On Friday, NBA superstar LeBron James, the league’s most highly sought after free agent, finally revealed the team with which he would sign his next contract: the Cleveland Cavaliers, his hometown club and the one he left four years ago to play for the Miami Heat. Sports Illustrated broke the story, setting off a global frenzy of discussion and debate. Here, Charles Fountain, an associate professor of journalism in the College of Arts, Media and Design whose expertise includes sports journalism and media, weighs in on the magnitude of this story and how the headlines will change.
What is at the heart of this story and why is it so globally appealing?
This story has always been about fans and their attachment to their teams. Few things in this world are as deep rooted and as unshakable as a fan’s connection to a favorite team. Championship teams, mediocre teams, last place teams, it’s all the same; year after year we put on our caps and jerseys and give over our hearts. Marriages disintegrate, families fracture, jobs come and go; but the Red Sox, the Cowboys, the Red Wings, or the Cavaliers are forever. When LeBron James was playing for the Cavaliers, he was living the fantasy of every fan who ever lived—growing up and playing for your hometown team. When he left, he not only jilted Cavaliers fans, he pushed the emotional buttons of every fan in every sport in every city in the America. If LeBron had grown up in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York and left Cleveland for Miami, nobody would have cared. Had he grown up in Cleveland, but started his career in Denver or Dallas Portland, and left for Miami, nobody would have cared. But he didn’t, he grew up Akron, played for Cleveland; and were it us, we told ourselves, we would have made a different choice, we would have never forsaken the team we loved.
How will this decision change the narrative of his career?
As reviled as was his decision to take his “talents to South Beach,” this decision to become the prodigal son will be just as celebrated. He’ll instantly go from being just about the most despised player in the game to maybe the most loved. And maybe that’s part of what’s driving this decision. LeBron James has long been in a class with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Bill Russell, one of the greatest players to ever tie up a sneaker. But he’s never felt the love the others did. That will change now that he’s home.
The sports media, particularly ESPN, has been criticized from time to time for its plethora of King James coverage. What’s your take on how LeBron has dominated the headlines in recent years?
Once you get beyond the front page, journalism is ultimately about storytelling, and storytelling is about people. Ever since John L. Sullivan and Babe Ruth, sports writing has been about mythmaking. Even in a team sport, it comes down to one player who makes the shot, gets the hit, scores the goal. And one guy who gets the headline. Nobody is a bigger sports star today than LeBron James. He will dominate the headlines until he surrenders the stage to the next big thing.