In January, National Basketball Retired Players Association President & CEO Arnie Fielkow was discussing the stigma of NBA players blowing away their millions with reckless spending. Fielkow said it was a result of how NBA players are groomed.
In their early teens, players hit the AAU circuit and surpass childhood. Prep and college coaches court them, followed by NBA scouts and executives. "Basketball becomes a job in some guys' early teens," said Fielkow, previously an executive vice president of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans city council president,
By the time players retire from professional basketball, they move on to a life with considerably less income and little financial knowledge.
While LeBron James would not have blown away his fortune after his playing career, he needed basketball to be something more than a job. He needed a learning experience before retirement. This is why he spent four years studying in Miami.
In James' first-person Sports Illustrated piece published Friday, the Cleveland Cavaliers-returnee said:
Let's put ourselves in LeBron's shoes. He was raised by a single mother in Akron, Ohio. He starred on the AAU circuit in middle school for the Northeast Ohio Shooting Stars. Along with his three AAU teammates, Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III and Willie McGee, he enrolled at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, a predominantly white school. In high school, James' games were moved to college arenas to accommodate attendance. His team traveled around the country and they were featured on national television.
He was drafted by the hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. It set up a fairy-tale script that appeared to progress toward the franchise's first NBA title. For seven years, James kept the plot moving. He became international megastar while playing for a middle market. He led the Cavs to their first Eastern Conference title, he won an Olympic gold medal and he earned two NBA MVPs.
But at heart, James was still a kid. He never had the intermediate period most adults have. He never had the opportunity to fool around with his peers. He never had the opportunity to make mistakes. He never had the opportunity to hide from the media.
And he never had the opportunity to leave Northeast Ohio.
When James became a free agent in 2010, his value was at a peak -- not just monetarily. This was James' chance to get whatever he wanted beyond money. He could play with whom he wanted and where he wanted. He could earn the allegiance of a population of people in whatever American city he signed in.
And he could experience something different.
For James, this was a decision like choosing a college town, going on a Eurotrip or pursuing a career in a new city. James could experience a new taste of American life in a new place with new people.
Miami was right for him. It was livelier than Cleveland. It had a front office with Pat Riley that would treat him like a big market player. It had players who could help him win a title, including two superstars willing to play second and third fiddle to The King.
The problem with the 2010 offseason was James was still a kid. He openly admitted, and do so again in his SI article, that he handled free agency the wrong way. It was The Bachelor -- NBA Edition. Teams and fans salivated over James. He forced the Cavs to beg on their hands and knees the same way other franchises did. When he made his announcement, he called for "The Decision" and embarrassed his former team on national television. He then took his talents to Miami clubs to show off his new jersey with his new teammates. James basked in the flashiness of Miami and the media attention that followed the "Big Three."
Like any sabbatical (in this case, a break from a city), the fun comes to an end. James blew off steam early in his Miami career, but it got old. The "Should I Be Who You Want Me to Be?" persona faded off. James' advertisements featured his family, not his ego. His supporting cast, notably Dwyane Wade's knees, faded. In his final season in Miami, James lifted the Heat out of a depleted Eastern Conference one last time. The NBA Finals were a reminder the 2013-14 Heat team did not have the pizzazz of the past two teams. The story was old and the plot was not as fun anymore.
James never stopped being a child at heart. There is a reason James always refers to himself as "just a kid from Akron, Ohio." He has never wanted to be anything more. He is a family man. He married his high school sweetheart and has always kept his mother close. With all the chaos of NBA free agency, James still found time to go fishing with his children.
One of the lasting images of James will be his ecstasy as he closed in on his first title with Miami. So much of James' public presence is defined by the cameras around him. On that evening, James was as free-spirited as could be. It was part of his Miami vacation.
After four years, the fun dwindled. For 25 years, James fit the mold of the player Fielkow described. He was a kid who starred in his youth and never had a chance to experience life outside of basketball. In Miami, James had an educational experience. For four years, he learned about another type of American lifestyle. He lived in the Heat of Miami for a big money franchise in a party town. He enjoyed it, but he realized it was not his long-term home.
James never sold his Akron home and he kept his foundation, the LeBron James Family Foundation, in Akron. In the SI piece, he says he always expected to bring his life back to Cleveland. He also says, "This is what makes me happy."
It is hard to understand LeBron James from an outsider's perspective. James can own the biggest cities in the world, but it is not what he wants. He wants to go back to his Midwest roots. James does not need the biggest mansion or the most fancy cars in Cleveland (of course he'll have those). After a fun four years away, he just wants the warmth of home, and, the ability to win a championship for his city.
James admits 2010 was tough for him. He played it cool and acted like he did not care, but apparently "The Decision" was made James anxious. "What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?" James wrote in SI about Dan Gilbert's letter, the booing and the jersey burnings.
At the end of the day, it is easy to blame James for the way he handled his move from Cleveland to Miami. Despite his age, he cannot defend the immaturities he displayed in 2010. He was right to join the Heat. Wade, Chris Bosh and others gave James a chance to win NBA titles. He won two rings and four conference championships. If he stayed in Cleveland, he may not have a title today.
It is refreshing to see James man up and admit all this. In one article, James summed up the past four years of his life. We waited four years to hear the inside story of "The Decsion." James informed us in a few paragraphs.
He did not reference his "talents." He said he wants to bring a title back to Cleveland. He is not projecting eight championships. Although I disagree with James that he cannot win now (his supporting cast in Cleveland may turn out better than Miami), he says it make take a few years to build a contender on his old team. James' humility is something we did not see four years ago.
Earlier this week, I advised Cleveland fans to be cautious about forgiving James. I felt if James returned to Cleveland, he would need to earn his city's trust back. Well, he did. He did it damn well. He admitted his mistakes. He put everything out in the open. Four years ago, he needed an excursion to a new city with a new team. Now, he is 29-going-on-30 and ready to come home. He is still the kid from Akron and his passion has never been greater.
Cleveland's kid will be a 30-year-old man this time around. Four years ago, calling James a man would have been ridiculous. Now, he is a strong-willed adult. James needed four years to blow off steam. He made mistakes and lost some fans in the process. But this week, he sat down with Lee Jenkins and poured it all out.
The world does not need to become LeBron fans again. But damn it, we have to respect him.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.
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