In the Bronx we played basketball all year long, outdoors on concrete with metal backboards.

I loved basketball as a boy and still love it.

In the late 1950s, the average salary for a professional basketball player was $12,000. By 1968, it had risen to $20,000. Bill Russell, who transcended racism to win 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, made $100,000 one year.

The other day, Joe Johnson, a very good player signed a contract for $124 million for six years of work. And three stars – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh – made a mockery of a game millions of people hold dear.

There was a time when every boy and girl in America, in gym class, or little league was told a simple story: “It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play the game.”

Play hard and play fair. Respect your teammates and those you compete against. And in the process we all win.

A short time ago, we watched as trillions of dollars in homes, jobs, savings and retirement accounts disappeared. Because investment bankers were playing a crooked game with mortgages and money.
Now we watch each day the poisoning of the entire Gulf Coast environment. Whales and dolphins and fishermen and motel owners and restaurant workers, and soon every one who breathes to toxic air of the Gulf Coast, are sacrificed to BP’s game of greed, incompetence, and lies.

One debacle after another.

I use sports to escape from the increasingly painful realities of daily life. I love my New York Knicks and I want them to win. I wanted LeBron James, arguably the second best basketball player in America, to join them. If not LeBron James, maybe Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Just like the fans of the Chicago Bulls, and the New Jersey Nets, and Los Angeles Clippers, and Miami Heat.

LeBron James was not only an absolutely extraordinary athlete he was, as the story goes, the ultimate good guy. Raised by his sixteen year-old mom after his ex-con father abandoned them, he survived the mean streets of Akron, Ohio. Along the way LeBron formed a bond with his best friends that has lasted all these years. Drafted out of high school, by his local NBA team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron and his friends/advisors created a powerful story of overcoming adversity, excellence, and loyalty.

Though he unfortunately chose to call himself King James, people loved the LeBron they thought he was: charming yet competent; caring yet self-contained. His story captured a city, then a country, and more recently much of the world. LeBron and his buddies created a mighty LeBron brand.

In a matter of weeks, LeBron and his buddies destroyed what it took ten years to build. In a fairly complex con, LeBron and his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh convinced many NBA teams that, as free agents, they were earnestly exploring new options and new teams to play for. Probably they hatched a plan to unite and play for Wade’s team in Miami, either years or months ago.

Problem was they made all these other franchises – and all their fans – believe they might come and make the lucky teams so much better.

But they didn’t come. What was worse, they celebrated their decisions with an excess of arrogance.
First, Dwyane Wade announced on ESPN he wasn’t going to play for his beloved hometown of Chicago. The city where his mother lives. The city where his kids live.

He chose Miami instead of his kids because he would have a better chance to win the championship. What kind of world have we created where a father feels it’s OK to go on national TV to say goodbye to his children for a possible NBA Championship. I love the game but for God’s sake it’s about a bunch of men tossing a ball through a hoop. It’s not about ending hunger, or building hospitals in Haiti, or finding peace in the Middle East.

Then ESPN aired an embarrassing hour-long LeBronathon. LeBron hired the man who interviewed him, surrounded himself with kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich, Connecticut – kids he ignored for the entire hour – and said goodbye to Cleveland and hello to Miami and told us that when push comes to shove, it’s not how you play, but if you win.

Goodbye, the LeBron we loved. His self-absorption swallowed his humility. And the same people who spent far too much money on LeBron jerseys, began to burn them.

Surely, the debacle of Goldman Sachs and the debacle of BP are a million times more painful than debacle of LeBron James.

But for me, a life-long believer in basketball, the LeBronacle still stings.

The Berkshire Record, Thursday July 15, 2010. © Mickey Friedman. All rights reserved.