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LeBron’s Ultimate Mistake

By now we all know the outcome of both the decision and The Decision: LeBron James is history's greatest villain. Unless you are a fan of the Miami Heat, or of hour-long narcissistic TV specials, or of playground bullies who gang up to beat on spindly geeks, you were no doubt outraged at James's choice to bolt his hometown Cavaliers to play in Miami with his all-star buddies, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. David Stern was disappointed. Buzz Bissinger accused James of deciding to "avoid the path of greatness." Cavs owner Dan Gilbert basically called LeBron a selfish coward. Stats guru Nate Silver suggested that James, by tarnishing his brand, may have cost himself $150 million in endorsements. And many people (myself included) moaned that, of all the grand narratives available to James — Hometown Hero (Cavs), Franchise Savior (Nets), Return to Glory (Knicks), or In the Footsteps of Greatness (Bulls) — heading to a stacked team in South Beach was the lamest and most disappointing. Yet for all the tut-tutting and teeth-gnashing, there's one question that lingers like the smoke from burned jerseys: What exactly did LeBron James do that was really wrong? Avoiding greatness, losing money, and ruining a good story aren't moral failings.

What he did wrong, in the end, was try to make an entertainment spectacle out of a completely justifiable life choice. Sports is a bizarre endeavor as a career. Athletes are paid unfathomable salaries to participate in meaningless exhibitions, with one caveat: For most of your career, you can't choose where you work. You can be drafted, you can get traded, but rarely can you just up and relocate. Imagine if the top law-school graduates were drafted out of college by firms across the country, then told they could either work at that firm, in that city, or not practice law at all. Yet in sports, that's how it works — at least until you become a free agent, like LeBron.

This, of course, meant he had to make a choice. This choice was supposed to be informed by sweeping notions of Desire and Courage and History and Dedication to Victory, as though LeBron was a soldier in ancient Sparta, choosing whether to suit up and defend the city's gates. (This ... Is ... Cleveland!) Instead, he chose to go play with his friends.

Collusion! Conspiracy! Betrayal! The real problem here seems to be that LeBron's decision doesn't fit into our polar narratives for athletes, in which you're either the classy, selfless, team-oriented champion (Jeter) or the selfish, stat-obsessed, and money-driven narcissist (A-Rod). LeBron didn't coldly take the biggest deal (Cleveland) or bolt for the best on-court situation (Chicago, arguably). Instead, he's a 25-year-old guy who, given the choice, decided to go work in a place he thinks will be fun with co-workers he knows that he likes. Back to our law-school example: If your friend, after a celebrated stretch in a law firm in, say, Cleveland, told you she'd decided to follow an offer to another city, you'd likely applaud and encourage her, rather than lambast her as a turncoat. And if she told you she'd based that decision on the fact that she could make good (if not the best) money in, say, Miami, and that she has a few good friends already living there, you'd say that was sound reasoning, not berate her for her insufficient dedication to the grand historical narrative of jurisprudence. (The obvious rejoinder — "Well, does she hold a one-hour TV special to announce her decision?" — is a red herring: If LeBron had decided on Cleveland or even New York, the post-special outcry would not nearly have been so loud.)

But athletes are not like us, so we hold them to a different, and at times irrational, standard. As our own Will Leitch pointed out, sports fandom depends on a pact between athletes and fans: We know it means nothing, but we'll pretend it means everything.

Maybe that's why the outrage over LeBron's choice seems eerily similar to the outrage over the abrupt cancellation of a favorite TV show or the firing of a favorite star. In fact, watching The Decision (which was repeatedly likened to "]The Bachelor, as though it had debased the super-serious pursuit of Sport to the frivolous realm of reality TV) was like watching the season finale of a great night-time drama, only to have an actor turn to the screen right before the climax and say, "Guess what? It's all made up, and I'm leaving for another show" then walk off set. We feel duped, even though we're the ones who've been willfully duping ourselves. LeBron made a rational career decision based on his own happiness. If it were anyone else, it would seem perfectly reasonable, even laudable. But then, we're not invested in anyone else in quite the same way, which is likely the problem right there.

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Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images