As much as the Detroit Lions are synonymous with Thanksgiving Day football, the ABC network has made a holiday tradition of fiercely hyped NBA matchups. In recent years, that has meant a battle between Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal’s Miami Heat.
But this year, Christmas Day brings a beautiful high-definition gift for Cleveland hoops fans, as the Cavaliers take the court against the Heat in the nationally televised mid-afternoon game (the Lakers instead get an evening matchup against the Phoenix Suns). This time, it’ll likely be promoted as a face-off between LeBron James and fellow 2003 rookie classmate Dwyane Wade — just another example of how the 22-year-old James continues to do what no athlete here has done before: Lift the city’s visibility on the shoulders of his soaring global popularity.
Whether he’s playing in China, starring in Nike commercials or ringing up dozens of points at The Q, the Akron native sends waves through both the regional economy and the average Cleveland sports fan’s weathered psyche. His presence here is a lightning strike that
The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto and Akron Beacon-Journal’s Brian Windhorst dissect in their new book, “The Franchise” ($24.95, Gray & Co.). Just before the NBA season tipped off, we talked to Pluto about the LeBron phenomenon.
Why did you write this book?
Very rarely do you see a superstar end up playing in his hometown like this. ... It would be like if Joe DiMaggio grew up in New York rather than San Francisco, or if Larry Bird grew up in Brookline, Mass., instead of French Lick, Ind., or if Magic Johnson grew up in Englewood, [Calif.], rather than in Michigan. ... It was just a fascinating story and Brian [Windhorst] is a dogged reporter with great contacts in the LeBron camp. I had the Cavs stuff.
What has been the financial impact of LeBron’s presence on the Cavaliers and the city?
[Prior to LeBron,] the team was for sale for a couple years. ... At that point, the franchise was valued at maybe $180 million or $200 million tops, and there weren’t really any buyers. LeBron comes in and within a year this franchise is sold for $350 million. There were 31 sellouts last year, an all-time record. ... It does trickle down.
And Dan Gilbert will tell you, as he does in the book, that probably the reason Quicken Loans will be able to ride out this mortgage crisis, along with his being a smart business guy, is the fact his company is in such a dominant position thanks in part to owning the Cavaliers. ... It’s not all LeBron, but it’s the swirl around LeBron that happens when you have a once-in-a-generation type player. Other than maybe Jim Brown, when I was a kid in the ’60s before this media age, we’ve never had a player like this on any of the teams here.
Is there another player in the league who has had such a global reach?
[Michael] Jordan did. Jordan is still the gold standard for any athlete anywhere. And they’ve all been looking for the next Jordan ever since. LeBron is the closest thing to Jordan in terms of marketing.... The other thing is he does transcend race, like Michael. People are attached to him and drawn to him and it comes naturally to him.
What’s your take on the Yankees cap controversy?
From his senior year in high school on, he’s tried so hard to do the right thing, say the right thing and listen to the right people. I think, he’s only 22. Everybody wants a little bit of rebellion in some corner of their life. For him, it’s the Yankees cap and being a Yankees fan. Fine. I’d be a lot more nervous if he showed up wearing a New York Knicks cap.
How content do you think LeBron is playing here?
I’m not saying he’ll spend his whole career here. I do know he’s happy here. He wants to learn. He wants to work for a coach he respects. He wants to think the owner cares. ... Things in sports can change. But four years into it with this kid, it’s pretty amazing.