If I could get a meeting of my own with LeBron James, I'd ask him how he could even consider compromising his values and stepping down from the moral high ground he ascended to during the playoffs by weighing an offer from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
LeBron produced the sharpest and most noteworthy criticism of Clippers owner Donald Sterling after TMZ made Sterling's racially offensive diatribes public, saying "it's unacceptable in our league." No one has accused Gilbert of holding the same misguided racial perceptions as Sterling. With Gilbert, it's about the personal attacks on LeBron's character, and his diametrically opposed views on the business of the NBA.
Gilbert, for those who never bothered to read his unhinged response to The Decision in 2010 before the Cavaliers recently purged it from their website, called LeBron's departure to the Miami Heat a "cowardly betrayal" and said LeBron was a bad example for the children of Cleveland. This wasn't just a critique of the televised announcement; it was a tantrum about the very premise of free agency, as if anything other than a career-long commitment to the team that drafted a player constituted treason.
A year later, Gilbert was among the group of owners holding to the hard line when the NBA locked out its players, willing to sacrifice games to institute a new collective bargaining agreement that limited player earnings and hampered the formation of superteams.
A return to the Cavaliers by James would be a tacit endorsement of all he rejected. It wouldn't represent just a swallowing of his own pride -- it would be a surrender in the battle for self-determination for NBA players.
There's an undercurrent to this summer's free-agency period that makes it more than just a reshuffling of rosters. The proceedings are a referendum on the labor conflict fought in 2011 and perhaps the grist for a new battle in the next round of negotiations.
I've interpreted reports that LeBron will take nothing less than a maximum contract as his way of rejecting the premise that it's incumbent on players to make the financial sacrifices to win, as if the owners don't also have the option of paying the luxury tax to assemble a championship team. To play for Gilbert would be to reward a man who wanted it this way. It would also mean leaving Heat owner Micky Arison, who made it clear on Twitter that he didn't approve of the way collective bargaining negotiations were headed in 2011. (Arison also showed he had no love for Sterling, responding to a tweet criticizing Sterling in his mentions with an "lol.")
Maybe LeBron wants to send a message that's bigger than the business of basketball. Maybe he wants to demonstrate that, to seek forgiveness, one must first be willing to forgive. LeBron returning to Cleveland in his prime could be the greatest reconciliation of a player and a fan base in sports history. But it would nullify any future commentary from LeBron about the relationship between owners and players in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Gilbert never explained why he was willing to offer LeBron a maximum contract if he thought so little of his character. Nor has his low opinion of LeBron's character prevented Gilbert from pursuing him this summer. He hasn't expressed regret for writing the letter, only a desire to reword parts of it. So until we're told otherwise, Gilbert's opinion of LeBron still stands.
Gilbert is a smart enough businessman that he wouldn't let his personal feelings interfere with an opportunity to dramatically increase the value of his franchise. The question now is whether LeBron has the same degree of tunnel vision, whether the desire to return to his home state and join a roster with more young talent under contract than the Heat have is enough for him to recuse himself from the discussion of the owner-player divide.