YOSHONIS: LeBron sweepstakes nothing new, if you know your NBA history

By the time you read this, a seismic shift may have occurred in the NBA. Even if you’re not a fan of pro basketball, I’m sure you’ve been hearing about it.

Tonight at midnight is the deadline for LeBron James to decide whether to opt out of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers and become an unrestricted free agent or stay with his hometown team for at least one more year.

James may have announced his decision before this paper reaches your hands (or the pixels on your computer screen reach your eyeballs).

If he opts out (a provision of the three-year, $100 million contract he signed in 2016 that would pay him over $35 million next season should he return to Celeveland), he will set off a free-agent feeding frenzy that will have a domino effect on several teams in the league.

The discussion of when, where and if concerning James has already begun, and a lot of that discussion involves hand-wringing and head-shaking by those who lament that he even has a choice in where he will ply his trade next season.

A familiar refrain among those who do the lamenting, the hand-wringing and the head-shaking is, “What has happened to the NBA?”, as if great pro basketball players changing teams is something new.

They bemoan the opportunity that James has to attract other great players to whichever team he chooses to play for, and create a “super-team” from the ground up.

I will never understand the logic of not allowing players who have, through their own hard work and success, put themselves in an advantageous bargaining position in the market, to use that position for their own benefit.

Why shouldn’t James do what’s best for James? If he wants to leave Cleveland (the fans of which should — but most likely won’t — thank him for returning there in the first place and bringing them the only major pro sports title they will likely see in this generation), why shouldn’t he be able to build a team that will make a run at another NBA championship?

Isn’t winning what elite athletes are supposed to crave?

If he went to one of the few teams that can afford him and DID NOT do that, he would be widely and loudly accused of selling out and being all about the money.

One of the teams that has been speculated as a possible destination for James, the Los Angeles Lakers, has a historically well-worn path to its doorstep by elite players from other teams.

Two of the very best players of all time, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both left the teams that drafted them behind, headed to L.A. and led them to championships.

Oscar Robertson — an often-overlooked name in the discussion of best players of all time — was traded from the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) to the Milwaukee Bucks, where he spearheaded the arrival of free agency in the NBA in the courts. Waiting for him there was a young center named Lew Alcindor (later to become Abdul-Jabbar, and the all-time leading scorer in NBA history — after he went to the Lakers).

It’s nothing new. Even a cursory look at the history of the NBA will tell you that.

If you’re looking for a culprit in all this (and I’m not), point your finger squarely at former NBA commissioner David Stern.

He’s the one who steered the marketing focus of the NBA away from teams and toward individual players, starting with Michael Jordan.

For those of you who don’t know of the NBA before Jordan (a large number, if the tedious LeBron vs. Michael debate for Greatest of All Time debate is any indication), the league was on the brink of extinction in the late 1970’s.

Attendance was low, the NBA-ABA merger had just happened, and the TV contract was so bad that NBA Finals games weren’t shown on live network TV at all.

The universally acknowledged turning point of the league was the arrival of Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird for the 1979-80 season.

They brought a new excitement and a new dynamic to the league desperately in need of both.

But Magic and Bird would not have had the impact on basketball that they did without the Lakers and the Celtics, the two most storied teams in the NBA in the league’s only true longstanding rivalry.

If it had been Magic on the San Diego Clippers and Bird on the Denver Nuggets, the idea of a $100 million NBA contract would be even more ridiculous than it already is.

And most of us, other than true basketball die-hards, may have never heard of LeBron James.

But Stern decided to ignore all that and market Jordan as Jordan, and not as a player on the previously perpetually mediocre Chicago Bulls.

Sure, Chicago Bulls jerseys became all the rage in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but you didn’t see Steve Kerr’s name on the back. And you’ve seen almost none outside of Chicago ever since.

The lasting effect of this individual marketing is the perception that teams and team loyalty don’t mean as much to the NBA as the individual players do. I imagine Seattle Supersonics fans might have an opinion about that.

And if the league feels that way, why shouldn’t the players?

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Posted by Scott Yoshonis

Scott is the sports editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach him at (231) 398-3112 or syoshonis@pioneergroup.com.

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