In July of 2010, LeBron James and ESPN collaborated on a ground-breaking new kind of television special. “The Decision,” an announcement-centered broadcast that featured the league’s best player in a purple-ish patterned Oxford shirt, ostentatiously sitting in a director’s chair across from legendary sports media huckster Jim Gray, was a transformative moment for NBA superstars. By bringing the tension between his clout, his audience, and nearly every franchise in the league to the surface with such a novel and demonstrative format, James begat an entirely new era of player agency.
There were other factors to the change James wrought, including the literally conspiratorial way he and his new teammates to be, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, had been planning their arrival to the Miami Heat for about two years. It’s all very complicated, what James did—dissertations could be written about it, and should be—but the immediate sign of his decision’s power could be felt in the red-toned AM radio call-ins, message board statements, and barroom shouts he inspired out of middle-aged men used to offseasons that saw much less individual agency, and much more organizational fealty, out of their stars. LeBron had made people mad in the distinct way that only real change can.
Eight years later, the seed of that change has grown to unleash consequences out of LeBron’s control, and often ones that don’t exactly benefit him. The best players in the NBA have followed his blueprint, exerting a greater awareness of leverage against the teams that drafted them in order to land in more optimal situations sooner. In the cases of Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, this brand of leverage play has led to forced trades in advance of their respective free agencies, but also to prioritizing situations in which they could avoid playing with LeBron.
Playing with James, nearly everyone has observed, is essentially inextricable from playing in his shadow. The perpetually honest Kevin Durant said as much explicitly during his media availability recently, lamenting the concept of being LeBron’s teammate. Durant suggested that playing with LeBron requires having a certain stylistic hegemony imposed upon you, in which one of the greatest to ever do it is allowed to cook freely but in which you—however good you may be—are expected to move to certain spots, waiting for the ball for your two-second solo in the orchestra, and then make up for James’ annually increasing lack of defensive duties on the other side of the court.
None of this, on my part or on Durant’s, is meant to slander LeBron. It is all evident to anyone who has paid attention to LeBron’s singular career, and it’s all within a territory anyone with his benchmark talent would stake out and foster for themselves. The point here is that James, in freeing himself from old concepts about franchise loyalty and how you’re allowed to move around the league, has forged his own kind of kingdom that other ad-campaign-worthy stars see and want for themselves.
To be sure, LeBron’s more hands-on approach to the arc of his own stardom isn’t completely unprecedented. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, and other titans before him all pushed or walked their way out of middling franchises to achieve greater heights. But all of them, in doing so, were aberrations amidst a culture of franchise loyalty. They did not have television specials that so starkly said: “You can do this too. We are the ones with the power, and we can make them work for us.”
Now that Leonard, Irving, Durant, and anyone else enjoying greatness this side of Barack Obama’s presidency have heard that message, James appears to have ushered in an era of player movement that makes his life much harder. He has done an impressive job with his new Los Angeles Lakers, with the attention and stakes that his presence carry bringing new levels of performance out of some of the young core he has landed with. Adding another experienced perennial all-star to his roster will prove difficult in the summer of 2019, though, because rare is the free and powerful man who chooses anything less than a self-ruled land.