Yes, it's a lot of fun to hate LeBron James right now, and over the last couple of years, it does kind of feel like the right thing to do. But objectively, let's make a quick rundown of a few things: First of all, LeBron James went to the Miami Heat through free agency, a right that every professional athlete has, and is right to have. Second, he didn't do anything that was actually flat-out wrong. James is still one of the NBA's primo good guys, a guy who hasn't actually done anything outrageously bad. I'm sure the people of Cleveland feel otherwise, but it isn't like James spotlighted that city by going out and killing someone, which is more than can be said for the most transcendent athlete in the history of Cleveland's Rust Belt brother-in-arms, Buffalo. And really, look at it from James's point of view: You can keep fighting away to carry a team full of worthless players and managers who don't know basketball in a city known well for being one of the most segregated in the country, a Rust Belt city which, while doing an admirable job getting back on its feet, still has a ways to go and is considered boring. On the other end is a warm-weather paradise which is one of the most integrated cities in the country - that's important, because you have kids, after all - playing for a team serious about being a contender, and the players for that team happen to be among your best friends. The city is known for having lots of things to see and do. Sure you'll be taking a pay cut, but when you're already a multimillionaire, a few million here and there is just splitting hairs. Which would you choose?
Yes, LeBron destroyed his legacy by making the leap, and he deprived himself of a chance to be in the argument as the greatest player ever. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Bill Russell are in that discussion because they provided cornerstones to teams that were rising powers and pushed them over the top. Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Hakeem Olajuwon saw teams through terrible times and were rewarded. James just rejected his placement to follow the leader and chase a free ring the way lots of players do, and James did it in his prime instead of taking the understandable route and doing it near the end of his career. But he will, no matter any outcome anymore, still be remembered as one of the greatest basketball players in history.
Anyway, take a close look at this list of cities: New York City. Chicago. Boston. Philadelphia. Miami. Which one of those cities doesn't belong with the others? That's right, even putting it in a strictly basketball context, Miami doesn't fit in. Somehow, the Miami Heat has developed ongoing rivalries with those other cities, especially New York City and Chicago. The first four cities have NBA teams among the classic, storied bunch of the league - The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics were both formed in 1946, when the NBA marks its true founding as the BAA; the Philadelphia 76ers were formed that same year as the Syracuse Nationals and moved to Philadelphia in 1963; and the Chicago Bulls were placed in 1967, after three other teams had failed there. The Miami Heat are also an expansion team, like the Bulls, but they were formed in 1988. Also, look at the other four cities - history centers, megalopolises around reeling in the Ellis Island immigrants. Miami is a known center of vice and neon. So you wonder about the Heat's rivalries and think, okay, how the hell did they ever get involved in this?
The Heat came into being as part of the NBA's 1988 expansions, which also included the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic, and Minnesota Timberwolves. One of the popular options for the name of the team was, believe it or not, the Miami Vice. Miami Vice being a choice for the team's name was the LEAST stupid way the Heat was handled back then; with a cast of kids and journeymen, the Heat somehow managed to win a whopping 15 games, and they had the lowest point production in the league. The NBA, in all its brilliance, decided somewhere along the line that the Heat were a Western Conference team, against all geographic logic. This meant they had some really long road trips. Their shortest divisional road trips were to Houston, which is over 900 miles down the road.
The next year, the league wised up and put the Heat into their proper conference, but it didn't do the team any favors. All that meant was that Miami now had to regularly play against the Bird Celtics, Jordan Bulls, Ewing Knicks, Thomas Pistons, and Barkley Sixers for what probably felt like an eternity. When all was said, would you rather lose to the Hakeem Rockets and Magic Lakers and, um... Drexler Trail Blazers and have the excuse of long road trips to blame? Or tour through that Eastern Conference gauntlet, still get blown out, and have no excuse? The undermanned Heat still eked out three more wins than their previous year, though, still posting losing seasons and, for awhile, not winning more than two games in a row. In 1991 they hired Kevin Loughery as their head coach, and despite losing a lot, he did just well enough for the Heat to squeak into the playoffs for the first time in 1992. Going against the defending champion Bulls, Miami was swept.
In 1993, the Heat traded their first-round pick to Detroit for their center, John Salley. Salley had played for two champion Pistons squads in The Motor City. Although met with optimism, Salley was more of a role-player for an awesome team like the Bad Boy Pistons of the 80's and not a keystone, so came the 1995 expansion draft, no one through a hissy when Salley was taken by the Toronto Raptors. In fact, the Heat did better without him, finally posting their first-ever winning record in 1994 - a paltry 42-40, but hey, a first winning record is a step in the right direction! A further step was taken in 1995 when the Heat hired their newest coach: Pat Riley, who led the Showtime Lakers! The Heat was the most-improved team in the league as they rolled to a 61-21 record in 1997.
It was around this time that Miami finally began to carve out its true niche in the NBA world. Riley began a set of fantastic player acquisitions, and several of the players he picked up went on to become identified primarily with the Miami Heat: Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and other great players led to the Heat picking up a first playoff seed in 1999. It was a strike-shortened season and the Heat were promptly upended by a Cinderella Knicks team, and the aftermath was a bit of bad luck as Mourning missed the entire following season with a rare kidney disorder. He returned with 13 games left but was a shell of his former self. The next couple of seasons were among the worst in team history, and Riley stepped down as coach to be the team President.
In 2003, it was rebuilding time, and in a fast city like Miami, you rebuild in a fast way, or something. Anyway, the Heat signed Lamar Odom, Rafer Alston, and Udonis Haslem that year, then they drafted a Marquette vet named Dwayne Wade. The new additions made the Heat, a team prognosticated to fail, into a resurgent team which made the playoffs and swept the Hornets. Members of that team have said it was the most fun they had in their pro careers. While all this was going on, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, the big guns for the Los Angeles Lakers, were a pair of alpha dogs from the Western Conference who were getting really, really pissed off at each other. Two big egos, one team, no room, you know? Anyway, it had a tipping point, Shaq wanted out, Kobe and Phil Jackson (who believed Shaq was underachieving at the best of times) were in no hurry to stop him. Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant were shipped to Los Angeles for Shaq, who came to Miami determined to prove his dominance for all time: He showed up in shape and invented another one of his nicknames (I've always been a Shaq fan, even long before I watched basketball, and I love his array of nicknames: The Big Aristotle, The Diesel, Shaq Fu - albeit that one coming from a bad, poorly-advised trip into video game stardom - The Big Cactus, Shaqtus, The Big Shamrock...) and led the Heat to the Conference Finals in his first year, losing to Detroit. After the Heat's head coach stepped down for personal reasons in the middle of the season, Riley took up the reins once again.
In 2006, the Heat played the Eastern Conference Finals again, this time beating their previous year's opponents, the Detroit Pistons. They went into their first NBA Finals ever, facing an offensive power in the Dallas Mavericks, also in their first-ever Finals. Dallas convincingly won the first two games, and were well on their way to winning game three before Wade led the Heat on a comeback. With newfound confidence, the Heat blew out the Mavericks in game four, and Dwayne Wade officially broke out in game five by posting 43 points in an overtime thriller which Miami also won. Before game six, Pat Riley famously declared "one suit, one shirt, one tie." I know, I didn't get it either, but the team did, and the Heat were champions after putting Dallas away in that sixth game. They were only the third NBA team to win a Finals series after trailing 2-0. Despite numerous misfortunes the following season - Riley leaving, Wade dislocating his shoulder - the Heat won 44 games, but they were handily swept out of the first round by the Bulls. Shaq said before that season the Heat would repeat, on the condition that Wade stayed healthy. Well, he didn't.
Shaq went to Phoenix - thus officially becoming Shaqtus - in 2008, and the Heat went right back to rebuilding. Given the number two pick in the 2008 draft lottery, they grabbed projected superstar Michael Beasley after Chicago took Derrick Rose. 'Twas a bad moment for the team, because while both were projected for stardom, Rose went on to become a shining star in Chicago as well as an MVP. Beasley "The Beast" - whom a good lot of Chicago fans were lobbying for in favor of Rose; there was a big division between fans of the two just before the draft - lasted two years being serviceable before getting traded to Minnesota. After a few years of trenching it, the Heat were good again in 2010, winning 47 games. In the 2010 offseason, those 47 wins caught the attention of Chris Bosh, the career holder of many individual records for the Toronto Raptors, whose team seemed forever in regression. He signed with Miami that offseason. It also caught the attention of LeBron James, that year's BIG free agent reward. James left his old team in the most classless fashion imaginable, but as I covered, you can't really blame him for the act of leaving. People speculated on the Heat, some predicting a disastrous ego clash and others, dominance. The Heat began that year 9-8 with James fighting with coach Eric Spoelstra, leading to rumors of Spoelstra's dismissal. Then the Heat stopped in Cleveland, and the reaction of the jilted Cavaliers fans just appeared to wake Miami the fuck up! The Heat have been on a tear ever since. They made the Finals in 2011, a rematch against Dallas, and lots of people believed James received Karmic retribution for the way he left Cleveland when Miami came up on the losing end that time.
The Big Three Heat isn't boding well for their image, though. Now, you had to know a team from a wealthy port city and party center like Miami wasn't going to stay down forever, not with everything the city itself has to offer. But the way Miami went about it made them into the NBA version of the New York Yankees. That's quite a trick, because people like me who only relatively recently started watching basketball already long believed that mantle was long taken by the Los Angeles Lakers and, to a lesser extent, the Boston Celtics. The Heat didn't help matters a whole lot when they went on to brag about how awesome they were going to be, introducing their new starting lineup in a glitzy ceremony with a stage and fireworks and everything! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmwJipHdqpA
Miami seems like such a natural place to place a basketball team, and I'm sure the Heat would have succeeded no matter what and become one of the league's real generational teams, one of those teams that gets passed on to kids and stays in the area for a good long time. And lord knows, the style of basketball played by the Heat now is fast and high-flying and exciting, a perfect fit for Miami. Unfortunately for them, their decision to take the short track has probably cost the Heat some national fans - although it probably also got them a lot of national fans too - and their premature braggadocio about a dynasty was never going to come off as anything except arrogant. But there's no denying this: The Heat ARE good, and they WILL win multiple titles during The Big Three era.
And no, LeBron James may never set foot into Ohio again. But when his career is over, I will go out on a limb and predict that the blow left by his exit from Cleveland will be forgotten by most basketball fans, except those in Ohio itself. But just relax, order a pizza, watch the Heat dominate the NBA playoffs, and seethe away as James humiliates everyone everywhere. He's the great NBA villain of the moment, and it'll be fun.