It was a muggy July day in Cleveland as Jerry Reinsdorf and team arrived in two black SUVs to court LeBron James to sign with their up-and-coming Chicago Bulls team. Their pitch? A star point guard, all world defense center, and $30M in cap space. Lebron listened patiently for three hours. This was the last of the six meetings he would take during this landscape altering summer of 2010.
LeBron James is back in Chicago this week for the second time since “The Decision” last July. The first time was for the Heat’s 93-89 loss to the Bulls on February 24. This time, of course, the stakes are far, far higher, and the fact that it is the Bulls battling the Heat for the Eastern Conference championship puts a sharper focus on one of the points that many commentators made at the time of “The Decision”, namely, that if LeBron really wanted the best opportunity to compete for multiple championships, Chicago and not Miami made the most sense. The Bulls’ performance during the regular season would seem to support this contention, which puts a spotlight on the question of why LeBron passed up Chicago.
No one knows exactly why Lebron chose to pass on the Windy City. There is no factual evidence to support any of the prevailing theories, only suppositions and speculations, simply because there is no hard evidence as to what dictated his thought process on this point. One possible reason that I will not discuss is the oft-bandied notion that LeBron, Wade and Bosh planned their union in advance, because (i) it’s been beaten to death and (ii) there’s no hard evidence for this either (if you have some, I, and the rest of the NBA-following world, would be interested to see it).
To many, Chicago seemed to offer the best opportunity for multiple championships because they had most of the essential components of a true team (as opposed to just a collection of individual talents) already in place last July. Derrick Rose was on the fast-track to stardom and offered the legitimate #2 option that LeBron never had in Cleveland (sorry, but Larry Hughes, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison don’t count). Joakim Noah excelled in defense, rebounding and the other “down-low dirty work” that is essential for any contender, part of which included the episodes of borderline dirty play (if not worse) that served to throw riled-up opponents off their games. Taj Gibson headed a group of capable bench players, and the day before “The Decision”, the Bulls signed Carlos Boozer to provide frontcourt scoring and more rebounding. After getting Boozer, the Bulls still had room for one more big-ticket free-agent signing, and it is hard now not to let the mind run wild with the possibilities if LeBron had chosen to go there. They won 62 games this year without him, after all.
So if we discount the possibility that the so-called “Scheme Team” had planned their union in advance, what are some possible reasons why LeBron decided Chicago wasn’t his kind of town?
Well, while the Bulls had plenty to offer, it wasn’t quite the slam dunk at the time that it now seems in retrospect. The Bulls were coming off a .500 season and had question marks at key places. Boozer has been injury-prone throughout his career and lived down to that billing this year. Tom Thibodeau had no prior head-coaching experience and, for all his plaudits as an assistant with the Celtics, it was unknown how he would fare in his new role. Heck, as good as Rose already was in his first two seasons, few if any thought he was capable of the leap that he made this year (a leap which, it should be pointed out, he probably would not have made with LeBron on the team, simply because he wouldn’t have been asked to shoulder so much of the offensive burden otherwise).
Those are the main possible basketball reasons. LeBron knew that, at this stage of his career, it was critical to be in a situation where he could contend for championships on an annual basis. In this sense, he was looking for the closest thing to a slam dunk that he could get, and in his mind, Chicago wasn’t it.
But there are other existing theories too.
One is that, while he would have been forever reviled in Cleveland anyways for leaving to go anywhere else, going to Chicago might have been seen as the ultimate insult because of the defeats suffered during the Jordan era (more on him in a moment). Perhaps at least part of LeBron was thinking, “They’ll be mad no matter what, but perhaps they’ll understand (i) Miami because, seriously, who could pass up the opportunity to play with Wade and Bosh in their primes or (ii) New York because, well, it’s New York. But Chicago? They’ll never understand that.” The idea that Chicago was less than a slam dunk basketball-wise would have reinforced that line of thinking. Yes, I’m probably giving LeBron too much credit for giving any thought whatsoever to how Cavs fans might feel, but who knows for absolutely sure?
The other possible reason? The obvious — it would require chasing the Ghost of 23. A task that Kobe Bryant practically begged for three summers ago (that, and a ride to Pluto), may have been precisely the factor that turned The King away. It wouldn’t be such a big deal for a big man, or even a point guard such as Rose, but any talented wing player who considers Chicago as a possible destination will immediately face non-stop comparisons to #23. That factor surely weighed on Wade, and had to have weighed on LeBron at least a little too (again, assuming that the so-called “Scheme Team” hadn’t already set their destiny). Any talented wing player looking to carve out his own legacy (or a group legacy with others) would have to consider the ramifications of playing in the shadow of the player generally considered the greatest of them all.
So here are some “alternate” possible reasons, if you will, why LeBron made the Second City his second (or lower) choice last summer. The biggest question of all, of course, is whether he made the wrong choice. That will start to be answered this week and next, but won’t be definitely answered for the next several years as Bulls vs. Heat assumes its’ place as the next great rivalry in the NBA.