Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lebron James and Tisha B'Av Lessons

AS THE NBA FINALS continue, all eyes remain on LeBron James. The public's perception of LeBron has undergone an astounding transformation. From 2003-2010 LeBron was a universally popular. Not only was he a jaw dropping athlete and a fantastic all around player, but he was likable, friendly and clean cut.

His teammates loved him, fans adored him and he was a Madison Avenue darling. In 2010 he earned $30 million in endorsements, more than double any other NBA player. However, looming on the horizon was his impending free agency. In 2010 LeBron was going to be able to sign with the team of his choosing, and the rumors were swirling. Would LeBron resign with his “hometown” Cleveland (he grew up in nearby Akron) or sign with another team. A player of LeBron's caliber being available in free agency is extremely rare, and Chicago, New York and Miami were viewed as leading the pack to compete with Cleveland. LeBron was very coy with his intentions, which only fueled the speculation that he might leave Cleveland.

For Cleveland the stakes were extremely high. A city on the decline, LeBron was the shining light for the city best known for their river lighting on fire. The franchise's value was worth almost twice as much with LeBron on the team, and some joked that the city's economy was predominantly based on LeBron James. It might not have been a joke. When LeBron very publicly announced his decision to “take his talents to South Beach” the city of Cleveland freaked out. They burned his jersey in the streets and the Cavs' owner Daniel Gilbert wrote a crazed Comic Sans font public letter excoriating LeBron and his decision to go to Miami.

The venom was not contained to Cleveland. LeBron became NBA public enemy #1. In a February poll by Nielsen he was voted as the 6th most hated player in sports. He was booed in every NBA arena. What caused all of this animosity?

The most popular answer was that LeBron had become hated not because he left Cleveland, but because of how he did it. There might be some truth to that, certainly in Cleveland. However, how much less would they have hated LeBron if he had left in a more respectful way? A little, maybe, but I don't think it would have been that much different. No matter how he left, it wouldn't have changed the fact that he made their team irrelevant and taken away the pride and joy of their city. They would have viewed him as a traitor no matter what.

The more interesting question is, why did the rest of the country care? People said they booed LeBron for how he treated Cleveland, but when did fans start caring about NBA stars mistreating and leaving opposing teams?

Shaq left Orlando for LA and crippled their franchise. No one booed him. Vince Carter sulked in Toronto and publicly demanded a trade even though he was still under contract. No one felt bad for Toronto's fans. Last year Carmelo held the Denver Nuggets hostage, demanding a trade while under contract and being a season long distraction. No one has booed Carmelo for mistreating the Denver fans. Kobe Bryant publicly demanded a trade in 2007 while under contract. No one booed him. Dwight Howard demanded a trade all season and called for his coach to be fired, causing a huge public embarrassment to the franchise. Opposing fans didn't boo Dwight Howard.

All of these players have publicly sold out their teammates and their fans, so LeBron was not the only one to do so. Plus, LeBron was not under contract when he left, while the majority of the other players were. So why is LeBron singled out as the bad guy?

I think there are some other factors at play here.

First, there is the disappointment. So many other teams thought they had a chance to get LeBron that their fans began to dream of LeBron as a Knick, Clipper or Bull. When he chose to go to another team they were angry. Not for the Cleveland fans, but for themselves.

Second, when LeBron teamed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, fans around the league were scared that their teams no longer had a shot at winning a championship. With three stars choosing to team up, did their teams have a chance? While fans of many teams know that their teams won't win it all, they want to believe they have a chance and that the championship is not predetermined. Whiletheir fears of a Miami Heat dynasty might have been overblown, as Dallas showed last year, it is a deflating for fans to think their team does not have a shot. That is also one of the main reasons that MLB's caste system of financial haves and have nots has caused baseball to lose many fans.

In America we like to believe that everyone has a fair chance to win, and with a combination of luck and skill any franchise could eventually become a winner. That is the essence of the salary cap and the draft. NBA fans felt that slipping away when LeBron joined two other stars to team up for “not three, not four, not five...” championships.

Fans don't LeBron because he mistreated Cleveland fans, they couldn't care less about them. They boo him because not only did he not choose their team, he instead tried to create a super team that upset the competitive balance in the NBA.

I think this is very instructive for all of us.

When it comes to Sinas Chinam, senseless hatred, we have to ask ourselves when does the action of the other person end and my responsibility for my reaction begin. In Jewish law a person needs to ask for forgiveness three times from someone they've wronged. After the third time? The deficiency is now in the hands of the person who refuses to grant forgiveness. At some point in the process the issue ceases to be about the person asking for forgiveness and becomes about the one refusing to grant it.

So too, in the story in the Talmud we often reference on Tisha B'Av, the story of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, the party's host refuses to give in the slightest to Bar-Kamtza. The Talmud never tells us why the anonymous host disliked Bar-Kamtza, sending the message that it doesn't really matter. There are all sorts of reasons why people dislike each other, some of which are justified. Even if they were justified, if the other party sincerely reaches out for forgiveness, a response of obstinacy says more about the forgiver than the offending party.

When it comes to LeBron, when people are booing him, the question is not “what does it about LeBron?”, the real question is, “What does it say about the people booing LeBron?”

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco