insight into the mentality of the King. First, he has some great taste: Gibsons is a fantastic steakhouse and if you ever go there, be sure to get the twice baked potato as a side. Trust me on that one. Second, and more importantly, this shows that LeBron worrying about MJ’s supposed shadow is not only ridiculous, but James actually WANTS that shadow to the point where he copies the postgame routine of his childhood idol in a way that makes Kobe Bryant look like a wannabe Jordan stalker.
Think of it this way: I was fortunate enough to have spent virtually my entire childhood growing up in the Chicago area during the Michael Jordan era. MJ’s rookie season was when I was in first grade and his shot over Byron Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals was right after my sophomore year of college. Basketball was the sport that I loved to play the most by far and I dreamed of BEING Michael Jordan. Never mind that I eventually topped out as a 5′ 11″ half-Polish/half-Chinese guy whose best skill was a streaky long-range jumpshot. I, along with millions of other kids in Chicago and across the world, wanted to be all things MJ: the basketball domination, championships, Nike shoe line, commercials, house, cars, clothes and movies with Bugs Bunny and Newman. In fact, this dream of an entire lifestyle was encapsulated in the classic Gatorade commercial with the song, “Be Like Mike”.
LeBron James was just like me and all of those millions of kids that grew up in the ’80s and ’90s. His favorite team growing up was the Bulls as opposed to the Craig Ehlo/Mark Price Cavs. He wore #23 and decided to switch to #6 this upcoming year as an honor to MJ (saying that no one else should wear that number). He took less money to sign with Nike compared to what Reebok offered. If there’s one thing that we know about LeBron, it’s that he has always idolized Michael Jordan.
However, unlike me and all of those millions of other kids, LeBron is the one person of that entire generation that can actually achieve his childhood dream to BE LIKE MIKE. He is the only one in the world that saw that Gatorade commercial as a youngster that is now in a position to live it out in real life. The Gibsons story is an additional tidbit showing that LeBron still wants to emulate MJ in every way possible. As a result, I don’t believe that the fact that Michael Jordan played for the Bulls is a bad thing in terms of luring LeBron at all. In fact, it will likely be one of the best selling points for GarPaxDorfTibs on their Saturday recruiting visit with LeBron and his “team”.
Continuing on a tradition of excellence is something that top athletes embrace. It’s why Shaq decided to sign with the Lakers in 1996, where he didn’t seem to worry about the multiple “shadows” of George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and those are just the centers that played for that franchise, much less guys like Magic Johnson and Jerry West). It’s also why top high school players would rather sit on the bench at North Carolina for a couple of years instead of starting right away at East Carolina.
LeBron is no different. He has an understanding of history and knows that less than a handful of marquee franchises can add to his “brand” just because of who they are: the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Knicks. Other teams might not detract from it (well, except for the Clippers), but they’re not going to provide any multiplier effect, either. At the same time, LeBron is going to be compared to MJ no matter where he goes, so the only possible way to meet or exceed those monumental expectations is to go to the best basketball situation possible. (Look at this synopsis of stories about Kobe after the Lakers won the championship this year and note who he’s compared to in every single one despite playing far from Chicago.) The fact that such situation may be with Jordan’s old team which is still well-known internationally because of the ’90s dynasty is actually a bonus.
There are plenty of reasons why LeBron won’t end up with the Bulls, including but not limited to the fact that the Cavs are closest to home in Akron. However, let’s immediately scorch the suggestion that he would actually want to avoid the shadow of the player that he has emulated his entire life around (from basketball to business) up to this point. LeBron’s singular dream has been to “Be Like Mike”, so he’d be the first person to embrace the shadow of Michael Jordan and merge it into his own.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
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