National Columnist

Gilbert's admirable fire might be too hot to handle


This isn't about me, but if it was, here's what I would tell you: That I love Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert more than I have ever loved the owner of a professional sports franchise. At this moment I love him more than I have ever loved an athlete, and as a kid in Oklahoma I loved me some Billy Sims. It's possible I love Dan Gilbert more than I love my parents, my wife and my kids. But not my dog. Love my dog.

But Gilbert's a close second, even if his reaction to LeBron James' defection makes me wonder if Gilbert is housetrained. He seems a little unhinged. Unrefined. Hell, he's raw like road rash.

Dan Gilbert's grasp of diplomacy went missing after LeBron James' decision. (AP)  
Dan Gilbert's grasp of diplomacy went missing after LeBron James' decision. (AP)  
He's beautiful.

Gilbert freaked out when James announced last week on ESPN that he was leaving the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Gilbert posted an "open letter to fans" on the Cavaliers' website that called James "heartless" and "callous" and "our former hero." And then Gilbert ceased with the niceties. He called James "narcissistic" and said James' decision was a "shocking act of disloyalty" and a "cowardly betrayal."

So of course Gilbert is being ripped for it. Classy Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote that Gilbert "came off like a creep" and "leaving this idiot was the right move" for James. Wilbon decided that Gilbert's image "ought to be taking a lot worse beating than LeBron's."

Which just goes to show that even a smart man, which Wilbon is, can have a stupid opinion. Which that was.

But if this story isn't about me, it's damn sure not about Michael Wilbon. It's about Dan Gilbert, and what his furious letter about James might have done to his franchise.

It sure didn't help it.

And I say that with a heavy heart, because as I've written, I'm all about Dan Gilbert. Do I root for his team? No. But I don't wish negativity on the Cavs, although I fear that's what Gilbert's tirade might accomplish. There are tons of people who understand what Gilbert did, who like what he did, maybe even love what he did.

None of those people play in the NBA.

Here is how NBA players will view Gilbert: That dude's crazy, and not in the Mark Cuban, defend-my-team-to-the-death kind of way. They'll view Gilbert as crazy in the don't-you-EVER-cross-me kind of way.

There are unique circumstances here, but it doesn't matter. It won't register with players that James was a local Cleveland hero, that he personally approved (or didn't disapprove) radical, franchise-shaking moves designed to keep him happy. The Cavs fired their coach. They essentially fired their general manager. The two most important people in the organization, not counting the owner and the superstar, are gone. Why? Because the owner thought the superstar wanted it that way. And still the superstar left. By announcing it on national TV. Without giving his hometown team a blow-softening phone call ahead of time.

When that prime-time special began, the Cavaliers were worth roughly $476 million. Less than 30 minutes later, according to Forbes Magazine, the franchise was worth nearly $100 million less. All because LeBron James is gone.

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Given all of that, what James did to Cleveland -- how he did it to Cleveland -- was mind-bogglingly cold.

What Gilbert did in response was mind-bogglingly vindictive, and while I love what he did, this isn't about me. This is about Gilbert, and he was vindictive, and for that he will pay a price. Mark my words: His team will pay a price, because Gilbert crossed a line you simply do not cross.

Call it the Nolan Richardson Rule.

Richardson was the coach at Arkansas in February 2002, his team 13-13 and everyone in town angry about it, when he dared his bosses to fire him. "If they go ahead and pay me my money," he said, "they can take this job tomorrow."

Days later Arkansas paid Richardson his money and took his job. Richardson responded by suing the university, and eight years later he remains out of college coaching. He'll never coach in college again, and why? Because he crossed a line you simply do not cross. He told his school to fire him -- and then sued when it took him up on that offer. No school will hire Richardson now, not with this in mind: If we fire him some day, that crazy coach could sue US. Richardson is un-hireable because he's un-fireable.

The same will hold for Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers. His post-decision rant against James will scare away potential free agents. If I leave Cleveland some day, that crazy owner could do that to ME. That's a risk some free agents will take, players on the level of Jason Kapono or Eldridge Recasner. But great players? All-Stars? They'll have options, including teams whose owners haven't publically eviscerated a player for exercising his rights as a free agent.

That's my theory, and I ran it by some agents. I wanted agents who would talk to me on the record, without fear of backlash from either side, so I called agents of other sports to ask about Gilbert's reaction to James.

Baseball agent John Boggs, whose clients have included Tony Gwynn and Adrian Gonzalez, said Gilbert's reaction "definitely isn't a selling point ... you can be disappointed, but to go to that extreme, I don't understand it. It wouldn't help him land any player I know."

I talked to four other agents, two from the NFL. I got versions of that same quote, over and over again: After publicly smearing James, Gilbert will have a tough time signing marquee free agents.

I hope they're wrong, but I bet they're not. LeBron James ripped a gash in Gilbert's franchise -- and Gilbert, in his fury, spilled acid into the wound.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. More importantly, he is 4-0 as an amateur boxer, with three knockouts. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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