Superstars like LeBron James have always had the power

Andy Lyons

By terminating his contract and becoming a free agent, LeBron James is putting pressure on Miami to improve. It's a power move straight out of the playbook handed down by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

One of the more interesting threads that winds through NBA history is the struggle by the game's biggest stars to get what they want. From the 1950s to the present day, there's a constant battle between the franchise owners who want to make (more) money and the franchise players who want to preserve their own powers of choice and earning.

This conflict goes back to Bob Cousy organizing players for the first time, to the threatened 1964 All-Star Game boycott, to Oscar Robertson's anti-trust suit. It laces through the Spencer Haywood hardship battle and the three lockouts in the past 20 years.

As the NBA has become a $4 billion enterprise, the stakes have changed. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, players were fighting for modest pensions and a right to free agency. Now players are fighting to ensure they get a fair cut of the league's revenues and that they can decide their own futures. As LeBron James opts out to become a free agent again, it's worth remembering what other superstars have done to empower themselves, just to keep it all in perspective.

★★★

In 1996, Michael Jordan thought he was getting lowballed by the Bulls, to whom he had delivered four championships and a Lake Michigan worth of lucre. Sam Smith tells the story. After being paid well below market rate on a long eight-year deal the Bulls had refused to renegotiate, Jordan became a free agent. The Bulls believed no team could offer more than $10-12 million under salary cap rules. The Knicks hatched a plan to pay Jordan $25 million, using a (probably illegal) sponsorship to make up more than half of that. The Bulls didn't buy it, until Jordan and his agent David Falk pressed the issue. From Smith:

The Bulls had believed no team could pay Jordan more than $10 million, perhaps $12 million, so their thinking was he had to return for their offer, whether it was $15 million, $18 million or $20 million.

That led up to an infamous phone call, supposedly from Falk to [Bulls owner Jerry] Reinsdorf.

Although neither side would reveal the exact wording, the message was clear: The Bulls had one hour, maybe the rest of the day, to beat a $25 million offer from the Knicks, or Michael Jordan was going to sign with New York.

The Bulls ended up giving MJ $30 million. They did it again a year later before Jordan's second retirement. Jordan didn't leave the Bulls, but he sure used the threat of doing so to empower his position and get what he wanted. And what he wanted was money and the respect of being the highest-paid player in the NBA.

★★★

Kobe Bryant's done it, too. In fact, doing indefatigable work to get what he wants is perhaps the defining characteristic of Kobe's career. Remember, he was one of five players to vote against the 1999 lockout deal that limited superstar salary. He bristled with Shaq because the big man wasn't as committed to off-court and offseason work as Kobe thought he ought to be. He may or may not have tanked a Game 7 in 2006 to make a point about his supporting cast. He demanded a trade in 2007, just months before the Lakers grabbed Pau Gasol and went back to the Finals three more times.

And in 2013, as the league's highest-paid player, he signed a mammoth contract extension that immediately drew jeers from cap-savvy fans. Upon hearing that criticism, he laid the situation out pretty darn perfectly.

Kobe-cap_medium

What Kobe was saying in #VinoSpeak is that the owners forced a system on the stars that pushes them to take less money than they are worth in order to build contending teams. Kobe is saying it's unfair. He's right. And yelling at players to be selfless for the good of the team just helps the franchise owners rake in more dough. Kobe is defending his right to get paper, a right he absolutely has. The right Jordan had in 1996.

★★★

LeBron's situation is different. Michael already had Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, so he didn't need to threaten the Bulls to get better teammates. (Phil Jackson did, though. The Zen Master only re-signed with the Bulls in 1996 when Pippen and Rodman were retained, and left as soon as Michael did.) Kobe used his power to push for better teammates in 2007, but didn't have the benefit of free agency to do so, so he went old-fashioned with the trade demand. (He also reportedly blocked a deal with the Bulls because it would have sent Luol Deng to L.A., stripping much of the draw of Chicago as a contender in the first time.)

LeBron is seemingly obsessed with having a pleasant off-court life and the best teammates possible.

LeBron has never given off even a hint of a trade demand. He doesn't appear totally motivated by being the league's highest-paid player, having taken less to sign with Miami. But he is seemingly obsessed with having a pleasant off-court life and the best teammates possible. Consider his high school days, during which he played with close friends, several of which are still involved in his career. He chose (very talented) friends and sunshine in 2010. Based on reports, he seems motivated to opt out in the interest of pressuring Miami to upgrade his supporting cast.

Like MJ, like Kobe, LeBron is using the power he has to get what he wants. That's not all that strange. It's what NBA stars have always had to do to ensure owners hold up their end of the bargain. It's a basic fact of the NBA. It just happens to look a little different in the era of widespread wealth and ubiquitous scrutiny.

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