Monday, December 22, 2014

John Smallwood: LeBron: A sad commentary on the marketing of celebrity

LeBron James made his announcement before a live television audience. (AP Photo/Greenwich Time, Bob Luckey)
LeBron James made his announcement before a live television audience. (AP Photo/Greenwich Time, Bob Luckey)

THE SUN rose this morning in the East. Not because it always has, but because LeBron James said it could.

After holding us hostage, halting the pace of normal, everyday life, the grace of King James has set the Free World free again - sorry, China, Cuba and North Korea, but not even James has that pull, at least not until he actually wins an NBA championship.

The final act of this theater of the absurd has concluded.

"The Decision" - the actual one, not the ESPN, made-for-television special presentation - has been made.

More coverage
  • Curry likes attention LeBron bringing to NBA
  • Cavs owner rips LeBron James
  • 76ers' Turner unhappy with his play
  • Cavs owner says James betrayed fans
  • At 9:28 p.m., James, supposedly the most coveted free agent in the history of American professional sports, looked into the cameras of ESPN and told a national television audience, "This fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."

    America exhaled, well, at least everywhere but Cleveland, which suffered yet another blow in a centurylong string of heartbreaking sports moments.

    OK, I admit I've been sarcastic, but the way-over-the-top nature of this entire process has just been an irritating drain. The amount of attention given to one 25-year-old man for doing nothing more than deciding which of six NBA teams would sign him to a contract valued to be at least $96 million was ridiculous.

    It's been a nonstop, 24/7 cycle of LeBron James since July 1, the first day teams could talk to pending free agents.

    To me, the last 7 days have been a commentary on the continually rising status of sports and the celebrity culture in our society. It's been fascinating to see how the advances in technology have changed the process of disseminating information. Most personally, this entire affair of daily rumors being presented as facts, of "reliable sources" and "someone close to the situation" being given the credibility of an actual named person, of made-for-television specials with hand-picked networks and interviewers delivering news has further disheartened me about the declining stature of journalism. Reporting the news seems to be running a distant second to selling and marketing the news.

    I don't blame James, his agent or his handlers. All they did was survey the landscape, understand the climate and figure out how to best manipulate it to their advantage.

    I don't blame ESPN. If it had not accepted the offer to broadcast James' production, another network would have jumped to the table.

    ABC will have James on "Good Morning America" today to discuss his decision.

    I do think, however, that its decision to be part of the story again highlights the difficult balancing routine ESPN walks as a news or entertainment entity - then again, the full name is Entertainment Sports Programming Network.

    I don't think it's a coincidence that James will be on ABC, owned by the Walt Disney Co., which also owns ESPN, to discuss his decision.

    Of course, now that the choice has been made, what does this mean for the NBA?

    James is going to Miami to join free agent Chris Bosh, who committed to the Heat on Wednesday, and free agent Dwyane Wade, who committed to stay with his original franchise on the same day. On paper, the merger of three of the NBA's top 10 young stars makes the Heat the immediate favorite to win the Eastern Conference and possibly the NBA championship.

    "To win, to win now and win in the future," James, who was raised in Akron, Ohio, said of his decision to leave Cleveland. "You never know, but you want to put yourself in the right position to be able to compete and accomplish the goals you set out there.

    "I feel this will give me the best opportunity to win now and in the future, and not just win in the regular season."

    James has been at the center of attention since before 2003, when he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Cavaliers out of high school.

    While his talent is undeniable, he's already been placed in a category with the all-time greats in NBA history without yet having the most important part of the resume - a championship.

    I'll admit that I'm old-school, and to me, James running to Miami to join Wade and Bosh to form a coalition of superstars almost eliminates him from ever joining the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and even Kobe Bryant in the discussion of greatest ever.

    When you are having the highly subjective discussion concerning "the greatest of all time," subtle nuances are often the determining factors. No one is saying those guys did it by themselves or didn't need help, but none of them bailed out of the situation in which they originally were placed.

    They stayed in one place and became the centerpiece of dynasties. No matter how you frame it, James quit on the challenge of bringing a title to Cleveland. He went to Miami where Wade, who already has a title and was a Finals MVP, can show him how to become a champion and Bosh can pull the weight he couldn't shoulder.

    "You add me and we're going to be a really good team," James said, severely understating the situation.

    For the sake of his legacy, James' Heat better become a lot better than just "really good." The Heat has to become a dynasty.

    If James & Co. roll off a string of three or four titles over the next 5 years and it is clear he is the dominant force, perhaps the argument of best ever will need to be re-evaluated.

    "I understand that me going down as one of the greats won't happen until I win a championship," James said.

    One will not be nearly enough.

    Send e-mail to

    smallwj@phillynews.com.

    For recent columns, go to

    http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

    John Smallwood Daily News Sports Columnist
    Also on Philly.com
    Stay Connected