Buffalo isn’t really much of a basketball city. I follow the sport and know what’s going on in the NBA, and I love the Knicks and Bulls and want them to do well every season. But I’m not enough of a diehard to put everything on hold to watch them – I might catch one of the really important games if I’m fascinated enough with the opponent. And while I would definitely put in an appearance at a title victory parade for either of them, I won’t consider my life unlived if I die having never seen the Knicks or Bulls hoist new banners in their arenas.
Be this as it may, I usually don’t get emotionally involved in the Finals if one of my teams isn’t involved. I made sure to catch the Celtics/Lakers matchups because hey, they’re the Celtics and Lakers, two storied and talented teams, rivals who make for terrific basketball theater. But those weren’t emotional, watch-with-whiskey-on-the-side life-or-death matches. I rooted against the San Antonio Spurs earlier because they’re a boring team, but again, it had no impact on my emotional well-being the following day. The only time I really got emotionally involved with a basketball final was way back in 2004, when I was still in college, about the time I began paying attention. That was the year the Lakers put together their must-win dream team when they signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone to single-year contracts to compliment Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil. I consider such signings to be a classless win-without-working-for-it ethic and wanted the Lakers – whom I had liked until then – to get their comeuppance, which they did spectacularly against an underdog Detroit Pistons team which turned the Lakers’ superstar galaxy into nonfactors.
This made the recent NBA Finals unusual. Not even in 2004 was I so emotionally invested in the loss of one team to another. To one extent, it’s the same ring-chasing philosophy which put me off the Lakers seven years ago – a team going on a signing spree and bragging about how good it is before they hit the hardwood in an official capacity. But even in 2004, I was merely cheering against a team, a set of uniforms. I had nothing against any of the big four, not even the widely hated Bryant. This year, however, I was holding a grudge against not quite the Miami Heat – whom I found a fun novelty team in their title year back in 2006, when they signed Shaquille O’Neil and Dwayne Wade burst into basketball consciousness – but specifically against James.
I understand LeBron James really isn’t a bad guy in real life, but he is NBA villain number one at the moment. It isn’t the fact that James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to win with a team he thought would give him the best shot. The Buffalo Sabres, after all, are such masters of letting their best players go to hit pay dirt that my family and friends and I have taken to referring to them as the NHL’s official farm team. But James did it in the most classless fashion imaginable. His hourlong “The Decision” was never going to come off as anything other than a giant middle finger to the city of Cleveland, even if he had announced in three seconds flat, “Cleveland got me to the Finals three years ago, and I’m signing back with them to finish the job!” But he played Judas against the team that made him on national TV, which had to be embarrassing for Cavs fans. This is why they reacted the way they did – the jersey and effigy burnings were the fans saving face.
Blatant ring-chasing isn’t something I normally have a huge problem with. As I mentioned, professional athletes in their primes rarely come to Buffalo. A superstar landing with the Sabres or Bills is either making his name there so he can head to sunny skies and a big payoff (Daniel Briere, whom I still think very highly of) or dodging retirement once he’s accomplished everything that can be accomplished (Rob Neidermeyer). It’s very rare that Buffalo teams land a superstar-caliber player who stays with Buffalo through his career, thick and thin. It does happen – Jim Kelly is a prime example, and things are looking good with Ryan Miller – but it’s very rare. So I’m used to seeing my favorite players walk out of Buffalo’s revolving door.
James’s ring-chasing is a bit different, though. James popped off to do it at age 26. Ring-chasing isn’t something he should be doing at 26 – that’s an unspoken sports code which Payton and Malone both understood. If he did it at 36 having exhausted his best opportunities earlier, then it’s okay. That championship ring, after all, isn’t there just to look pretty – it’s a symbol which is representative of all the work, sweat, training, and frustrations that go at least through a hard 82-game season. Earning just one is a real point of pride. Many players simply luck into one, and here’s James begging off the added burden of leading his team to it in lieu of riding the coattails of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. He may well now be permanently barred from any discussions regarding the greatest basketball player in history for failing to grasp that. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwan were both the souls of their teams – they saw their teams through the worst and were eventually rewarded. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson proved to be keystones on teams already brimming with talent and needing one more important piece. James looked at his cast and begged off because it was too hard.
Since then, he’s done an impressive job chipping away at his public image. There was the commercial. Then there was trying to call critics of The Decision racist. Then his comments about his critics after the Heat lost the Finals to the Dallas Mavericks gave off a lot of implications – he called his critics losers without lives, even though plenty of smart and successful people hated the way he left Cleveland, up to and including the owner of the Cavaliers. His bragging about how good he has it also came off as though he doesn’t really care, which again can’t sit well in Cleveland because it holds the implication that James, an area native, just wanted out.
Cleveland and Buffalo sports are in similar places, as they are in many other respects. That’s why I have such strong feelings about this. Both Cleveland and Buffalo are hard luck sports cases, and neither can reel in free agents on the appeal of their cities or the prospect of their teams suddenly turning it around or being one player away. They need all the help they can get, and LeBron ditching Cleveland without even a thank you really doesn’t do anything for the city’s image.