Never has so much been made by so many for so long over so little. The LeBron James free-agent guessing game — “LeBronaggeddon,” “The King and His Courtship,” “LeBronathon” — has been spewing even longer than the Gulf oil spill, with just as unknowable a conclusion, yet roughly as much public attention.
It is harmless enough, in the parallel universe of fun and games, that bloggers, commentators and politicians would weigh in on the future of a 25-year-old multimillionaire who earns his living performing publicly in his underwear. And big money is at stake well beyond James and his NBA suitors.
But the real indication of sports’ increasingly overblown importance in modern society is the hemorrhaging passion that goes along with the wall-to-wall coverage of James’ potential decision. When Pulitzer Prize-winning Cleveland columnist Connie Schultz wrote, “I’d hate for Cleveland to lose , but we can’t hinge our happiness on the career of a man who’s entitled to his youthful ambitions,” Ohio lawyer Peter Pattakos became absolutely apoplectic on his “Cleveland Frowns” website.
“LeBron’s decision isn’t just about LeBron,” Pattakos wrote. “It’s about all of us.” Pattakos professed his love for the area’s towns and teams, declaring he “is tired of them being crapped on.”
Such an outsized flap, featuring pleas by pols and celebrities for James’ services, including a cheesy “C’mon LeBron” video featuring Big Town’s Michael Bloomberg, strikes former sports journalist Robert Lipsyte as “unsettling.”
Lipsyte, now an author and jock culture correspondent for the site Tomdispatch.com, e-mailed: “We always seem to be hungry for heroes when things are turning sour; the wars, the economy, the assaults on the environment are all bringing out this need to be inspired by people who don’t really challenge us in any way to be heroes ourselves, to make sacrifices, demand justice, call for reform.”
Elite athletes are “almost cartoons,” Lipsyte said. “LeBron is one of those star-from-another- planet talents who have no relation to our skills. And we don’t know anything bad about him yet (at least I don’t) . . . Jock culture has always supplied these kinds of heroes who give us a quick jolt of ennoblement.”
In strict NBA terms, and probably pro sports in general, the James saga is unprecedented, veteran NBA journalist Dave D’Alessandro said, because James, at the peak of his skills at 25, is “the most perfect specimen available to the highest bidder”; because “teams are gutting their rosters at an absurd, frenzied pace” to afford the likes of James and possibly a second top free agent, and because the confluence of those factors has created “the opportunity to rebuild your franchise in one easy move, which beats the hell out of doing it the honest, old-fashioned way — bottoming out and rebuilding through the draft.”
The problem, D’Allesandro recently detailed in a piece for Slam magazine, is that free agency “is almost always the greatest anticlimax on the NBA calendar” and has produced “only two signifcant, franchise-making, league-altering free-agent signings . . . in the last decade: Chauncey Billups in 2002 and Steve Nash in 2004.”
That hasn’t curtailed the excessive attempts, from so many corners, to nourish James’ ego, causing Cleveland columnist Schultz to declare, “All this hand-wringing in Cleveland and gleeful fist-pumping everywhere else because our star basketball player may dump us after he becomes a free agent makes my head hurt.”
The whole affair feels like the Hot Stove League on steroids — a breathy anticipation of acquired talent applied to some far-off competition — that seems to characterize the soul of the 21st-century fan.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” Lipsyte said, “and wonder if it’s really ‘anticipation’ anymore, which would suppose waiting periods between seasons.
“That’s gone. It’s one continuous season now, the postseason flowing seamlessly into the next preseason because we want — need — this sports soap opera to go on every day, to fill out those empty black holes caused by all the unpleasant, enervating news. Keep me excited, in suspense, something to think and talk about that’s not covered in oil or blood.”