The single most defining sports moment of 2010 happened off the field of play.
There is little doubt that 2010 was the year of LeBron James. He rolled into the year as the favorite son of the NBA, with the stage set for him to take the next step in cementing his legacy among the greatest that ever played the game. He was the game’s brightest young star, and as his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers was set to expire in the summer, the entire league was forced into a holding pattern until he revealed the team whose uniform he would next don.
Tensions were already high across the NBA as the build-up to 2010 free agency played out, but when James and his partners in LRMR Marketing announced their plans for the decision to be announced in an hour-long television program, events moved to a frenzied pace.
But it was not James’ decision that led to the best debate of the year, it was the fallout.
Immediately following “The Decision” Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fired off a letter to the fans of the Cavaliers that became a controversy all its own. The emotionally charged letter first ripped James for the manner of his exit from the city of Cleveland, and then offered several lofty promises to the fans of the Cavaliers.
It was a situation where the business of sports was overshadowed by emotion, and I LOVED it!
The culture of sports today is one where the participants are perceived as businessmen and celebrities first, and athletes second. Decisions are made based on dollars and cents, and athletes today have little or no regard for the crowds in front of whom they play. They use the fans to their advantage, getting rich off of their hard-earned money. Sure, when things are going good they get along very nicely with the fans, but as soon as convenience dictates, they sell any sense of loyalty down the river, leaving fans high and dry.
That’s why the debate around Gilbert’s letter to Cavaliers fans was so fascinating to me. In a league like the NBA, which has been completely hijacked by superstar athletes like LeBron James, most people expected Gilbert and the Cavaliers to quietly lick their wounds and move forward. While that road to recovery from the loss of James (both financially, and in terms of on-court success) will be a long and painful one, the anticipated response from the front offices in Cleveland was one of political correctness. Gilbert would address the team and his fans the following morning, offer all the clichéd comments – “We are a team, not one man”, “The team existed for years BEFORE LeBron James, and will exist just as well without him”, etc. – but he would surely NOT burn any bridges by attacking the league’s star attraction.
We were all wrong.
Gilbert did not wait until morning. He didn’t even hold his breath and count to ten. Instead, he let the ‘fan’ in him come through. He felt as though James had slapped him, and so he struck back, which is exactly what the rest of the fans in Cleveland wanted to do. He didn’t care about playing nice with the most powerful athlete in the sport, and he didn’t care about fines that could (and eventually would) be levied against him. All he wanted to do was communicate his own frustration to his brothers and sisters in Cleveland.
Even if only for one night, Gilbert wasn’t the owner, he was the fan.
Outside the city of Cleveland, Gilbert’s actions were called into question. Should he have lashed out so reactively? And more importantly, should he be punished?
I can understand the league’s desire to prevent owners from launching personal vendettas against the players, but as the resident Bleacher Fan here at The Sports Debates, I absolutely respect Gilbert’s reaction. In fact, it endeared him to me in a way that no coach or player has in a very long time. I had no problems at all in defending his actions then, and I would still defend them today.
I want to thank Gilbert, personally, for taking a stand on behalf of the fans. We have been the long-suffering third party in sports transactions, and it was nice to see that someone of power in sports, even if only for the briefest of moments, cared more about the fans than he did coddling a prima donna superstar athlete, or by playing nice politically in the “business of basketball.”
Dan Gilbert wins Bleacher Fan’s Award as the Best of 2010, because he put the fan first.