When LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland for the luster of an NBA championship ring in Miami, he was re-enacting Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the vain ruler who commissions a suit woven from a fabric that will be invisible to the most unworthy of his subjects. When he commandeered an hour of prime-time television to announce “ The Decision,” we saw what the child in the fairytale was first to point out: “The Emperor has no clothes.”
Until then, we were bedazzled by the heavily advertised qualities that lent LeBron a stature far above that of a merely extraordinarily gifted basketball player. He was the kid raised off and on by a single mom in hardscrabble Akron who had found grace through his uncanny ability to hurl a ball through a hoop and his bonding with blood-brother teammates. His tattooed skin proclaimed his values with words like “loyalty” and “family.” On the court, he was the selfless superstar, eager to give lesser players their best shot even though it might cost them the game. Off the court, he donated part of his earnings to a foundation that brought recreational facilities to underprivileged kids, a reminder, he often said, of what he had yearned for when he was one of them. Though he was not yet 26, his charisma had brought him friends ranging from Warren Buffet to Jay-Z. More than once, the current president of the United States invoked his name with awe.
The Emperor did allow himself a moment of ruefulness when he conceded that the people he was leaving might feel “let down”—but missing was any expression of gratitude.
Until then, we gratefully coddled him. We accepted his calling himself “King James,” even though his team had never worn the NBA crown. We indulged his childish throwing of “magic dust” to open each game in the Q. We took him at his word when he told an ESPN reporter in 2006 that his sole interest was to help raise the Cavs to championship caliber. We forgave him for not shaking the hands of his opponents when Orlando erased the Cavs in the 2009 playoffs. We said he was only getting his due when his teammates acquiesced to his choice of uniforms to complement the color of the shoes he was peddling for Nike. We coddled him because he took our breath away with his elegant, game-exploding ferocity; because he exemplified much that we liked to think was best about ourselves and our community; because we loved him.
And then finally, after all these months, years, of carefully cultivated uncertainty over what he would do with his free agency, out he came in his New Clothes. The grandiosity of it all—the taking of a full prime-time hour to say what could have been said in a matter of seconds—was immediately apparent. The setting was pure Potemkin—a kids’ recreational center in super-wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, complete with dozens of blonde towheads assembled by the ESPN casting office and directed to sit there silent and star-struck. LeBron, all softness and sincerity, fielded the interviewer’s marshmallow questions with unstinting egotism, even slipping into the third-person to tell the world that his decision was all about “doing what’s best for LeBron.”
The Emperor did allow himself a moment of ruefulness when he conceded that the people he was leaving might feel “let down.” But missing, at least during the formal “interview,” was any expression of gratitude toward Dan Gilbert, the man who had paid him so many millions in Cleveland, toward the front office that had scrambled continuously to surround him with the best players they could get, toward the teammates he had professed to feel so close to, toward the fans and the city that had carried him aloft for the past seven years.
If LeBron stripped away our illusions by revealing himself as something of a hypocrite and a poseur, he also revealed himself as still a very young man. Throughout, I couldn’t help but think of the unknown person who had fathered LeBron when his mother was l6, the man who had then disappeared from his life for good. Was this fellow watching somewhere? If so, did it occur to him that what his son really needed at this critical juncture was a father to stand up to him and say, “You’re certainly entitled to decide on how to move forward with your career, to do what you think is best for you and your family. But you’d better do it the right way. You’d better tell your boss first, be man enough to sit down with him, face-to-face. And you’d better say goodbye to your teammates—you also owe them an explanation. You don’t want to burn bridges.”
Of course not. No such man exists, at least not in LeBron’s life. Selfish, runaway fathers often beget selfish, runaway sons. When LeBron James quit on Cleveland out of sheer, selfish vanity, he also quit on himself.
Charles Michener is a former senior editor at The New Yorker and Newsweek. He is writing a book about Cleveland for Knopf entitled The Hidden City.