Time will be the ultimate judge of how Dan Gilbert’s famous letter will be received in the annals of Cleveland sports history. If the unthinkable occurs and the Cavaliers actually do win an NBA Championship before LeBron James does, it will be legendary. If the Cavaliers franchise falters in post-LeBron life and the team crumbles to the bottom of the standings for an extended period of time and Dan Gilbert ultimately sells the team, it will be held as a warning sign of future failure that was to yet to come. If it falls somewhere in the middle and Dan Gilbert has a long tenure as the owner of a semi-successful franchise, then it will probably be viewed as a sign of an owner who was trying to rally the troops, so to speak, in the wake of one of the most stunning public rebukes the franchise has ever faced.
Whatever the case may ultimately be, Dan Gilbert is not backing down from his letter nor is he admitting any regret or remorse over his letter. Over the weekend, the Detroit Free Press posted an interview with Gilbert in which they were inquiring about Gilbert’s preference for next owner of the Pistons. At the end of the article, however, they managed to get a couple nice quotes from Gilbert about the Cavaliers and the letter.
When asked if he had any regrets about his criticism of LeBron James, Gilbert responded by saying:
“No, not really. I just expressed what the Cleveland people were feeling. Unless you’re from Cleveland and experienced what they have experienced since 1964, it’s hard for the rest of the country to grasp.”
I was happy to see that quote from Gilbert because he vocalized the point I made when he initially faced the wave of criticism for his letter the day after he posted it. That point being, that the letter wasn’t for the rest of the country. The letter wasn’t to LeBron and it wasn’t to any of the talking heads who blasted him for sending it out. No, the letter was to Cavs fans. It was a sign that Gilbert was truly trying to become “one of us” and it served as the best form of reassurance he could have possibly given us at that moment in time.
Sure, he could have given us a stale and cookie-cutter type letter in which he thanked LeBron for the last 7 years and wished him well. He would have saved face from the national media, but the gesture would have come across as lethargic and hollow in the hearts and minds of the people who matter most to Gilbert: his customers – the fine folks of Ohio and Cavalier fans across the globe.
That’s the point Gilbert is making here, and it’s the point that was lost to the national media who criticized him for it. The point being, you just don’t get it. Unless you’ve experienced what this life of heartache after heartache without ever being given even the slightest reprieve from it, you just couldn’t possibly understand what LeBron’s public humiliation of Cavs fans meant to us. And that is precisely why Dan Gilbert has no regrets about it. He gets it.
I’m not going to sit here and hail Dan Gilbert as Cleveland’s greatest sports owner of all time just yet or anything. He still has a lot of work to avoid following in Larry Dolan’s footsteps in overseeing a once successful franchise fall into annual disappointment and non-existent attendance numbers. Instead, I’m just going to point out that it’s refreshing in this town to have an owner willing to be so public and who can so easily speak to the hearts of his team’s fans. It’s an art form the other two owners in Cleveland have yet to grasp.
If Gilbert wants to see his team succeed and avoid similar pitfalls that have ensnared the Browns and Indians, he knows he needs to make sure the Cavaliers begin building, and build the right way. We can disagree on what the best method of rebuilding should be, but it’s good to know that here, too, Gilbert at least sounds like he has a plan:
“We think it’s a blessing in disguise; we think we’re going to focus now on the team approach and not have everything that we do be focused on one man’s decision”…”In five years we didn’t win a championship (with James), so it didn’t work. So now we’re going to do it the right way”…”The only people who brag about ‘best record in the league’ are the ones that don’t win the championship.”
Right now it’s just lip service, but in the next month the Cavaliers will begin working on this rebuilding process and putting the puzzle pieces back to together the right way.
I’m not totally surprised that Gilbert isn’t backing down from his comments. On the one hand, you would think in a private moment of honesty, Gilbert would admit that it’s silly to think the Cavaliers will actually win a Championship before LeBron does. However, that’s just not the way ultra-successful people think. Most ultra-successful people believe in the power of positive thought. It’s similar to the reason the philosophy of Manifest Destiny once took hold in this country. When people are routinely successful in life and the decisions they make tend to work in their favor, it’s easy for them to begin to believe they are the side of providence.
In a similar manner, then, Dan Gilbert may actually believe in his heart that the Cavaliers were in the right and LeBron was in the wrong, and therefore time will bear out the consequences, both good and bad, for that decision to all parties involved. In that sense, he probably feels that the Cavaliers truly will succeed by going back to his basic core principles that have allowed him to succeed in his other ventures in life.
The flip side to that, of course, is that the decision was made by LeBron to part ways, not Dan Gilbert. If Dan Gilbert truly believes the Cavaliers’ new way of life is the “right way”, then why did he still pursue LeBron James? If building as a team is the right way to do things, then why did he want to continue to build around the singularity that is LeBron James?
There’s really no easy answer. Of course Gilbert wasn’t going to just voluntarily part ways with LeBron and not even attempt to re-sign him. Can you imagine the fallout and criticism he would have faced had he chosen that method? For many of us, we feel like a veil has been lifted this summer. It is equal parts depressing and rejuvenating. I get the sense that Dan Gilbert is with us on that point. He may still be disappointed in losing LeBron, but he feels the same relief in no longer having to deal with the LeBron James that has now been exposed to the general public.
I think almost all of us would still go back and have LeBron stay if it were up to us. I’m sure Gilbert would as well. We can only work with the information that we now know, and it’s now evident that LeBron never really had any desire to be in Cleveland. So now we must move on and try to find a superstar who is willing to play in Cleveland. It may not be easy, but I’m glad the Cavaliers have an owner who gets it and seems to be up for the challenge.