On October 3, 1974, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar informed the Milwaukee Bucks organization that he wished to be traded. At the time, Abdul-Jabbar had won one championship ring with the Bucks, in 1971, and came within one win of another just six months earlier, when Milwaukee lost the 1973-74 NBA Finals to the Boston Celtics in seven games. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the caliber of the team had little to do with Abdul-Jabbar’s restlessness. The Manhattan native had previously been candid about his limited attachment to Wisconsin: “Live in Milwaukee? No. I guess you could say I exist in Milwaukee.” When his “request” came, the Bucks had little choice but to oblige Abdul-Jabbar, already a high-profile star. They traded him to Los Angeles, where he has done much more than exist during a relationship with the Lakers now in its fifth decade. Milwaukee has not been back to the Finals without him.
Barry Bonds won the Rookie of the Year award and two MVP awards for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted him in 1985. Bonds possessed a keen eye, great speed, and remarkable (though not as “remarkable” as it would later become) home-run power. He was a key component in the Pirates clubs who won three straight divisional titles from 1990-92. During the 1992 drive and on the cusp of free agency, Bonds told reporters how much he enjoyed playing for the Pirates and manager Jim Leyland. He said that money would not be the critical factor in his decision on where to go next. But his agent, Dennis Gilbert, took a firmer line. “[The money] is important to me,” he said. “The best should be paid the best.” Bonds received a record-breaking contract of $43 million dollars over six years to play for the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates were never serious suitors, and after losing their star, the club began a historic free fall. They have not broken the .500-mark in any season since, and no Bonds-like prospect has appeared to help turn things around.
The age of free agency in American professional sports has not been good for Rust Belt cities, which previously had been able to rely on restrictive labor rules to keep their best players in town for the duration of their careers (or until they were no longer wanted). Free agency also coincided with the historic decline of cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. Too often, these cities have lost their superstar referendums.
This summer, basketball’s LeBron James added his name to the list of superstar athletes who have jilted Rust Belt cities in favor of brighter lights elsewhere.
Cleveland is well known for its own municipal tragedies, athletic and otherwise. This year, before James’ free-agency decision, Cleveland was named America’s Most Miserable City by Forbes magazine. The city earned the title due to “high unemployment, high taxes, lousy weather, corruption by public officials, and crummy sports teams (Cavaliers of the NBA excepted).” Cleveland ranked near the bottom in all nine categories taken into account in the index. The report noted that there has been a net migration of 71,000 people out of the Cleveland metro area since 2005. The population is now less than half of what it was fifty years ago. In fact, of the Top 20 Most Miserable Cities this year, nine sit on the Great Lakes, and all of these communities spend a great deal of time worrying about their public image and how to change it.
In the quest to keep James around, the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers went down fighting. When the NBA free-agent extraordinaire traveled to Cleveland from his home in Akron, Ohio, in late June and early July, every overpass along Interstate 77 displayed a banner imploring him to re-sign with the Cavaliers. As he arrived each day at the downtown-Cleveland offices of LRMR Marketing to entertain suitors from the NBA’s elite teams, Cavaliers employees and fans stood at each intersection, waving signs and cheering. Massive billboards with James’ likeness were placed on the surrounding buildings at the level of the conference rooms James was thought to be using to interview prospective employers, each one extolling the virtues of home, family, and loyalty.
The team quietly backed a grassroots fan movement called “More Than a Player,” financing a proxy war against James’ other suitors while the club publicly expressed their willingness to participate in any process their star forward created. The Cavs spent a reported $500,000 on this campaign alone; to say nothing of the league-maximum nine figures they were prepared to pay James for his services over the next seven years.
On Thursday, July 8, the Cavaliers learned just seconds before the rest of America that James had decided to, as he famously put it, “take his talents to South Beach” and play for the Miami Heat, alongside free agent pals Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Cleveland’s King had decided to abdicate.