Coming home from work yesterday, the local sports talk affiliate "the Fan" was talking about how people's attitudes have changed since LeBron James came "home" to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Let's be crystal clear. LeBron James did not return to the Cleveland Cavaliers out of the goodness of his heart. He made a business decision to leave to go to Miami, and then he made a business decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Let me lay out why it's an important delineation to make.
I've mentioned this before, I personally have family in Detroit. When I went to see them in Detroit last year, instead of congratulating me on the Cleveland Cavaliers breaking Cleveland's Championship drought, they said "so, Dan Gilbert bought you guys your championship." I'm not sure people outside of the Detroit and Cleveland areas are familiar with Dan Gilbert, so let give you a bit of a history lesson....
Dan Gilbert graduated from Michigan State University in 1984 and then went on to graduate Wayne State University Law School in Detroit. Long story short, Gilbert's more or less a self-made man. He co-founded Rock Financial in 1985 and within 10 years established one of the fastest-growing direct mortgage lenders online. In the year 2000, the company was re-branded as Quicken Loans and Gilbert's personal worth as the CEO skyrocketed. It was here that Gilbert began sniffing around for an NBA franchise to buy. After being declined by the Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks, he bought the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005. Outside of the sports world, Gilbert's worth grew to an estimated 5 BILLION DOLLARS.
On the court, the Cleveland Cavaliers got better and better every year with LeBron James at the helm, and in the arena, Dan Gilbert updated and renovated the Q and the surrounding city in a similar manner in which he is currently aiding and renovating in Downtown Detroit.
If you're reading this article, you already know about LeBron James the athlete, we don't need to rehash his basketball legacy. What I want to make very clear and concise, is that LeBron, first and foremost, is about the LeBron Brand. He is his own corporation. Decisions are made like other corporation make decisions. PR firms, lawyers, managers, all have a contributing voice. When LeBron James finished his first stint with the Cavs, and then went to South Beach, part of his decision making process was to build a Superteam. Not just a Superteam for it's own sake, but to bypass the role of the owner and the GM. Not that LeBron necessarily hated Dan Gilbert and Danny Ferry (or Chris Grant), but he wanted control of the process with whom he was going to play basketball with.
I think that LeBron's wake up call in Miami was when Pat Riley basically told LeBron that he was in charge (which he was) and that LeBron was just a player. And when Micky Arison told LeBron that he was the owner of the Heat to win, but to also make money, and that LeBron was just a player. Now I wasn't in the room, so my comments are speculation. But if I'm not right, why did LeBron leave Miami? It was because LeBron's Brand was too big to be just a player. You could say that it was his ego, but that would be unfair. Once Dwayne Wade's body began to break down, and Chris Bosh got those blood clots, LeBron realized his situation on the court was suddenly no better than it was in Cleveland. So when the opportunity presented itself for him to go elsewhere, LeBron leapt at it.
It's not about the NBA fans, it's not about Cleveland, and it's not about Miami. LeBron is a businessman in an athlete's jersey. He returned to Cleveland for the PR, sure, but that's only a small percentage of the equation. LeBron knows that wherever he goes, he will win, but he wanted to go somewhere where he could leverage the Owner and the General Manager. LeBron knew Dan Gilbert would spend money, and LeBron influenced Gilbert to blow through the salary cap. James' returning to Cleveland wasn't a coming home party, it was a merger of the James Brand and the Gilbert Brand. Two Businessmen entering into a marriage of convenience.
What does Dan Gilbert get? Well, he wants to win, of course, but every time LeBron James steps on the home court, his name is associated with Gilbert's Quicken Loans. Being associated with one of the top 2 or 3 athletes in the world is plain ol' good marketing strategy. Gilbert's no fool, either, though. Even Gilbert knows that all athletes get old, and I believe part of the reason Gilbert bought a casino was a hedging of his bets, if you will, against the whims of athletes.
Here's an interesting question, though. How does the James/Gilbert Partnership end?
Does LeBron go out the Kobe Way? Basically draining the life out of the franchise that shared in all of his highlights? As injuries accumulate in his fading years, the Cavaliers fortunes decline with James' health.
Does LeBron go out the Gretzky Way? Gilbert has LeBron traded to a sucker, like the Knicks or the Lakers, once he is too old to win anything. That seems unimaginable today, but Father Time is undefeated. (LeBron has a no-trade clause, you say? How's that working out for Carmello?)
Win/Win? LeBron retires at 34-ish, then promptly buys the team from Gilbert. If we were in the Jack Casino, I'd give this 20-1 odds. Why so slim? Deep in Gilbert AND James' hearts, they both want to win. In a marriage of convenience, how many divorces are win/win?