Sports Beat

Lebron, Dan, and the Scarlet Letter


Along with sports writing, I work for a billionaire businessman named Dan Gilbert.

Of all people, shouldn’t he have known it’s just business.

The letter was seething.  His biggest ally, the person who could take his empire to a higher level, had walked out without a hand shake.

Dan fired off bullets with a keyboard and monitor.

He called it a ‘cowardly betrayal.’  For 45 minutes, Dan mocked ‘King James’ and his nicknames.

Then he did the ultimate.  Dan inferred… I’m better off without you as he guaranteed the people of Cleveland they’d win a championship without their favorite son, and then they’d serve that championship to the coward cold and stale on a paper plate.  Ok, he didn’t include the paper plate part, but the letter was double-edged.

No gratitude for the hometown boy who’d taken the local sports team to unpresented heights, but no title.

Those words came to be Dan Gilbert’s scarlet letter.  No longer was he a visionary leader helping to rebuild the cities of Cleveland and Detroit.  No longer was he an entrepreneur with an amazing knack of turning thoughts into gold, while bringing others with him.

Now, he was no more than a Midwest Jerry Jones, a man with too much money, too much mouth, and a spiteful spirit if you cross him.

I’ve met both Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

And to me, they are nothing alike.

Jones’ feud with former best friend and head football coach Jimmy Johnson has never been settled.

Jones will never admit it was 90% of Johnson’s brains and work ethic that built the Cowboys into a dynasty in the 1990s winning 3 Super Bowl championships.

Since Jones fired Johnson and stopped talking to him in 1993, the Cowboys steadily began losing their winning ways.  Barry Switzer garnered one last title in 1995, but without Johnson’s genius, all Jones had left was a hard heart and a landmine of bad decisions.

I first met Dan Gilbert at ‘Ism’s Day.’  Ism’s Day is an event all new employees at Quicken Loans attend shortly after they are hired.

Ism’s are proverbs that Dan preaches to his converts (employees) to live out daily as the vision of Quicken Loans plays out in the mortgage industry.

A few of Dan’s proverbs are We are the they, Simplicity is Genius, We eat our own dog food, and A penny saved is a penny.

I wanted to think of Dan as a Deadhead turned businessman, but he is far too sober and rational for that label.

So when I read The Letter Dan had posted on the Cleveland Cavaliers website after Lebron James had made a business decision by taking his talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat after 7 seasons in Cleveland, I realized his relationship with Lebron had grown into a stronger bond than simply business partners.

Hometown pride had kicked in and Dan had been double crossed as if a classmate had stolen his girlfriend.  And when he reacted with uncontrolled emotions, he became the bad guy.

“There were a couple of people who tried to talk me out of it,” Dan told Mitch Albom in an article written for USA Today about The Letter.  “Frankly, I didn’t put it in front of enough people. It was boom-boom, put it up. That’s something I’ve learned. When you’re in an emotional state … wait.”

He regretted it not long after he’d written it, but in the Internet world “posted” means “forever.”

In Miami, Lebron began winning NBA titles.  Dan, with the scarlet letter clearly stamped on his forehead, started losing again in Cleveland.

He would forever be known as the typical spoiled sports owner with too much money and too little sense.  All of the great things he’d done with his fortune, rebuilding communities, giving people in hopeless situations opportunities, creating new ways of thinking…   all of it would be taking a back seat to the one thing he couldn’t do right;  co-exist with a basketball god and bring a hometown their coveted championship.

But what the human mind can’t fix, the heart can.

In 2014, after 4 finals appearances in Miami and two world titles, Lebron began seeing a scarlet letter of his own.  A scarlet letter not written on the outside for all to see, like Dan had, but one on the inside, written on his heart.

Didn’t you promise to win a title for your hometown people of Ohio?

On June 25, 2014, Lebron opted out of his contract with the Heat, officially becoming an unrestricted free agent a week later.

The chill of being called a coward and belittled publicly by his former owner couldn’t keep Lebron’s hardened heart from melting away by the warmth of feeling homesick.

When Dan caught wind of the possibility of Lebron coming back to play for Cleveland, both regrets and hope filled his mind.  Regrets for a sin he’d held far too long.  Hope for forgiveness and a clean new start, which his billions couldn’t buy.

“I had told LeBron’s guys, whether he comes back or not, I really want to clear the air,” Dan said.  “It shouldn’t be like this.”

Dan sat across a kitchen table from Lebron at the secret meeting.  A meeting both of them suddenly realized was 4 years too late.

Dan spoke first.

“LeBron, you know this is true. We had five good years and one bad night. Like a marriage that’s good and then one bad thing happens and you never talk to each other again.  I’m just glad we’re here, whether you come or not, LeBron. This has been hanging over my head.’ ”

As he sat at the table, Dan wasn’t a confident businessman with a vision flowing out of his mouth with eager beavers cheering him on.  He was a man in search of forgiveness from the only one who had the ability to give it, a 6 foot 9 inch, basketball God, who could rewrite history by making the past disappear.

I wish I could write a happily ever after ending…

…an ending where forgiveness was given and received, where Lebron went home, Cleveland won the world title, a billionaire learned redemption was more valuable than all the skyscrapers he owns, and about a million hometown people had a parade where the spirit of hope flowed like the tears that ran down their cheeks.

Wait a second… that’s exactly what happened.

What letter?

About Scott Wallace