Friday, July 9, 2010

Five Thoughts on Dan Gilbert's Letter

After LeBron James announced that he will be signing with the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert responded by posting a furious letter on, an NBA website for the Cavaliers. Here are some excerpts from the letter, in its comic sans font:
Dear Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters Wherever You May Be Tonight;

As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. . . . You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal. . . . In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight:


. . . I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our "motivation" to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels. Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there. Sorry, but that's simply not how it works.

This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown "chosen one" sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And "who" we would want them to grow-up to become. . . ,

Dan Gilbert
Majority Owner
Cleveland Cavaliers

There's a lot to digest here. First, the letter reads more like a high school break-up letter, or a tongue-in-cheek diatribe found in pro wrestling, or maybe even a piece we'd find on The Onion, than one seriously penned by a 48-year-old attorney and successful businessperson whose actions and words reflect not only himself, but also his franchise and the NBA. Using inflammatory words like "cowardly" and "betrayal" to describe a contractual decision by a person who's unquestionably abiding by the law and following NBA rules is both amusing and odd. I recognize the letter is partly an attempt by Gilbert to direct blame away from himself for losing Lebron, and on some level I applaud Gilbert for not hiding his true feelings, but he clearly could have accomplished those goals more graciously and effectively. If anything, the letter is counterproductive, since it makes Lebron seem like the rational, deliberative one.

Second, Gilbert's emphasis on loyalty is misplaced and hypocritical. LeBron James was a free agent whose contract had expired with a team -- a team, by the way, that he had clearly invested his heart and soul in for the last 7 years. The days of the reserve clause, which enabled teams to re-sign players to one-year contracts for as long as teams wanted, have long since ended; Lebron had every right to sign with any team. If Gilbert doesn't like athletes taking advantage of free agency, he shouldn't have bought an NBA franchise.

Also, if Gilbert truly cared so much about loyalty, why did he just try to persuade Tom Izzo to leave Michigan State, which Izzo's coached for the last 14 years, to coach the Cavs? In fact, why would the Cavaliers pursue any coach or player whose associated with another organization when the Cavs would be causing a breach of loyalty, an act of "betrayal"? Or is loyalty only a one-way street with the Cavs?

Third, if Gilbert is going to badmouth Lebron -- he's apparently told the Associated Press that Lebron quit on the Cavs in the 2010 playoffs series against the Celtics -- don't be shocked to see him hit with a slander lawsuit. Sure, slander is hard to show, especially with public figures and especially if the comments are more opinion than fact, but if Gilbert starts making specific claims that are exaggerations or fabrications, Lebron, like anyone in that situation, might be tempted to turn to the law.

Fourth, what NBA free agent is now going to want to sign with the Cavs when if they later leave they could be savaged by the owner (who only seems to care about loyalty when people leave, as opposed to join, the Cavs)?

Fifth, and lastly, where is the NBA on this? The Cavs' website is part of I understand that NBA teams have primary, though not exclusive, control over website content, but if the NBA is a single entity (as it claimed in its American Needle amicus brief), shouldn't it try to seize control over this situation, as the Cavs would just be a department of the NBA? Then again, maybe the league loves the drama and the fact that everyone's talking about it. But I could see at least some NBA owners finding the letter to be bad form, and we know from NHL v. MSG that leagues can exercise control over team pages on league websites.