LeBron, Cleveland and Communications...
Almost exactly 8 years ago, I was interviewed for a New York Times article about LeBron James' "decision" and owner Dan Gilbert's response. Back then, I was shocked how poor LeBron's communication was and equally shocked at Dan Gilbert's response, although I sympathized with Gilbert and defended his juvenile letter because it said what many of us were thinking.
Today, we have a similar situation with the announcement last night that LeBron is now headed to LA. However, the circumstances are different and the communication has been much better. Though there are a handful of comments from miffed die-hards, we're not seeing jerseys burned and we're hearing a lot of circumspect good wishes.
Here are 3 reasons why communications failed last time and succeeded (so far) this time:
1. The Cavs Won A Championship!
In 2010, LeBron had been with the Cavs for 7 years, plugging away. He got us close, but the writing was on the wall. We were in constant building mode and he couldn't carry the entire team by himself. He wasn't as good as he is now (hard to believe) and he wasn't as mature. He found success in Miami, he went to the finals three years in a row, winning back-to-back championships. He had a strong supporting cast and learned how it was done.
In 2014, LeBron was a free agent and had choices. Remember, he didn't have to come back to Cleveland. But he did. He said he came back to win a championship for Cleveland. And he did. Last time I checked, until 2016, Cleveland hadn't won a championship in any major sport for over half a century. The series was won in dramatic fashion and the fans were literally out of their minds. The city's self-confidence and psyche skyrocketed. We got to the finals again in 2017. We went back in 2018 and, even though we got swept, it was an all-LeBron clinic. I've never seen anything like it - and I had season tickets to the Bulls while living in Chicago during all of Michael Jordan's peak years.
This is not a GOAT (greatest of all time) debate, but LeBron left everything he had on the floor and did his best to win it all again...for Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. But speaking of GOAT, to earn that designation, LeBron has to keep winning championships, not just getting to the finals. If the ingredients were not going to be here in Cleveland, can you blame him for finding a team where it could happen? I don't. I'm happy he came back. I'm happy he won us a championship. He'll still pour money into this region. And four years from now (a blink of an eye) maybe he'll return for one more year with the Cavs prior to retirement, attempting to live by his intention to finish his career here.
2. LeBron's Process & Communication Was Low-Key
Last time he left Cleveland, James paraded himself across America for a media sideshow. Teams publicly fell all over themselves courting LeBron and he did everything to play it up. Of course, it all culminated with the famous live television announcement that was so wrong in so many ways. Fans here tore their hair out and cursed his name. When he came back to Cleveland, LeBron had Sports Illustrated write a nice piece explaining why he was returning and how he felt. Of course, being on the receiving end, Clevelanders loved it.
This time, on July 1, 2018, LeBron's agency issued a short release on Twitter stating he was going to the Lakers (for 4 years and $145 million). LeBron posted an Instagram story thanking Northeast Ohio and saying it would always be home. Well received by most. Are we disappointed and sad, sure. Do we think he's the devil incarnate? Not this time.
Just as LeBron learned how to play better basketball over the years, he learned how to communicate better as well. This time, he kept it short and sweet. In fact, sources say he's vacationing in Anguilla, so he's not even around. Just staying above the fray. Smart.
3. Dan Gilbert was Magnanimous
This time there was no comic sans font or a letter that sounded like a 7th grader breaking up with a girl that already broke up with him. None of that. Just a simple, classy, statement of thanks. Gilbert's statement of 8 years ago, as strange as it was, galvanized a wounded fan-base. Maybe his latest statement will do the same, setting an example and suggesting how we all should feel. I'm on board.
Control Your Story
Every professional athlete, every business executive and each one of us has an opportunity to shape our public image. We have unprecedented ways to do so now, especially with social media, and that's both a risk and an opportunity. Where we work, where we contribute, where we spend our time, what we say and what photos we share all add up to perception. If we have a vision of what we'd like that image to be, we can proactively communicate to support that goal. We can control our own story. If we have no idea who we are or what we want to be, our communication might seem random and we're prone to make mistakes.
Like all humans growing up, LeBron tried out a few different personas over the years. He learned the cocky celebrity image wasn't really for him, so he toned it down. Dan Gilbert is a successful businessman who needs to be perceived as a reasonable negotiator and manager. He toned it down, too.
Perceptions can change. Heck, look at the Lakers themselves. Ever seen a lake in LA? Why aren't they called the Oceans? Because they moved from Minneapolis in 1960 and kept the name. They used to be all Midwest and dairy-fed. Now they're all Hollywood and flash. Hope LeBron doesn't change too much. We'll see the kid from Akron around here in the summers, helping with his charity events and maybe doing even more someday. But until then, best wishes LBJ. We won't be rooting for the Lakers, but we'll give you one thing most people think you've earned: respect.