Eight years ago, LeBron James, granted his freedom to choose his NBA employer for the first time in a career that had already earned him two MVP awards and that had energized the previously moribund Cleveland Cavaliers, announced that he was leaving Cleveland and joining his friend Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat. Or, as James put it at the time, “taking my talents to South Beach.”
It is difficult to recall a bigger public relations fiasco for a superstar athlete that didn’t involve a felony charge. James was vivisected by Cleveland fans (who burned his jersey in the streets), by then-NBA commissioner David Stern (who called the decision “ill-conceived”), by Michael Jordan himself (who mocked James by noting that he’d never join up with his rivals; he’d try to beat them) and by essentially every sportswriter on the planet, to whom James had just handed an easy half-decade of hot takes. One of these sportswriters was me, who wrote that what became known as simply "The Decision" “treated the millions of people watching like stupid, mindless consumers, empty lemmings ready to follow Sport into the abyss.”
Today, with the news that James is leaving Cleveland — again — after signing a four-year, $153.3 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, I think it’s probably time to admit we got all the whole thing wrong. Sure, the optics of that night eight years ago remain pretty gross, with James framing a cold-blooded business decision as a prime-time special complete with advertisements for his own products and the University of Phoenix, of all things. All this while breaking his fanbase’s heart with phrasing that sounded like he just wanted to party for a couple of years. But the idea that we were all so angry with James for finally taking control of his own career and making decisions that were right for him, not for the billionaire owners thriving because of his talents and labors, seems absurd, reductionist and flat wrong today.
The reaction so far to James’ Lakers deal is more muted, for sure. Part of this is because it’s not much of a surprise — once a leaver, always a leaver, particularly when the Cavaliers looked so feeble around him during the 2018 NBA Finals. But there’s also a sense that during the better part of the last decade professional basketball has changed a lot. And James himself is the primary reason for that.
In the eight years since James’ decision, the idea of athlete autonomy has caught on in the public consciousness.
Indeed, in the eight years since James’ decision, the idea of athlete autonomy — of a player having more control and power over his or her own career, of not just being an employee of an owner who is not the one out running and dunking — has caught on in the public consciousness in a way it had failed to before. James’ move was the instigating act.
When James went to Miami to create his superteam, it led to other superteams, some successful, some not. (Derrick Rose at one point thought his New York Knicks were a superteam, which just makes you sad). It led unquestionably to the Golden State Warriors, the true dynasty of this era. Without James’ move, it’s unlikely that Kevin Durant, perhaps the game’s second-best player, would have ever gone to the Warriors — a team that had already won one championship, a team that is renowned for its chemistry and faith in its players rather than an utilitarian top-down system, a team with a coach who will tell anyone who will listen that it’s a player’s league, not a coach’s one.
An argument can be made of course that superteams are bad for the sport; many NBA fans don’t like that Golden State is such heavy favorites every year. But rising NBA ratings and the sport’s cultural ubiquity hardly are indicators of a league receding.
The NBA union has also grown more powerful since The Decision, and, tellingly, the NBA itself has ceded to athlete empowerment, selling individual players rather than teams and encouraging players to express themselves both on and off the court. The NFL will fine players who don’t stand for the flag; the NBA’s biggest star can call the president of the United States “U bum” on Twitter, and be praised almost unilaterally among NBA circles for it. (It even shut Trump up.) The NBA is a player’s league now, and it’s better for it.
But it makes sense that James would lead the charge. He stared an entire sports culture in the face and said, “I’m going where I want to go.” Since then, all he has done is make every single NBA Finals that has been played. The superteams James blazed the trail for have now changed the entire sport, with general managers who don’t have superstars essentially tanking their whole seasons (or multiple seasons) so they can get one. (This is essentially the Knicks’ entire current strategy.)
Current Spurs star Kawhi Leonard has reportedly told the Spurs he wants to be traded even though he is still under contract. Eight years ago, that sort of move would get you vilified in the press and throughout the league. Now no one blinks. That’s James’ influence.
James returned to Cleveland three years ago and ultimately won the Cavaliers their elusive championship. With that team falling apart around him, it’s no longer surprising that he would want to go elsewhere.
James returned to Cleveland three years ago and ultimately won the Cavaliers their elusive championship. With that team falling apart around him, it’s no longer surprising that he would want to go elsewhere. Can you imagine if he had joined the hated Lakers eight years ago? But now, everyone will understand. He is a guy getting out of a bad situation and going to be a better one. Who among us would not do the same?
Whether or not you like the Lakers, or even whether or not you like Lebron James, his influence has been inarguably positive. Because of him, we now have a better understanding of athletes’ contexts, and a better appreciation of why they should have more autonomy over their conditions. It is difficult sometimes to find progress in the world. Here is a place where we have made progress. Here is a place where we are smarter.
Will Leitch is a national correspondent for MLB, contributing editor at New York Magazine, host of “The Will Leitch Show” on Sports Illustrated and the founder of Deadspin.