LeBron James, The Step Back

The day LeBron James really made “The Decision”


LeBron James is a shrewd human. In fact, James is so shrewd, he was able to dupe many of us eight years ago today. Please consider the following annotation from Nov. 12, 2009. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just defeated the Miami Heat 111–104. Of course, J.J. Hickson led the team in plus-minus that night. Meanwhile, the immortal Jamario Moon, led the second-unit with eight points and six rebounds. LeBron James scored 34 points, but raised eyebrows with his post-game comments.

On Nov. 12, 2009, James announced he would give up No. 23. He specifically cited his respect for Michael Jordan in making the jersey change. It was an act of deference to someone many believe is the greatest player ever. Especially, those born before 1995. It was respectful, yet strangely random. Still, the sudden announcement didn’t trigger much suspicion among the masses. No one seemed to question James’ motives in the aftermath.

To fully assess the situation, let’s trek back to 2003 when the Miami Heat retired No. 23 before Jordan’s final game in Miami. Sure, Jordan never played for the Heat. However, Heat president, Pat Riley, wanted to honor his contributions to basketball. Riley declared, “No one will ever wear No. 23 for the Miami Heat.” Now, fast forward to the 2009-10 NBA season. Lebron James’ impending free agency was the biggest story in basketball. And on an autumn November night in Miami, he dropped the biggest clue about his next destination.

“Um, I think no guy in the NBA should ever wear 23.”

-LeBron James

That’s right. James used a routine post-game interview to foreshadow the climax of “The Decision.” And we didn’t take the hint. Nearly 10 million people watched the television spectacle on Jul. 8, 2010, not realizing that James foreshadowed his decision seven months earlier in that interview with the late Craig Sager. People were led to believe the November number change was about showing reverence to Michael Jordan. However, this allowed James to control the narrative. It was a preemptive strike (probably…maybe). He was able to quell any potential discourse over the number he couldn’t wear for the Miami Heat before it started.

For those interested in psychoanalysis, let’s say that James knew he was going to South Beach all along. The self-proclaimed basketball historian had to know No. 23 wasn’t available with the Miami Heat. So of course, his ego wouldn’t allow him to appear less significant than the ghost of Michael Jordan. In other words, imagine Pat Riley telling James he couldn’t wear No. 23 because of Jordan, when Jordan never even played for the Heat. Surely, James knows his own greatness and doesn’t believe he takes a backseat to anyone. Unless he chooses to. And he chose to smokescreen the public to avoid having Jordan’s lure minimize his own greatness.

Well, perhaps it wasn’t that deep.

But, why did LeBron James bail on the pledge if it was truly about honoring Michael Jordan? His decision to don No. 23 again contradicts said pledge. James specifically said no one should ever wear that number. He felt Jordan deserved that honor, at a minimum. The gesture seemed genuine given the level of thought used in the explanation. Conversely, it proved to be an elaborate ruse or at the very least a dramatic change-of-heart, one James has gone unchallenged on this whole thing to date.

You can chalk it up to short-term memory, apathy or adoration. Whichever way you slice it, LeBron James has proven to be slicker than an oil spill when it comes to controlling narratives. So, let’s go forth and forever recognize this day as the true anniversary of “The Decision.”



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