The Emperor's New Clothes: The Farce of King James

Last night, we were all witnesses to a diabolically orchestrated, well-lacquered, chemically-sheened, studio-lit farce.

The basketball free-agent of the world’s desire, Mr. LeBron James, chose his new team during a televised conversation with a shrunken old white man hiding somewhere inside of a tweed sportcoat in front of an audience of human props from the Boys & Girls Club of America. Well, eventually that happened, but first we, the audience, were told to buy trucks and eat Wendy’s and go to college online.

According to the recursive loop of jibber-jabber from Mr. James Himself, this summer was “a process.” He was excited about the process. Yet, the process made him restless. The process left him sleepless. The process was fun. The process was, apparently, everything. The process involved many private flights to plush conference rooms where various acts of wooing and courtship took place vis-à-vis old men in sportcoats, marketeers, and LeBron’s NBA peers.

And on the other side of a commercial for Vitamin Water, in which the disembodied voice of LeBron told us that all we need to recover from a tough workout is a glorified soda drink that contains a heaping 3 tablespoons of sugar, the cameras returned to The Boy King sitting in his Big Boy chair, a perfectly placed bottle of XXX Triple-Antioxidant Blackberry Vitamin Water at his side.

It was DECISION TIME, only it wasn’t. First LeBron entertained the shrunken old man in the sportcoat with a game of 21 Questions. “Is the city you are choosing red?” “Is the city you are choosing in this room?”

And, after an endless stretch of stammering sentence fragments, The King’s prepackaged, FDA-approved, low-calorie, anticlimactic “DECISION” came down to this:

“I’m going to be taking my talents to South Beach.”

My talents. South Beach. Vitamin Water. Process. Soft-lighting. Commercial break. Stammering about happiness. Vitamin Water. Sophomoric punditry. Happiness. “My Mom.” Process. Vitamin Water.

This went on for about an hour, and after an intermission of ESPN Punditry and self-congratulation and an interspersed live-feed from Cleveland of The King’s Cavs jersey being lit aflame, the evening’s downright giggly host Stu Scott threw it back to LeBron and the shrunken man in the sportcoat, who were joined by a bald man with jowls in a spiffier sportcoat. The bald man introduced himself as the CEO of the Apollo Group, owner of The University of Phoenix online and sponsor of the night’s bonanza.

They told us to go to college from the comfort of our own home on the computer. And then LeBron, who skipped college for the National Basketball League, hastily boarded a flight for his new home, “South Beach,” where he had rented four party cabanas in the courtyard of the W Hotel. The paparazzi were already on stand-by, given the heads up by The King’s handlers.

In closing, a pundit said something like, “Isn’t it nice to see an athlete who is willing to take less money to build a winner?” Then more truck commercials.

The internet went justifiably, certifiably nuts this morning. In a world of attention whores, The King has ascended to the throne. LeBron has drawn the ire of every writer and Twitterer on the planet. But a brilliant column from Will Leitch of New York Magazine took a different tact. Leitch turned the mirror on us.

“Loving sports, by definition, requires a certain suspension of disbelief and logic. We are all pouring our hearts and souls into cheering for men (and women) who do not care about us, who are not like us, who are not the type of people we would ever associate with (or even meet) in real life … And we trust that they will at least pretend. We trust that they will recognize the ultimate ludicrousness of this whole enterprise, that these are grown men wearing tank tops, throwing a ball up and around, running on wood, that this all exists because we allow it to exist, that the illusion must be maintained. We trust that they understand how good they have it, how much we give them, against our own self-interest. We trust that they are not laughing at us.”

Are we the butt of the joke?

Last December, I conducted my first sports interview for Pittsburgh magazine at the Steelers’ practice facility on the South Side. The subject of the interview was 5’6” kick return specialist Stefan Logan, who had worked his way up from the Canadian Football League to win a roster spot as a training camp long shot.

I was nervous as hell and sweating through my suit as I walked into the airplane hanger where the Steelers were practicing. I felt transparent. I felt like some handler was going to usher me off the sideline at any moment.

Then something remarkable happened. Stefan Logan walked over and looked like a kid on Christmas when I told him I wanted to hear his story. “C’mon,” he said, and waved for me to join him out in the parking lot where it was quieter.

For 45 minutes, we stood in the steady December rain and Logan, between white puffs of breath, told me about his one unremarkable year of high school football, and how he bagged groceries at Publix to make ends meet, and how he dubbed a VHS highlight tape and sent it off to every college he could think of. Breathless and shivering, he refused to go inside, where we would be interrupted by the noise of the locker room, and he told me about how happy he was to have made it to the NFL five years after of worrying about where the money for his next meal would come from.

Despite having zero job security with the Steelers and making the league minimum, Logan was the happiest man I’ve ever met. He was most happy, he told me, when he called his mother and told her he had made the Steelers roster. When he told that story, his voice quivered, and in the downpour I couldn’t tell if he was choked up or just cold.

“Happiness.” That’s what the millionaire King’s summer search was about. That not only stupefies me, but it makes me incredibly sad. It triggers an existential crisis about sports and why I care, why at times I feel sports in my bones.

But then I think about interviewing a waterlogged Stefan Logan, or how tough-guy Matt Cooke sat in the Penguins’ bare-bones locker room until well after all his teammates were showered and long gone, and he was still dripping sweat telling me about how much his kids love Pittsburgh, or how linebacker LaMarr Woodley drove through the night immediately after a disappointing Steelers loss to hand out Thanksgiving turkeys to the needy.

Then I remember why sports matters. Then I remember the punch line.

LeBron James (and Jeff Reed and Albert Haynesworth) are not laughing at us. We are laughing at them. Because $100 million does not buy happiness. And The King seems to be searching for it in all the wrong places.

If we hold the mirror up and be honest with ourselves, we can admit that Cleveland is a lot like Pittsburgh. Instead of reveling in the misery of our downtrodden rivals, we should empathize. And we should take a step back from all of our success – the Super Bowls and Stanley Cups – and all of our frustrations about contract stalls and bathroom stalls – and we should just be thankful that Cleveland is the butt of this joke, this farce brought to you by Microsoft Bing, and not us.

Thankfully our humble city’s franchise was saved by The Kid and not The King.

The sad part is that Public Execution of the City of Cleveland drew a 7.3 rating for ESPN – a bigger audience than 95% of actual telecasts of NBA games.

Are we all ‘witnesses," or enablers?

Boy, all this ranting has me parched. I tell you, I sure could go for a Vitamin Water right about now.

The LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club reacts to The King’s decision to leave Cleveland for "South Beach." via: The New York Times

Categories: Pulling No Punches