- Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert told Business Insider he sees LeBron James as a “partner,” not just another employee.
- The nature of their relationship has been a fairly regular topic in Cavs coverage since Gilbert published a scathing public letter against James in 2010, after James chose to leave the Cavs for the Miami Heat.
- James, a free agent this summer, most recently said he and Gilbert have a “great working relationship.”
Whether the Cleveland Cavaliers win or lose the NBA Finals this year, LeBron James is going to decide this summer if he’s staying in Cleveland or taking his talents elsewhere, when he becomes a free agent.
One of the factors he’ll be taking into consideration is the organisation itself, and for the Cavs that involves his relationship with the team’s owner, QuickenLoans’ billionaire founder Dan Gilbert. The two have had their ups and downs, stemming mostly from a heated letter Gilbert wrote in 2010 that criticised James for leaving the Cavs for the Miami Heat.
But in a recent interview with Business Insider for our podcast, “Success! How I Did It,” Gilbert told us he sees James as an equal, not an employee. Gilbert said he considers James the best basketball player on the planet.
“In that situation, although legally, he may be working for our organisation, that’s not really the case,” Gilbert said. “He’s more like your partner, really.”
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James’ influence within the Cavs is strong and could be considered greater than the standard-player team relationship. In some cases, James’ opinions have been considered when it comes to personnel. Cavs GM Koby Altman reportedly spoke to James before making several big, in-season trades this February. James has also confirmed that he called the Cavs to ask them not to trade Kyrie Irving last summer, but they made the move anyway.
Gilbert’s statement to us is a negation of a comment James made during the 2016 Finals that got the attention of the sports media. When asked about his relationship with Gilbert, James responded in a way that could be interpreted as passive aggressive: “I think he’s the owner of the team. I’m just one of the players. One of the 15 guys. I’m one of the lower guys on the totem pole, so I just do my job. I’m just here to work.”
The two men’s relationship has remained a fairly regular talking point because of Gilbert’s dramatic reaction to James’ decision to leave the Cavs for the Heat in 2010. After the now-infamous ESPN special called “The Decision” in which James announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” Gilbert’s brutal letter – made more memorable by its Comic Sans font – said James’ behaviour was a “shameful display of selfishness” and a bad example for children.
Of course, James returned to Cleveland in 2014 and won a championship in 2016, but “The Letter,” as it’s called, is still a talking point. Last October, GQ asked James if he thought the letter was “racial,” in the sense that it implied ownership of James, and he said that it felt like it did. Before returning to the Cavs in 2014, James and Gilbert sat down to hash out their feelings after the ugly split four years prior.
Nonetheless, speculation about their relationship remains. After the Cavs won the Eastern Conference title this year, a clip of James seemingly snubbing Gilbert blew up on social media.
In a more recent interview, however, James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that since returning, he and Gilbert have a “great working relationship” that’s worked out for the both of them. When asked how much ownership would play into his free agency decision this summer James said, “Umm, we’ll see.”
In our interview, Gilbert said that he regrets his 2010 letter, but said it was primarily for the Cleveland fans.
“Because Cleveland had been beaten up, man, economically. Then they’re a losing city in sports, and they hadn’t won a championship at that time,” Gilbert said. “They considered him one of their own. They still do. It was more for them about, ‘Wow, this guy [Gilbert] came from the outside, and he feels loyalty.'”
Explaining his comments on the partnership he sees with James, he said that they have built trust.
“So I think that the more communication you have, the more you get on the same page … it just becomes so much easier. Then also, it’s important to have a trust level because you can get swayed by the ‘He said, she said,’ ‘The media said,’ ‘The agents said,’ ‘The front-office guys said.’ The more layers you have between yourselves, the more open for misinterpretation for things to go bad.”