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This won’t be a popular opinion, I realize. So let’s get that out of the way from the jump.
But here goes, anyway:
Dan Gilbert is the best owner of a Cleveland professional sports franchise.
Perhaps, in the history of the region.
Bill Veeck built the 1948 World Series champion Indians, but was gone in a flash, forced to sell the team because of financial reasons. Gordon Gund saved the Cavaliers, rescuing them from the grips of perhaps the worst owner in the history of professional sports — Ted Stepien — but he ordered the great Wayne Embry to trade Ron Harper, so he’s out.
Yet, the only man to own a team that’s won a championship in Northeast Ohio in more than a half-century is also one of the most under appreciated guys in professional sports, especially in the region where he has had the greatest impact.
Basically, because LeBron James, according to most supposedly in the know, doesn’t like him, stemming back to Gilbert penning The Letter.
Of course, James managed to put his hurt feelings aside to accept Gilbert’s apology in the summer of 2014 and make his way back to the Cavaliers, whom he — along with Gilbert’s wallet — led to a historic NBA championship in 2016.
That narrative has been beaten more times than that dead horse buried over there, mostly by a group of former Cavs beat writers, who still want/need/crave continued access to James. With the Cavs in the stage of a massive rebuild, it makes sense to continue to kiss James’ posterior, though it doesn’t make it any less nauseating. After all, LeBron never ceases to be news, regardless of how relative.
“Space Jam 2” is filming, after all.
It’s much easier to follow James around the country to pen stories or write books about behind-the-scenes drama that went on in Cleveland over the previous four years. That draws more clicks than the same group of writers admitting they were wrong for burying rookie Collin Sexton after the 19-year-old’s early-season struggles, or mentioning Koby Altman and compatriots Mike Gansey and Brock Aller actually won the Kyrie Irving trade (what did Boston win in Irving’s two seasons there and what does it have left to show for the tumult created by everything that surrounds that renowned flat-Earth scientist), that the Cavs did Dwyane Wade a solid by trading him back home to Miami, etc.
While James was unquestionably the driving force in the Cavaliers winning the crown in 2016 and reaching four consecutive NBA Finals, his refusal to commit to anything longer than a one-plus-one contract during his second tenure in Cleveland made it next to impossible for even the man credited far and wide for putting that championship team together, David Griffin, to build anything that was sustainable for more than a season or two, effects of which continue to hinder the franchise today.
Remember the Sports Illustrated cover story by the great Lee Jenkins and the quotes and sentiments James expressed? Or how about the “just a kid from Akron” telling 30,000 adoring fans in his hometown he “wasn’t going anywhere again” after coming back to Cleveland in 2014?
But James, as usual, got what he wanted — he’s in Hollywood, he stars in and produces television shows, he’s filming another movie and Anthony Davis will be his Robin starting next season.
On top of everything else, LeBron has a new group of people to blame for everything that goes wrong, which was on full display last season. James’ numbers were, as usual, spectacular, but in compiling them, he threw all his teammates under the bus, the team president, admittedly in way over his head, ran up the white flag and quit and the coach got fired. Oh, by the way, his team missed the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Gilbert remains with the Cavaliers. Now rehabilitating after suffering a stroke, he has never flinched when it comes to opening his wallet, be it in terms of payroll or accommodations for the players in terms of first-class practice facility in Independence or remodeled locker rooms in a remade arena.
The highest payrolls in the league… paying more in luxury taxes than almost the entire rest of the NBA — combined… taking on future salary for one of the three worst teams in the league for a future draft pick, all continue to be on display of Gilbert’s willingness to stay the course.
If Gilbert owned the Indians, he’d pay Frankie Lindor… and Trevor Bauer… and would not have cut a middling payroll by $25 million in the offseason, meaning Michael Brantley would still be patrolling left at Progressive Field. If he owned the Browns, all that cap space that was rolled over for years would have been put to use and 1-15 and 0-16 would never have happened.
Yet, James remains revered, and (mostly) very much deservedly so, while Gilbert is anything but.
Selective memory, anyone? James left Cleveland… twice, as is his right, contractually. But why does him leading the Cavs to an NBA title in 2016 trump the ridiculous “The Decision,” but not Gilbert spending more money in the history of the game to help pave the way to that title not do the same for his foolish “The Letter?” (By the way, while Gilbert is panned by most for that severe lapse of judgement, go back and read the words of scribes, the takes of talking heads and the comments made by fans after that was published. Freezing Cold Takes would have a field day).
Sure, Gilbert meddles too much. Way too much, in fact. The fact no general manager — not even a standout like Griffin — has signed a second contract during Gilbert’s tenure more than backs that up.
But he can learn to curb that behavior. Perhaps it’s already taking place with the hiring of John Beilein as head coach, J.B. Bickerstaff and Lindsay Gottlieb as assistants and drafting Darius Garland, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. in the first round of the draft.
Meanwhile, the Dolans will continue to be, um, “frugal” and Jimmy Haslam is, well, still Jimmy Haslam. His hiring of John Dorsey, and allowing him complete control of all football decisions, is without question his best decision since buying the team. Unfortunately, it took years of bottom-feeding for that to happen.
That very well may be the case with the Cavaliers, too, but unlike the Indians, it won’t be for a lack of resources and unlike the Browns, it won’t be after two generations of buffoonish decisions.
It’s well past time Gilbert, if not recognized, is at least appreciated.
LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the promised land, but the road to that destination was paved in gold.
From Dan Gilbert.