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Friday, July 09, 2010
Five Thoughts on Dan Gilbert's Letter

After LeBron James announced that he will be signing with the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert responded by posting a furious letter on, an NBA website for the Cavaliers. Here are some excerpts from the letter, in its comic sans font:
Dear Cleveland, All Of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Supporters Wherever You May Be Tonight;

As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. . . . You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal. . . . In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight:


. . . I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our "motivation" to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels. Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there. Sorry, but that's simply not how it works.

This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown "chosen one" sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And "who" we would want them to grow-up to become. . . ,

Dan Gilbert
Majority Owner
Cleveland Cavaliers

There's a lot to digest here. First, the letter reads more like a high school break-up letter, or a tongue-in-cheek diatribe found in pro wrestling, or maybe even a piece we'd find on The Onion, than one seriously penned by a 48-year-old attorney and successful businessperson whose actions and words reflect not only himself, but also his franchise and the NBA. Using inflammatory words like "cowardly" and "betrayal" to describe a contractual decision by a person who's unquestionably abiding by the law and following NBA rules is both amusing and odd. I recognize the letter is partly an attempt by Gilbert to direct blame away from himself for losing Lebron, and on some level I applaud Gilbert for not hiding his true feelings, but he clearly could have accomplished those goals more graciously and effectively. If anything, the letter is counterproductive, since it makes Lebron seem like the rational, deliberative one.

Second, Gilbert's emphasis on loyalty is misplaced and hypocritical. LeBron James was a free agent whose contract had expired with a team -- a team, by the way, that he had clearly invested his heart and soul in for the last 7 years. The days of the reserve clause, which enabled teams to re-sign players to one-year contracts for as long as teams wanted, have long since ended; Lebron had every right to sign with any team. If Gilbert doesn't like athletes taking advantage of free agency, he shouldn't have bought an NBA franchise.

Also, if Gilbert truly cared so much about loyalty, why did he just try to persuade Tom Izzo to leave Michigan State, which Izzo's coached for the last 14 years, to coach the Cavs? In fact, why would the Cavaliers pursue any coach or player whose associated with another organization when the Cavs would be causing a breach of loyalty, an act of "betrayal"? Or is loyalty only a one-way street with the Cavs?

Third, if Gilbert is going to badmouth Lebron -- he's apparently told the Associated Press that Lebron quit on the Cavs in the 2010 playoffs series against the Celtics -- don't be shocked to see him hit with a slander lawsuit. Sure, slander is hard to show, especially with public figures and especially if the comments are more opinion than fact, but if Gilbert starts making specific claims that are exaggerations or fabrications, Lebron, like anyone in that situation, might be tempted to turn to the law.

Fourth, what NBA free agent is now going to want to sign with the Cavs when if they later leave they could be savaged by the owner (who only seems to care about loyalty when people leave, as opposed to join, the Cavs)?

Fifth, and lastly, where is the NBA on this? The Cavs' website is part of I understand that NBA teams have primary, though not exclusive, control over website content, but if the NBA is a single entity (as it claimed in its American Needle amicus brief), shouldn't it try to seize control over this situation, as the Cavs would just be a department of the NBA? Then again, maybe the league loves the drama and the fact that everyone's talking about it. But I could see at least some NBA owners finding the letter to be bad form, and we know from NHL v. MSG that leagues can exercise control over team pages on league websites.


I think I will hold on to his personal guarantee, also. It will likely be redeemable after the next NBA season.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/09/2010 9:51 AM  

Great post!!!!

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/09/2010 10:31 AM  

This is why the Cavaliers have never won a Championship -- it's a team sport. The Cavs need to build a squad. Then allow them to go to the next level for each other. Then build a bench. One person never makes a Championship team.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/09/2010 10:35 AM  

He really does sound like a spurned high-school student. Not only unprofessional . . . but kind of pathetic as well.

Blogger Andrew -- 7/09/2010 10:51 AM  

I agree across the board Mike. I'd also add that Gilbert didn't show any loyalty to Mike Brown & Danny Ferry this summer despite all the success they've had the past few years as Cavs' coach & GM respectively.

Blogger Chad McEvoy -- 7/09/2010 10:55 AM  

I agree with the first point. Yet I think on the second point is where we, as lawyers or potential lawyers, sometimes lose sight of a bigger picture. Following the terms of the legal system in place, Lebron does not have any technical liability but there are still relationships to be managed. Lebron cultivated and capitalized on the relationships over his years in Cleveland. I think it is too simple to limit responsibility in the process strictly to the terms of the CBA.

You're right that in courting Izzo he was less concerned with a relationship of equal importance but I think Izzo and James represent relatively rare positions in their communities.

I think the NBA may let the letter stay up as a way for Cleveland ownership to empathize with Cavs fans. How would emotionally invested fans react if their owner issued a dismissal letter in cold business terms?

Blogger Pat -- 7/09/2010 12:54 PM  

We usually complain about free agents chasing the highest paycheck (which often means they leave town for a larger market). In this case, LeBron is actually going to earn less in Miami.

He clearly just wants to win a championship (even if he has to share the spotlight). Not chasing the money AND wanting to win are usually considered good attributes.

One positive aspect of The Decision, while appearing to be highly ego-driven, is that the Boys and Girls Clubs are going to reportedly reap at least $2.5 million (along with lots of free PR that might lead to greater donations). Again, this is a good thing.

I think this is the safest, best decision LeBron could have made.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/09/2010 4:28 PM  

Great post! I couldn't help but laugh aloud reading the language Gilbert uses throughout his diatribe--completely agree on most of your points, though I'm a little skeptical that Lebron will push for slander; he's a fine marketer of himself, but I think he'll try and prove Gilbert wrong on the basketball court instead of in court.

I read earlier today that Lebron's "Decision" program drew a 7.3 yesterday for ESPN, which was higher than the final Cavs/Celtics game (or any other playoff game on cable in 2010). Another sign that while players might value winning championships on a team, that fans value the individual players more?

Anonymous John C -- 7/09/2010 6:37 PM  

Dan Gilbert should be ashamed of himself for speaking ill of Lebron. Nobody even cared about the Cavaliers before Lebron James got signed. What nba players are going to want to play for the Cavaliers after what Gilbert did to Lebron.

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Anonymous Eric -- 7/09/2010 11:45 PM  

..and nobody is going to care about Cleveland soon enough...again.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/10/2010 7:05 AM  

Gilbert is a slave master:

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/11/2010 8:33 PM  

I agree with most of this post and with most of the comments. Gilbert and others have labeled Lebron "narcissistic" and the like for nurturing and delivering the biggest free agent production in sports history, no small part of which was the ESPN special.

I grant that the boys and girls club was an excellent PR move and the benefits for that organization are fantastic (nice move, Lebron and his people), but what are the best counterarguments to the belief that the entire production was egocentric and self-indulgent? Should we simply admire Lebron's brass for creating public interest and a national audience for something that is really all about him? (Lebron, Wade and Bosh have already gotten plenty of mileage out of the "we sacrificed money for team" shtick.)

What about those who say Lebron has damaged his public image not by making the choice he made, but by choosing to reveal his choice in the manner he did?

Anonymous Kevin -- 7/12/2010 5:32 PM  

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