The phone started ringing early Thursday afternoon. My fellow Knicks fans had been checking in all week either in search of, or to deliver, updates on whether or not scoring stud Carmelo Anthony had rejoined the team for $129million – the expected maximum amount he is due. As of this writing, he is believed to have rejoined the team that is now being rebuilt in the image of 13 time World Champion Zen Master, Phil Jackson. The day before, Ed Eckstine, former president of Mercury Records, called to say that another World Champion Laker expat, Rasheed Hazzard has joined, new head coach, Derek Fisher’s staff as an assistant coach. Rasheed is a champion that I have watched develop and grow since he was 12 years old. Along with other members of his extended family, I am proud that my old friend has joined the team.
But something else happened on Thursday: Jayson Jackson, former manager to Lauryn Hill, who long time readers of this blog may remember as “The Epicurean” called with stunning news, LeBron James announced that he would be returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers and leaving the Miami Heat. The basketball world is reeling.
For two weeks prior to the announcement, my good friend, Hip Hop legend, Q-Tip insisted, in private conversations with me, that James would be returning to play in Ohio, the state of his birth, and to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the organization where he began his professional career, when he was drafted out of high school as the number one overall pick in 2003.
Tip and I spoke about this several times, and I grew increasingly more and more dismissive with each mention, “C mon son, who moves from Miami to Cleveland by choice?” I went on, “There has never been a major free agent signed by the Cavaliers.” And, “Who in their right mind would move to Cleveland from Miami after they’d already lived in Cleveland?” Tip grew more and more subdued as I became more emphatic with my dismissals of this preposterous notion. But he remained confident.
Every year, My Beloved Knicks are an important lens through which I see much of the world during the months that begin shortly after Halloween and continue on until a couple of weeks past Memorial Day. Since the Knicks haven’t made a deep playoff run in fifteen seasons, in order for my passion for the sport to be fueled, I have had to broaden my view, and pay more attention to the league as a whole by watching the development of other players and organizations. As a result, I have seen situations that have illuminated race relations, class disparity, labor relations, cultural issues of importance and business practices.
Based on recent developments, I believe that we are witnessing events that are forming a paradigm shift and a watershed moment in the history of sports in America. During the NBA playoff season, Donald Sterling, the former controlling owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, engaged in a conversation with his jump off that, unknown to him, was digitally captured and shared with the world. While he was giving his young paramour the benefit of what he’d learned about how the world works; he went on and on about why she shouldn’t be photographed on social media platforms with Blacks, why she shouldn’t invite them to his games and how Magic Johnson was unfit for her to be seen in public with.
By making the recorded conversation available on the worldwide web, TMZ broke the sensational scandal on the day before my birthday in April. This initiated a chain of events that resulted in; the NBA stripping Sterling of day-to-day control of his team, Dick Parsons, an outstanding corporate executive of color being installed as the interim CEO, it caused sponsors to withdraw their support, catalyzed the Clippers players to threaten a boycott of the playoffs, prompted President Barack Obama to weigh in from a trip abroad in Asia and the NBA’s best, most visible and most important player, LeBron James stated, “There is no place for anyone like Donald Sterling in our league.” “Our league,” he said. Sterling – who is litigious to the extreme – is currently involved in a court battle with his wife that, when settled, will determine whether or not she has the right to sell the franchise to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for the inflated price of $2billion and if Sterling is mentally competent. Last week, reportedly, during court proceedings, Sterling was inexplicably absent one day, and on another, referred to his wife as a “pig”.
Back to the lesson at hand: With the heightened media interest that accompanies the NBA free agency period, Thursday afternoon, in the midst of all of this activity, professional basketball proved once again that on the whole, it is a game played for and by progressives, when LeBron James announced that he was leaving the Miami Heat to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In an exclusive announcement for Sports Illustrated, among many reasons given, James explained that, “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People, there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
I’ve seen James play live, during his senior year, in a high school showcase game, that was played on the campus of UCLA, and the summer afterward in Magic Johnson’s Mid Summer’s Magic charity game at the Staples Center. I was impressed by his combination of size, speed, agility and passing ability. It was obvious he could score, but he wasn’t greedy – he passed shots up to get teammates the ball. This is the essence of LeBron James: He often sacrifices for the good of others.
Thursday when the news went public. J. A. Adande, the sports correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and ESPN credited my man, Q-Tip with breaking the story on Twitter when he Tweeted, “Q -Tip did kinda win this” RT@QtipTheAbstract: Man all y’all who was acting like I didn’t know what it was w lebron check my timeline.”
Despite Miami having summer 10 months out of the year, young hot ass Cuban girls with thongs, beaches, food, close proximity to the Caribbean, nightlife and no state income tax, James made the choice to change teams. Why would you leave Miami to go anywhere else? Never mind Cleveland. So I called Tip, to pay respect for his obvious insight, and asked, “What made you think LeBron was going home?”
The legend said, “I don’t know. I keep my ear to the street. Basketball is not just a game, it’s a community, it’s about grassroots, it’s about getting knocked on your ass and getting back up. I hear rumors, but you have to process who’s said them. I heard a few things from credible sources, and I believed them. So I went with it.”
When I asked him, “Why do you think he did it? Obviously there are his reported reasons, but why do you think he did it?”
He responded, “LeBron is a Soul Man from a Soul town. The area of the country he’s from is having it rough right now; people are being deprived of water in Detroit, Black on Black murder is rampant in Chicago, Cleveland has some of the highest unemployment in the country, he (James) has always tried to be a beacon.”
James himself said about the move back to the Cavaliers, “But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”
I also asked Tip if he knew of other athletes that reminded him of James, “Of course, but they are from different eras; Bill Russell was an activist for social justice and a freedom fighter. Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood… Billy Jean King used her status to fight for gender equality, and who could forget Muhammad Ali?” He went on further, “During the Trayvon Martin tragedy, he (James) led his team in protest. He’s a special dude. He’s blue collar, his mother raised him right.”
Frank Cashen was the General Manager of the New York Mets during an exciting period in the franchise’s history. He made a distinction between sports fans and customers: fans root, customers buy tickets. I’m basketball people. My mother played, and coached. She put me in the loop during Bill Russell’s last active season, and then the next one, My Beloved Knicks won the watches. I played and have friends all over the country that I have met through the sport. I have seen over 400 live games in the NBA. It is in my blood. With this latest move by LeBron James, he has validated my belief that sports can unite like very few other human endeavors, and for a little bit, maybe restored the faith of a few of us in the possibility of America. Great move by a great guy that has warmed my heart and made me smile. This season, I hope the Knicks beat his brains in.
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