LeBron & Co. Add Dangerous New Twist to Old Ploy

“Superstar buddies work together to change the face of the game”.  That was the headline last week as LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami to make the Heat an instant favorite to reach the NBA Finals.  So far it's good for the Heat, and probably the NBA.  Fans are looking forward to next season, excited about a possible Heat-Lakers final.  But last week wasn't the first time that headline has appeared. What was new this time was the motivation – the stars are looking to win a championship, not win an economic war with the owners.  What happened to some of the past all-star collaborations?  What will happen to this one and will it be good for the game?  Would your answer be the same if Kobe Bryant somehow joined the big 3 in Miami?

In the first half of the 1960's Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale carried the Los Angeles Dodgers to a mini-dynasty on the strength of their pitching.  Back in the days before arbitration and  free agency the reserve clause left the players only one option if they weren't satisfied with the salary the owner offered – refuse to play until the owner caved.  In 1966 Drysdale and Koufax held out together, figuring Dodger's owner Walter O'Malley could not afford to  field a losing team and drive the fans away.  The holdout drew a mixed reaction from fans, O'Malley hung tough and the pair eventually signed for raises that were less than groundbreaking after missing much of spring training.

In  1919, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford,  Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith tired of both the economic and artistic shackles of the studio system.  These superstar buddies had an elegant  solution – they started their own studio.  United Artists survived for decades, but often just barely, until two lawyers, Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin, took over in 1951 and revolutionized the business by getting rid of the physical studio and financing independent pictures instead.

LeBron's world is vastly different.  The players, especially in basketball and baseball, have  won the war with the owners (thanks to Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, and, in an odd miscue that showed the players what free agency could be worth, Charles O. Finley and Catfish Hunter).  Every superstar makes so much from salary and endorsements that they can well afford to leave a little on the table in exchange for quality of life.  Quality of life can mean staying in a city you love, avoiding one you hate, playing on a team with your buddies, playing on a loaded team with a strong chance to win a title or any combination of the above.

What's new, and a little scary, about LeBron & Co. collaborating on the move to Miami is the motive – these Olympic team pals plan to win an NBA title.  Admirable, in a way, but it might work a little too well.   If LeBron gets his ring will most of the biggest stars in basketball and baseball migrate towards one or two superfranchises – taking less pay to guarantee a title?  Ultimately that would destroy competitive balance, the non-favored franchises would lose hope and the sports would suffer.

Because the Heat was not historically a superpower franchise, because the Laker's still have a shot even if the Heat gel well, the sport's world doesn't seem overly worried about this -- yet.  If LeBron wins his ring and three superstar outfielders and a starting pitcher suddenly sign with the Yankees at less than market value –  wow.  Suddenly free agency seems like it might really threaten professional sport, not because the players are getting paid too much, but because they are willing to take less to win.

Photo Credit: David Shankbone