Time really does fly when you’re having fun. Can you believe that it was a year ago today when LeBron uttered, “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat”? But, for as infamous as those words have become over the past 365 days, they were more powerful than anyone could have imagined.
We were waiting for the Summer of 2010 for a couple of years. Seasons ago, when it was discovered that during the same off-season, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson , Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Manu Ginobili, David Lee and Rudy Gay would all be available at the same time, basketball fans had July 1, 2010 (the day the free agency began last summer) circled on their proverbial calendars.
But that doesn’t tell the entire story. It goes back much further. In June of the 1997 – 98 season, Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to their second 3-peat of the decade. Amid uncertainty surrounding the return of key players to Chicago the following season, an expiring collective bargaining agreement and the lack of a “sense of to prove something as a basketball player”, Jordan retired (for the second and frankly, the last time that really mattered) from the NBA. Next up was a labor-shortened 1998 – 99 Jordan-less season, and a league where the most popular player was a cornrow wearing, neck tattoo donning, headband and arm sleeve exhibiting, aspiring rapper by the name of Allen Iverson. Let’s just say that the masses weren’t amused.
The NBA of the early 2000s struggled for momentum outside of the hardcore fans that support the League no matter what. The casual fan didn’t exist 10 years ago. Couple Iverson’s influence over the look of the NBA with Ron Artest’s apparent insatiable impulse to confront a fan in the stands in Detroit on November 19, 2004 (a date I can’t seem to forget) and you had one of the darkest periods the NBA has ever seen . The League was a punchline, a laughingstock, something most didn’t want to be associated with. The masses were now even less amused. Naturally, David Stern was aware of this and it even forced him to implement a dress code. Not even Jordan’s ill-fated, and often forgettable return to the court as a Washington Wizard had a lasting impression enough to help the League.
In the wake of Artest’s ignorance and the dress code, you had a League clamoring for acceptability it once enjoyed in the 90s. Rising stars like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade helped to take the attention away from those opposed to what Iverson stood for. But the League was still behind the NFL and MLB in terms of popularity. In fact, the only reason it was ahead of the NHL was because hockey lost an entire season in the middle of the decade due to a labor dispute.
Then came the Summer of 2010. Alot was riding on this free agent period. The NBA was slowly regaining popularity and just enjoyed a seven-game Finals between the Celtics and Lakers. Things were beginning to look good. People were slowly becoming more interested in basketball. Then on July 8, 2010, after most of the aforementioned free agents had already signed with their team, LeBron James staged the decision heard ’round the world. Feelings on the hour-long special aside, it made for great theatre. We never saw anything like that ever in any sport. It forced people to pay attention to the NBA. When LeBron announced where he would play to Jim Gray, he unknowingly thrusted the NBA back into mainstream America. The casual fan was reborn. Regardless of the reason why, people were now very interested in the NBA.
Naturally, most were tuning in to see LeBron fail, but it didn’t matter because they were tuning in nonetheless. Everything he said or did was scrutinized far more than anyone possibly ever. The Miami Heat truly were the sports version of the Beatles. Fans would wait at the airport to greet Ringo Star and company decades ago, and people would come out in droves to Heat away games, routinely selling them out. It seemed as if every nationally televised Heat game would break a viewership record previously held by another nationally televised Heat game. Whereas a decade ago, many were reluctant to admit they were NBA fans, people were now considering meaningless regular season games must see TV.
A year ago today, all LeBron thought he was doing was announcing that he was going to a team where he thought he had the best chance to eventually win championships. He surely had no idea that his decision would arguably become more powerful than Michael Jordan’s decision to play outfield for the Birmingham Barons while still in his prime as a basketball player. However, in doing so, LeBron instantly snatched the “Most hated player in the NBA” crown right off of Kobe Bryant’s head and has been wearing it ever since, with no sign of handing it to anyone in the near future. But despite this, he somehow still managed to have the best-selling jersey in the Association last year. Go figure.
Ever since LeBron mentally cramped up mid-way through the Finals and became the reason why Dallas won the championship and why Dirk is now revered as much as he is (sorry, but it’s true) it has been open season on LeBron. Those who despised him for “quitting” on the Cavs, leaving Cleveland “the way he did”, and under achieving in the Finals should now direct that same energy into thanking him for bringing back the NBA. He’s the reason the NBA had NFL-esque popularity this season, surpassed MLB’s momentum, and why many are still debating whether or not this was the best season in League history. Who knew switching teams would’ve done so much good, despite the negative publicity it received? I won’t go as far as to say he saved the NBA but what he unknowingly did for the Association was reminiscent of what Bird and Magic did for the League in the 80s: provided a much needed shot in the arm. His decision was so powerful that the only thing that can stand in it’s way is…a lockout.
If you’re looking for your everyday, predictable basketball talk, then you’ve come to the wrong place, because Kevin Burke of The Kevin Burke Project brings provocative, thought provoking content about basketball as only he can. Kevin also hosts The Hoop Doctors weekly podcast show, which you can subscribe to for free on iTunes. Follow Kevin on Twitter and Facebook