By Jason Keidel
Curt Flood and Marvin Miller must be smiling.
While the baseball titans never worked for the NBA, you have to wonder if this tornadic, free agent anarchy was their goal. And if their mission is finally accomplished.
For far too long, pro athletes were the exclusive domain of the team that drafted them. Baseball was the only sport with the antitrust exemption, but the corporate rigidity was felt across American team sports.
But If you needed any more proof that the NBA is a now player’s league, just browse the events of the week. Last night, the NBA Draft just spawned a new brood of millionaires, all of whom hope to reach the high-orbit of basketball royalty, like the bejeweled group of free agents who will become filthy rich after July 1.
LeBron James singularly orchestrated the Big Three union. And now that he has opted out of his Miami Heat contract, he’s once again the Alpha Male of pro sports. Teams are scrambling to find the proper finances and expiring contracts, flipping over cushions for salary cap coin.
Everyone has a theory. The Clippers, where Chris Paul is LeBron’s de facto brother. The Lakers, where he would join Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, even if Kobe is the only one actually there and has inhaled nearly half the team’s cap space.
It’s hard to imagine two Type A players like LeBron and Kobe sharing a court. And then asking Anthony to check his colossal ego at the door for “not one but two” players.
Even the Cavaliers were a possibility, with the whole homecoming hero thing. They reportedly pondered a trade – their top pick and some dead weight for Kevin Love, leaving LeBron with a gold-plated path home. (At least until Love said he wouldn’t sign an extension with Cleveland.)
We’ve even heard about the Rockets dumping Jeremy Lin to make room for LBJ, leaving Harden, Howard, and James. And, if you want to stretch the fantasy until it snaps, he could come to New York, play for a pittance with Melo, and then get his money in 2015.
You can make a montage of scenarios where LeBron takes his talents away from South Beach. But does he want to be seen as the ultimate mercenary, a hard-hearted star who refused to play unless he was assured the best roster?
The inherent heroism of a champion is his willingness to conquer some colossal deficit. If LeBron just drifts across the map every few years, then he will have no historical home. And that should matter to him. Every NBA icon is associated with a particular team, from Russell to Magic to Michael. So LeBron needs more than a ring or two and his ephemeral perch as the best player on the planet.
If Dwyane Wade shaves his salary and Chris Bosh follows suit, would LeBron really uproot his family again? It says here that his sense of his sport’s history is too keen to become an athletic vagabond, no matter how well-heeled he would be.
No, it says here that LeBron James is too savvy to jump ship just because he fell three games short of a title to the selfless yet ravenous Spurs, who had momentum, mojo, and revenge on their side. But he surely will make the Heat sweat, which is a good thing. Complacency is the bane of any dynasty. And LeBron will make his money without having to leave the nest.
Even in baseball, we’ll see Mike Trout sign a $144 million contract before he hits his epic maturity. Not even Flood and Miller could have seen their beloved game blossom into a sport of tycoons, where the average yearly salaries have mushroomed from five-figures to seven or eight digits.
Sports have become the province of players, as it should be. We don’t attend games or click on our plasma screens to watch the owners own, the general managers manage, or the coaches coach. We lust for those glistening gladiators on the hardwood, gridiron, and diamond, the very ones who made us frothing fans in the first place.
It’s good to be the king, and no one knows better than King James. Somewhere, the true kingmakers are smiling.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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