In Michael Eisner’s thoughtful book about partnerships, he tells a story about getting wooed by Disney in 1984. The company arranged a meeting between Eisner, one of its corporate lawyers and a former Warner Brothers executive named Frank Wells. Eisner expected to be offered control of the company, but there was an unexpected twist: Disney actually wanted him to share power with Wells. Co-CEOs.
Instinctively, Eisner turned them down. He knew himself well enough to say, “That can’t work.”
So what did he know? Still in his 40s, Eisner had already thrived in a successful alliance with Barry Diller before Diller left Paramount a year earlier. He wanted to run an entertainment company himself; not just for the financial and creative upside, but because he needed to know, Can I do this? Can I be The Guy? He doubted that two competitive people could run a complicated company like Disney and, for lack of a better phrase, share the ball. With that many decisions to make, one person needs final say. It’s the same reason we would never have co-presidents or co-NFL coaches.
Eisner realized all of these things in less than two seconds.
That can’t work.
Sitting a few feet away, Wells processed that same dilemma in those same two seconds. He was wired differently than Eisner, more of a free spirit and a thrill-seeker, someone who checked out of Hollywood for a few years to climb the tallest peaks in six different continents. You would never call him conventional. His next few words? Definitely unconventional.
“OK, you can be chairman and CEO,” Wells said. “I’ll be president and COO.”
Eisner quickly agreed before Wells changed his mind. But Wells’ intentions were genuine. He had no problem becoming Eisner’s Scottie Pippen, an unselfish sidekick who filled in the blanks, didn’t care about his stats and took pride in helping his team reach its potential. As Eisner wrote later, “We learned that one plus one adds up to a lot more than two.” Their partnership thrived for a decade before Wells died in a tragic helicopter crash, but not before they had transformed Disney into a multimedia empire. And it only happened because, in the matter of a few seconds, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells arrived at two separate conclusions that basically meant the same thing.
That can’t work.
He’s right, that can’t work. So screw it, I’ll work for him.
I kept thinking about that moment in Boston on Tuesday night, then in Philadelphia one night later, as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade launched the single strangest marriage in NBA history other than the Christies. Basketball is relatively simple. Teams win championships conventionally (an alpha dog superstar, an accomplished sidekick, a third elite player, than five or six role players) and unconventionally (three or four elite starters who complement each other, then four or five role players), but never radically. The Heat are thinking radically, even if it might not seem like it. They believe two alpha dog superstars — both perimeter players, both creators who need the ball in their hands, both franchise players who developed particular habits carrying inferior teammates these past seven years — can reinvent themselves as co-CEOs of a basketball team.
My gut feeling when LeBron took his talents to South Beach? “That can’t work.”
I spent the next three months keeping an open mind. Couldn’t Chris Bosh flourish with better teammates and provide a consistent low-post threat? Couldn’t Udonis Haslem revive his career as a poor man’s Horace Grant? Wasn’t the thought of Mike Miller launching wide-open 3s a little frightening for opponents? Did they even need a traditional point guard when LeBron and Wade handle the ball so well? Why couldn’t LeBron tap into his inner Magic, become more of a facilitator and start piling up triple-doubles like NBC piles up bad ratings? And weren’t they saying all the right things? Defense matters, numbers don’t matter, we’re all about sacrifice, we want to win 10 titles and not just one … what was so radical about any of this?
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, the best regular-season basketball game I’ve attended since the Larry Joe Bird era. Boston fans genuinely love this particular Celtics team, haven’t gotten over blowing the Six For Twenty-Four game, desperately want a Lakers rematch and couldn’t wait to send a special message to LeBron and the gang. We know everyone is already handing you the East, but you still have to go through us. During the pregame introductions, LeBron was showered with the angriest boos for a Boston opponent since Bill Laimbeer, a man who only tried to paralyze Bird during the 1987 playoffs. There was real hostility in the air. You could feel it.
That brings me to Epiphany No. 1 …
LeBron can spin this publicly however he wants, but you can’t hide on a basketball court. You’re wearing a sleeveless jersey, shorts, socks and sneakers. That’s it. If you’re angry, we can tell. If you’re happy, we can tell. If you’re frightened, we can tell. For instance, Bosh was scared sh*tless Tuesday night. He’d never played in a game like that before. He wanted no part of the crowd, Kevin Garnett’s swarming defense, the ball on the low post, his free throws, anything. (Not a good sign for Miami’s title hopes, by the way.) LeBron didn’t seem rattled, just angry. And not in a totally productive way.
The best thing about Pre-Decision LeBron? How he connected with his teammates and fans. He wanted to win, he wanted to have a good time, he wanted to put on a show, he wanted to be liked, and most of all, he wanted to amaze. Watching Post-Decision LeBron talk cryptically about taking mental notes, retweet vicious messages, broach the race card and prance around preseason games with an Eff You edge was like seeing Will Ferrell play a war criminal or something. It just didn’t feel right. We knew the Decision would affect his career, but for how long? Was it a phase? Was it permanent? Would a Haterade overdose create that Jordanian edge we always thought he needed? Or would it nudge his career in the wrong direction?
It took me about 20 minutes of Game 1 to figure it out. He’s still digesting how quickly everything flipped on him. In one hour of his televised announcement, he went from “loved and revered” to “excoriated and disgraced.” That would be distressing in itself, but remember, few celebrities care about protecting their own brand more than LeBron James. He probably expected the Miami decision to be controversial, then it would blow over in a few days and everyone would get jazzed about the new superteam. He never expected it would damage his brand and fundamentally change how America felt about him.
His recent Nike ad was done so brilliantly that some viewers digested it incorrectly, thinking it was just the latest example of a superstar making a corporate comeback in a typically contrived way. Releasing a creative commercial to get people talking: Isn’t that Step 1 of the “I’d Like To Reacclimate Myself Into Your Lives” blueprint? To an extent, yes. But in this case, the commercial was done so slickly that it obscured the underlying (and crucial) message: LeBron James wants to know, “What do you people want from me?”
No, seriously. He wants to know.
You could see it on his face in Boston. Only one other time did a beloved NBA star make a WWE-style heel turn like this: Magic Johnson after he signed his 25-year, $25 million contract in 1981, when everyone blamed him for getting coach Paul Westhead fired and Sports Illustrated called him a “greedy, petulant and obnoxious 22-year-old.” They booed him at home. They booed him on the road. The press hammered him. His signature smile faded away. He became “decidedly less outgoing,” in the words of SI’s Bruce Newman, who quoted Magic as saying, “It has been tough as far as keeping myself together mentally and trying to concentrate. Before all that happened it was like having an understanding with the fans. They like having someone they could reach out to and call a friend.”
Well, Magic turned out all right, even winning the 1982 title and coming the closest to averaging a triple-double since Oscar. So there’s hope for LeBron to snap out of this. Still, when you’ve been showered with affection for 10 years, and then it turns on a dime, how can it not affect you? Especially if you didn’t see it coming. LeBron, Wade and Bosh thought, “This will be great! Three buddies playing together and winning titles! We’ve been talking about this for years! And we get to live in South Beach!” Mike Miller thought, “This will be great! I get to shoot 3s and win titles!” Udonis Haslem thought, “This will be great! I’ll take a little less money to stay home and play with my boy Wade!” Juwan Howard, Jamaal Magloire and Zydrunas Ilgauskas thought, “Sure, we’d love to come along for the ride! This sounds like a blast!”
At no point did anyone think, “My God, people are going to HAAAAAAAATE us.”
They were thinking that on Tuesday night. All of them. They cracked under the pressure in the first half: shooting 27 percent, repeatedly turning the ball over, bricking free throws, bleakly going about their business, carrying themselves like young tennis players getting berated by overbearing fathers. And you know what? That wasn’t even the most fascinating subplot. In the first quarter, Wade and LeBron awkwardly coexisted like two lead guitarists jamming at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert.
Are you gonna go? Should I go? Wait, you want to go? How ’bout you take this one, I’ll take the next one.
This wasn’t basketball, more of an arrangement. Something didn’t feel right. Wade caught a breather and LeBron immediately snapped into 2008 Cleveland mode: pounding the ball upcourt with a hop in his step, attacking the rim with impunity, reminding everyone that he’s the most talented player in the league (and maybe ever). He took three shots in a row. More importantly, he looked like LeBron again. A few minutes later, LeBron took a breather and Wade took over. Same thing. Everyone cleared out, Wade went on the attack, took the next two shots and looked like Wade again. Neither guy looked comfortable until the other one was taking a break.
Then again, was that really surprising? LeBron and Wade are creators in a decidedly modern way: scorers first, then passers if they can’t score. I got this. That’s how players think in the post-Jordan, AAU-dominated, microwavable fame era. That’s how you earn the most money, generate the most attention, land shoe commercials and end up producing one-hour shows in which you pick your next team. You can’t expect two superstars in their primes to suddenly shut off the “I got this” switch. It’s not realistic. As Bill Parcells famously loved to say, you are who you are. And on this particular team, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are redundant unless one of them changes.
We expected LeBron to make the sacrifices and tap into his inner Magic, but really, that’s an insult to Magic, who had only one goal: make everyone else better. It went beyond finding people on fast breaks, running the offense and yelling encouragement. He kept track of everything happening with every teammate at every point of the game. That’s what true point guards do. If LeBron was a real point guard like Magic, he would have noticed Wade floundering during that Boston game and said, “I gotta get him going, I’ll get mine later.”
Neither Wade nor LeBron have ever been allowed to think, “I’ll get mine later.” Every time they played poorly or passively, their teams lost. They always had to be involved. They always had to attempt 20 to 27 shots per game, reach the line eight to 10 times and create 20 open shots for their teammates. There was no other way. It might be too late for them to change. Wade is conditioned to have the ball in his hands, pick defenses apart and ride every hot streak. LeBron is conditioned to destroy guys off the dribble, take wide-open 3s and assault the rim whenever he can. You are who you are.
Only a few basketball teams figured out how to balance the agendas of two superstars; every time, it took a major concession on someone’s behalf. West’s Lakers never won a championship until Chamberlain tapped into his inner Russell. Kareem’s Lakers benefited from Magic deferring for the first seven years, then assuming command as a scorer when Kareem’s game began to decay. You can’t win an NBA title without someone eventually saying, “I got this” and everyone else agreeing, “You’re right, you got this.” Miami isn’t there yet.
I thought LeBron would make that sacrifice, but upon further review, Wade needs to reinvent himself as the team’s defensive stopper, facilitator, emotional leader and occasional closer (much like Kobe did on the 2008 Dream Team). Why? Because LeBron is better than him. In Boston, I was praying to myself, “I hope LeBron doesn’t decide to take over.” Wade was an afterthought. And yeah, he struggled that game … but I know what I saw, and I know how I felt. The only guy on the court who could stop LeBron on Tuesday night was Dwyane Wade.
That leads me to Epiphany No. 2 …
Granted, I love overthinking this stuff. That’s what I do. But I attended Miami’s first two games and my biggest takeaway was the team’s collective joylessness. Even during the Heat’s first victory in Philly — an infinitely easier game because the Sixers stink and their crowd was mostly catatonic — nobody seemed happy except for James Jones, who was making open 3s like it was a pop-a-shot game. There was a distance between everyone. I noticed it. My father noticed it. My friends on Wednesday night noticed it. The vibe was undeniably weird. I thought the Heat would be as close-knit as Oklahoma City; instead, they acted like like they had been introduced 45 minutes before the game. And LeBron and Wade weren’t “Kanye West and Mike Myers raising money for Katrina” level uncomfortable, but you would have never guessed they were buddies or even acquaintances.
So … why?
The easy explanation: They’re adjusting to that “everyone hates us, now it’s us against the world” mentality and it’s going to take some time.
The overthinking-it-but-maybe-I’m-right explanation: Maybe everyone slowly realized during the preseason, “Good God, LeBron is MUCH better than Dwyane. What do we do? How do we handle this? Do we wait for Dwyane to admit it? Do we … wait, what do we do???”
Maybe Wade can feel it. Maybe his competitive juices are kicking in. No, no, we’re equals. He’s not better than me. We’re equally good. Look, I’ll show you. Maybe it’s just been the elephant in the room for six weeks. Maybe deep down, everyone knows the Heat can’t take off until Wade has his “You can be chairman and CEO, I’ll be president and COO” moment. It goes beyond who gets to take the last shot. It’s about the dynamics of basketball. It’s about someone emerging as the emotional leader, the spine of the team, the guy who says over and over again, “I got this.” And you can’t keep saying that if you’re looking over your shoulder worrying that someone else is saying the same thing. It’s like a fly ball in the outfield. Eventually, someone has to call it.