LeBron's quest to be best should end in Cleveland



It's been said -- often by well-respected people -- that LeBron James might be the best basketball player of all time.

Better than Michael Jordan, some argue. At least as good as MJ.

From purely a skill standpoint, maybe these LeBroniacs are right. From the highlights that get played ad nauseam on SportsCenter , there is no questioning James' talent. He has a rare gift for the game.

But being the greatest requires more than simple talent. James has yet to display the kind of intangibles that made Jordan the most special player most of us have ever seen.

The guy is still just 25, so there's still time. But James is on the brink of nullifying his chances of ever challenging Jordan's throne.

Quitting on his hometown team of Cleveland and shopping his talents as a free agent might forfeit his potential of ever climbing higher than his predecessors on the legends chart. Leaving a franchise after an 0-7 run at titles is a blemish that can't be erased from the permanent record.

Maybe that's a harsh assessment on a guy weighing a business decision, but greatness in sports isn't about business. It's about elevating everyone around you by the sheer force of your own competitive will.

Jordan did that. Magic Johnson did that. Larry Bird did that. Kobe Bryant does that.

James hasn't done that. And the Cavaliers' premature exit in this year's playoffs despite owning the best regular-season record in the NBA leaves a stain that can only be erased by redeeming yourself as a team leader the next season.

James has every right to get the most compensation he is capable of getting on the open market. His talent would be welcome anywhere from New York to Miami. If it's ego he's trying to serve, that can certainly be gained in a bigger media market than Cleveland.

But wherever James is, the spotlight is. He doesn't need to go somewhere else to get it.

Neither did Jordan. Granted, Chicago is a major market, but the Bulls were no better than the Cavaliers when Jordan arrived in 1984 and began the process of moving the franchise and himself to the top of the charts.

James needs to do that in Cleveland if he's ever going to get mentioned in the same breath. You can't leave your hometown holding the bag. And playing in the same town where his game was forged is a significant part of the LeBron James story. He has no other bedrock to build upon.

Granted, I'm predisposed to viewing James with a certain degree of bias. The guy had a major strike against him before he even started.

That strike came when James bypassed college to go directly to the NBA. He obviously had the game to play at any level he wanted, and did quite well as a kid playing with men. But skipping college -- even for a brief time -- kept him from building that foundation with fans that only the collegiate experience can offer. It's an identity that never leaves you.

As synonymous as Jordan, Bird and Magic were with Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, they were just as defined by North Carolina, Indiana State and Michigan State where their legends began before our very eyes. That's where their championship pedigrees were forged.

Jordan electrified everyone in his three seasons in Chapel Hill, N.C. Even surrounded by fellow superstars James Worthy and Sam Perkins, it was Jordan who was the heart of the 1982 North Carolina team that delivered Dean Smith his first NCAA title.

Three years earlier, Bird and Magic had basically created the phenomenon that became March Madness in their 1979 NCAA championship showdown that foreshadowed their NBA rivalry.

Without those kind of backdrops, LeBron James is just an immensely talented basketball player in a league that doesn't inspire the kind of loyalties that the college game does. Maybe that's why he doesn't have the heart that bleeds for one team only.

James' only real roots are in Ohio, where he was "Mr. Basketball" three times and became "King James" to his fans. It was kismet that let the Cleveland Cavaliers be the team that drafted him No. 1 in 2003. Abandoning that base would shatter his royal myth.

It took Jordan seven years of steady progress to lift his first NBA championship trophy. James had been following that same path, only to be derailed by the Celtics this week. It would be an inglorious way to leave the city that gave him its collective heart.

James already has all the money he really needs. To sell out his hometown and team for greener pastures would tarnish his legacy, even if he collects championships somewhere else.

Quitting on Cleveland would end his quest to be considered the best. You can't be the greatest with an incomplete on your record.



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