Chapter 9: The Myth of the Man, July 8, 2010 (Overview)
On Friday, July 9, 2010, residents of Cleveland, Ohio awoke to a striking image when they unfolded their morning newspapers. From top to bottom along the left-hand side of the page extended the uniformed figure of 25 year-old Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James, identifiable by the number (23) and name on the back of his jersey, walking away from them. In the upper-right corner a single word—“Gone”—reported the news. A thin straight line led from James’ right hand to the italicized legend in the lower right corner: “7 years in Cleveland. No rings.” Of course, the news was probably no news to most of the readers of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer on that Friday morning. After all, the night before, one in four Cleveland televisions were tuned into an hour-long special television program (entitled “The Decision”) broadcast on ESPN. During the program, James—two-time reigning NBA MVP, Akron native and a free agent—had ended a fevered national debate about where he would play by announcing that he would be “taking [his] talents to South Beach”; that is, exercising his contractual right to join the Miami Heat and fellow free-agent superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
James’ decision and the program “The Decision” immediately provoked outrage and condemnation, both in public and in the media. In Cleveland fans burned James’ jerseys and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert posted an open letter on the team’s webpage excoriating James as a coward, a narcissist and a traitor. Local sportswriters chronicled and vented the anger of the region. Beyond Cleveland, his national “Q score,” used to measure public figures’ popularity for marketing purposes, plummeted in the days and weeks following the decision. Across the country, those columnists who did acknowledge James’ right to join whatever team he wished, focused their criticism on the television broadcast, on the manner in which James handled his free agency period prior to his decision and on the effect his decision (however legally legitimate) would have on his long term reputation. Even Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan expressed their disappointment, noting that they would never have joined rival stars since the point was to beat them. As Charles Barkley put it, James now would “never be Jordan. This clearly takes him out of the conversation. He can win as much as he wants to. There would have been something honorable about staying in Cleveland and trying to win it as The Man.”
While implying that James would never be “The Man” was neither the most common nor the most extreme criticism of James in the wake of his decision, it offers a useful avenue through which to critically explore how a number of myths reviewed in the preceding chapters converged to underwrite the widespread, intense backlash against James. Nearly every derogatory term leveled at James—from immature to traitor to whore—acquires its force in relation to a normative notion of masculinity from which James supposedly deviated. Moreover, in basketball culture this notion is in turn tied to other norms not only of gender, but also of competition, play, morality, class, race and national identity that extend in a series of complicated, intertwining paths from the game’s invention through the various moments I’ve isolated up to the present day. This network of interrelated norms, expressed by various means and terms in the period following James’ decision is what I call “the myth of the man.” Adherents purveyed it as a capturing net through which to harness and discipline the radical autonomy—the “free agency,” in both the narrow and broadest sense of the phrase—exercised by LeBron James, both on and off the court.