//By Ryan Taylor//
In the preface to the first volume of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s magnum opus, Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, academically in-vogue philosopher and cultural theorist Michel Foucault describes the work as an introduction to the Non-Fascist-Life.
The co-authors of Anti Oedipus would later reimagine Foucault’s interpretation and expound on what they call the “Nomadic” way of life, an ethos that makes imperative an endless multiplication of possibilities. For Deleuze and Guattari, to be the Nomad is not only to be open to widespread and diverse change, but, even more, to actively pursue a lifetime of constant modification of the self, of the Other, and of the blurred lines between the two.
What the hell does any of that have to do with LeBron James?
Quite a lot, potentially. Without further ado, let’s get retarded in here.
When he joined the Miami Heat all those years ago, he did so with his sights set on a number of possibilities. Most obviously? An NBA title (or three). But implicit in the move from hometown team to the mega-market franchise in Miami, was his desire to inscribe himself in NBA history, and not only that, but to carve his face onto the Basketball Mount Rushmore reserved only for those players who are successful and loyal enough to be considered The Greatest of All-Time.
By moving to Miami, James set himself up as a villain, but a villain nonetheless capable of redemption. Although he turned his back on the town that made him––and the fans who adored him––he left the possibility open that he could make up for his disloyalty to the Cavaliers by remaining excessively loyal to the Miami Heat for the rest of his career. In other words, LeBron allowed himself a clean slate with the Heat.
Such a thing is not unprecedented in the NBA. Shaquille O’Neal, for instance, was drafted by the Orlando Magic in 1992. However, in our collective imaginations, the household Shaq of the late nineties (and early oughts) dons the Lakers’ yellow. The star moved from Orlando to Los Angeles through free agency in 1996 and fits right into the NBA narrative of loyalty-fidelity-greatness. He fits in beside Bill Russell, who played all of his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, collecting 11 championship victories along the way. He fits right in there, too, with his former teammate, five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, who is about to enter his 18th season with the Lakers.
This narrative of loyalty-fidelity-greatness is one that has been with basketball from the start. As far back as Russell’s achievements in the fifties and sixties, and even before, the standard of NBA legendhood has been this narrative. The greatest players of all time have played their careers, for the most part, in one place. They’ve won, for the most part, in one place. They’ve established or been assimilated into what are consistently called dynasties: Russell’s Celtics, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, the “Bad Boy” Pistons of the late eighties, the list goes on.
LeBron, as such, was set up to follow in the foot steps of those who came before him. He was set up to find redemption in South Beach (I can’t help but shake my head as I write that) and to become the next NBA great to win often, and not only that, but to win in one place.
Four short years into LeBron’s stay in South Beach, he brought the whole thing tumbling down. In opting out of the Heat contract earlier this summer, he eschewed the kind of loyalty that helped to rocket Shaq, Jordan, and Russell into the highest circle of NBA lore. Widely considered the most talented basketball player since Jordan, James took the first fatal step towards subverting the classic NBA narrative of greatness, the first step towards upsetting the order of things—he balked at the reign of a regime whose embodiment was as oppressive as the dynastic language used to describe it.
In Cleveland, he now stands at a crossroads. Two weeks ago he signed a two-year contract with the Cavaliers. However, like the contract in Miami, this new deal leaves a backdoor: the Cleveland contract includes an opt-out clause that may be invoked as early as next summer. Not only does it provide an easy exit in the event that things don’t go so well in Cleveland, this deal also grants LeBron maximum bargaining power in future negotiations. Specifically, he’ll demand maximum salary when the league’s new TV deal gets inked.
It’s unclear what he has in mind for himself in Cleveland. It is clear, however, that LeBron has set himself up to spurn any romantic idea of basketball loyalty, instead acting in the interest of personal profit. It’s clear, as well, that LeBron now has the opportunity to embody the Nomadic ethos laid out in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti Oedipus.
James has the opportunity, with this Cleveland contract, to become the first-ever championship-caliber NBA journeyman.
When news broke that LeBron would be returning to Cleveland, the Vegas oddsmakers pinned the Cavaliers to the top of their NBA title board. That is the type of player he is: his name on a roster jettisons a team from mid-tier pretender-status to league favorite. If the guys in Vegas have it right, and LeBron does lead Cleveland to its first ever NBA title, James will be set up to really live Deleuze and Guattari’s Nomadic life.
If the insubordination continues, we’ll see the perennial All-Star opt out of his Cleveland contract with a third title under his belt. If James goes even further along the subversive path, we won’t see LeBron renegotiate with the Cavaliers. He’ll join another championship-hungry club instead.
In pursuing the Nomadic NBA life, Lebron would do to basketball what Italian stage-director Carmelo Bene does to Shakespeare in his avant-garde productions. That is to say, LeBron would, in the words of Jonathan Harris, liberate potentialities (Shakespeare and Literary Theory, 2010).
Just as Bene does with his transformative interpretations of Richard III, James would create new and unexpected changes to the content and terrain of the current NBA narrative, undermining those pillars put in place (and kept there) by the likes of Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and so on.
By opting out of his contract every year, LeBron would test the free agent market whenever he so desired. In bringing championships to as many NBA franchises as possible, James would, to quote Jonathan Harris’ reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s Nomad, produce simply for the sake of producing. LeBron would liberate (championship) potentialities in Milwaukee, in Denver, in Phoenix—wherever he may be wanted.
James has already set foot in the Nomadic direction, shirking the usual obligations to NBA romanticism; i.e., loyalty and the valorization of dynastic players who set the current standard of NBA greatness (See: Jordan, Kobe, Bill Russell).
But he’s not there yet, and perhaps he’ll never be. As Deleuze relates: the Nomad exists in the intermezzo. The Nomad exists in the space between definite, static points.
For now, LeBron stands on a precipice. In one direction, a rich Deleuzian Nomadic life awaits, in the other: a descent that, even if it brings championships to Cleveland, will re-establish the order of Kobe, Jordan, and Russell. If LeBron wishes to be a truly groundbreaking player, if he seeks to do what no man has ever done in the NBA, he would be wise to heed the call of the Nomad.
James, of all people, has the capacity to really turn the NBA on its head, to revolutionize the way the game is thought about, and to inscribe himself in sports history as not just another Jordan, but as something entirely different. A revolutionary. A team of one: the Nomad.
However, if LeBron turns away from the Nomadic way of life by staying in Cleveland, he will only solidify the status quo, reinforcing the clichèd hero trope that has dominated NBA standards of greatness for so long. He will maintain the order laid out by the Basketball Mount Rushmore that came before him, only modifying the loyalty-fidelity-greatness model slightly so that, instead of becoming the Celtics Lifer that Bill Russell was, or, similarly, the Lakers Lifer that Kobe is becoming, LeBron will embody the more Jordanesque territory of the Returning Hero.
Jordan, remember, retired from the NBA in 1993 to pursue a career in Major League Baseball. Less than two years later Jordan would announce his return to basketball, inevitably going on to bring three more championships to Chicago. LeBron, like Jordan, has spent a short time away from home. Though LeBron has been more successful in his time away than Jordan ever was in baseball, the two fairy-tale stories nonetheless align. LeBron James, like Michael Jordan, has returned “home.”
And “home” couldn’t be more welcoming. Along with the announcement that James would sign with Cleveland, so too came a veritable Twitteruption of reveling Cavs fans.
Among the obligatory “Welcome back LeBron” and “Cleveland Cavs 2015 NBA Champs” tweets, there were some even more compelling responses. One fan tweeted “Cleveland fans deserve this,” while another opined, “This is better than Christmas!”
Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert tweeted: “My 8-year-old: ‘Daddy, does this mean I can finally wear my LeBron jersey, again?’…Yes it does, son. Yes it does!”
The city of Cleveland, and NBA fans in general, have become overinvested in the loyalty-fidelity-greatness model of NBA legendhood, so much so that the Nomad is unthinkable. Such a line of thought is evident in the willful disbelief that LeBron, only on a two-year deal in Cleveland, is committed to spending his career there.
Emotional outpourings of “LeBron is back!” and “Welcome home King James!” make apparent the sentiment that the once-maligned NBA star is home for good.
In his column for the Plain Dealer, Terry Pluto writes, “LeBron James did the right thing.” The Cleveland sports blogger goes on: “Now, [James] is one of the greatest sports stories in Cleveland history. It’s one of the best stories of the last several years. The best basketball player in the world went to four consecutive NBA Finals in Miami. He won two titles. Yet, he picked Cleveland.”
What Pluto neglected to mention, is that LeBron only picked Cleveland for now. LeBron only picked Cleveland for the next two years, and maybe less than that.
Another Cleveland sports analyst, Bud Shaw, responded: “So if LeBron James can bring relevance back to town, well, what’s a little forgiveness going to hurt? Face it. He won. The Cavs lost. And lost. And lost. And lost.”
Shaw, falling into the same pit of wishful thinking that Pluto does, assumes James will uphold the status quo, that LeBron will acquiesce and become the Returning Hero, Cleveland’s Michael Jordan, and not, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, the NBA Nomad.
Are Cleveland sports fans delusional in thinking that LeBron’s messianic return signifies anything beyond the details of his carefully structured contract? Or do they have a point?
After all, if LeBron really wishes to break new ground, then it makes sense that he should return home.
But, for the Nomad, the franchise himself, home is not Cleveland.
For a Nomadic LeBron James, home is the in-between, the intermezzo. Home is annual free agency.