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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

LeBron's choice proves he's a paper King

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There was no mention of the beloved boys and girls from the Boys & Girls Club, who surrounded LeBron James at his handpicked venue for the most tone-deaf production sports has ever seen. Surprising, too, since Jim Gray asked LeBron every other question imaginable in this embarrassing sideshow, a night that will be remembered as the moment when NBA basketball -- a game built with the sweat and sacrifice of athletes worthy of adulation -- met the dumbed-down world of reality TV.

The only things missing were a panel of snarky judges, a snappy-looking gal with a microphone and some "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" riffs when Gray asked the question -- finally, after meandering through a minefield of overindulgence rivaled only by James' own sense of entitlement.

"LeBron," Gray said, pausing for effect at the low point of this farce, this kick in the stomach to what little in sports was still sacred and admirable, "what's your decision?"

The decision, as I've made quite clear in past columns, was the wrong one. No surprise. James, a 25-year-old superstar going on 18, began showing his true colors within an hour after the Cavs got bounced from the playoffs by the Celtics. That night, after an embarrassing loss in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, James turned his attention immediately to something that would've been nowhere near Michael Jordan's list of priorities after falling short in his first few attempts at a title.

James, the undisputed champion of free agency, moved right on to thoughts of sitting down and plotting his future with his "team." Only he didn't mean the basketball team picking up the tape and towels and wreckage of a disappointing season. He didn't mean Mike Brown, who'd later get fired for what turned out to be no reason. And he didn't mean Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who'd given 12 years of his life to a Cleveland basketball franchise that deserves better -- a franchise that is better than the self-proclaimed King who walked away from a team and a city Thursday night -- for what? For a ready-made championship yacht that's waxed and polished and ready to set sail in Miami?

James had spoken of using this free-agent journey as a means to transport the NBA back to its glory days, with rivalries and drama and the best players trying to replicate the struggle of Bird vs. Magic, Lakers vs. Celtics, Jordan vs. the Pistons. The opportunity was right in front of him, but he chose himself over the game. All of it was lip service, and shame on us -- shame on me -- for having believed a word of it.

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"You can't do that if you're making this decision," said a team executive who'd been involved in this endless courtship, this vapid quest for the King's affections. "It's contradictory."

And that is what James proved himself to be Thursday night: A contradiction. An athlete who loves the chase but can't handle the failure. A star who craves the bright lights, but only wants them to show his good side.

Owner Dan Gilbert said it much better than I ever could, so let's turn the floor over to him. In an open letter to Cavs fans, Gilbert wrote a tour de force that perfectly captured this flimsy, cowardly "decision" -- a plot so empty and devoid of substance that it needed its own infomercial, and a bad one at that. The emcee should've been a vacuum salesman, or the loudmouth who sells the Chopper in the middle of the night, when hard-working people in basketball are trying to make responsible decisions.

But I digress. On to Gilbert:

"As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier," Gilbert wrote. "This was announced with a several-day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his 'decision' unlike anything ever 'witnessed' in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment."

Oh, it gets better.

LeBron James might be happy with his decision but he took the easy way out. (Getty Images)  
LeBron James might be happy with his decision but he took the easy way out. (Getty Images)  
"You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal," Gilbert wrote. "You have given so much and deserve so much more. In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight: "I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE. "You can take it to the bank."

I have never been a Gilbert fan, but I am now. I'll be rooting for the Cavs, whose proudest days are remembered for likeable stars like Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, Mark Price and Craig Ehlo. Those Cavs teams never won a title, never overcame the struggle against Jordan's Bulls. But to this day, those teams hold a special place in the hearts of Cleveland sports fans -- a place that James has lost forever, and never really earned in the first place.

The saddest part is that James will miss out on the satisfaction that comes from finally breaking through in the NBA after failing, and he doesn't even seem to realize it.

If James had gone to New York, it would've been understandable. (Still no excuse for the pompous way this was done, but understandable.) He would've been embracing the challenge of winning in a hard place to win, of doing it bigger than almost any star of the league had ever done. But James didn't choose that. He did what he's always done, only on a grander scale this time: He insulated himself, crawled without a whimper into a protective cocoon spun by Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley in Miami.

If James had chosen the Bulls, it would've been understandable, too. The chance to play in the city that Jordan owned? Too much for James to contemplate. He looked forward to this free-agent charade as a crowning achievement, forgetting about what has always made champions in this sport: Beating the best. James, if nothing else on this pathetic night for the NBA, proved that he isn't up to that task and doesn't even want to try. He doesn't want to beat the best; he wants the best to get him his rings already so his accomplishments can catch up to his hubris -- so he can cash in on this make-believe legend in what has been a make-believe career. James' reputation went from questionable to counterfeit Thursday night, with an assist from the adoring network that pays billions to broadcast a sport that James, ironically, has now done far more damage than good.

Legend is earned, and James delivered a stunning insult to those who have tried and failed to win championships on their merits, with their teams. And the scariest part? When James was asked during this insufferable love fest if he'd ever want to go through this again, do you know how the King responded? Do you know what the champion of free agency, the counterfeit superstar, the leading man of nothing but a reality show didn't say?

He didn't say no.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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