In the early hours of America's recent birthday, basketball fans from sea to shining sea woke up to a LaMarcus Aldridge tweet. The Blazers's big-man, crown jewel of this summer's NBA free agent frenzy, announced he was headed home to Texas to play for San Antonio.
There was nothing overly dramatic about the decision. Few people expected him to stay with Portland, and no one really blamed him for bailing on fans of Rip City. But it was the manner in which he reached his decision, his unhappiness with the Lakers's celebrity-centric pitch, his decision to cancel a meeting with the Knicks, which echoed a minute idea that has been building in sports: Big markets, particularly New York and Los Angeles, simply don't hold the same allure that they used to. In the NBA and MLB, players have increasingly decided to head back to their hometowns or home states, opted to leave in order to play for a contender, or simply remained loyal to the organization that they've always known.
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So what do we make of all this? Since when are the bright lights of the Big Apple or the tall palms of Sunset Boulevard not enough of a draw? Do players no longer desire to craft a legacy on the biggest stage possible? It would be hard to make that argument five years ago today. On July 8, 2010, LeBron James sat in a Boy's and Girl's Club in Greenwich, Conn. and sheepishly told Jim Gray that he would "take my talents to South Beach," giving just about everyone the impression that LeBron's choice was as much about visiting old Rat Pack hangouts and trading in Cleveland cold for Floridian fun as it was about pursuing his first championship. But last summer, in an open letter on Sports Illustrated's website, LeBron hit the reset button. After winning two championships with Miami (and losing two more) he was finally, for better or for worse, coming home.
There's something deeply satisfying about an athlete playing for his hometown. For fans, it's an almost universally beloved or respected decision, an act associated with appreciative head nods and fist pumps when players fulfill their Odyssean void. Perhaps there's nothing we love more than seeing someone come home and kick ass. It just feels right. Or perhaps it's the heartwarming aspect that families and high school sweethearts can then attend games, and root from the stands for their prodigal sons. Whatever it is, it happens a lot. The Knick's biggest free agent acquisition of the last two decades, Carmelo Anthony, came to New York for a chance to be home. Kevin Durant can't avoid speculation about an imminent 2016 return to his native Washington, D.C., to join forces with John Wall and the Wizards, and even retired greats like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird have fostered executive roles with their home state pro teams, in North Carolina and Indiana, respectively.
In baseball, it's loyalty that is celebrated with pomp and circumstance. The fanfare that teams roll out for renowned, longtime players is legendary. From Craig Biggio of the Astros, to Todd Helton of the Rockies, Chipper Jones of the Braves, and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, fans love when every contract for a player is just an extension – a chance to see him don the same colors until retirement. There are historical factors at play. Baseball's most illustrious names are often associated with one franchise, or two at the most. To have a love affair with the same city that signed you, with the fans that cheered you from virtual adolescence – it's a staple of the game. And it's always at play in contract negotiations. Giancarlo Stanton chose to extend his contract with the usually below average Marlins for the next 13 years. Felix Hernandez has had many seasons with a win-loss column under .500, despite being one of the best pitchers in the league, which is just what happens when you remain loyal to the Seattle Mariners. Then you have a guy like Torii Hunter, known so fondly for his years with the Minnesota Twins, who decided to finish the twilight of his career once again manning their outfield.
That's not to say big cities and bright lights have totally lost their appeal. Recent NBA draftee D'Angelo Russell was over the moon to don Lakers purple and gold and learn from Kobe, and the Yankees still gobble up international youth from the Dominican who have grown up most easily recognizing the interlocking N-Y logo. Maybe home run phenom Bryce Harper spends the rest of his career in pinstripes once his free agency comes around in 2019, but it's no longer an imperative for athletes who want to stand out, much less win.
Both the MLB and the NBA have reached an era when players desperately want to win – and don't seem to care where they do so. Every city is now a grand national stage, thanks to sites like MLB.TV or NBA League Pass – media that allows fans everywhere to watch players anywhere. And teams with less money have proven time and time again that they can win. In the NBA, a team like the Brooklyn Nets sets a new record for their luxury tax bill each year, (despite being annually eliminated in early playoff rounds), and in the MLB, only four teams of the ten that made it to the playoffs last year were also in the top ten for highest payroll.
If you're a young man looking to sign somewhere in the early July free agent frenzy of pro basketball, you have options. Where do you want to go? Think hometown. Think loyalty. Think contender. LaMarcus Aldridge ran down that list, and saw he could grab two. He saw little need to step into the shadow of Shaq, Kareem, and Wilt, and he certainly didn't want to sink his hands into the wet concrete at the forefront of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. He just wanted to play basketball where he would be comfortable, where he could focus on the glamour that happens on the court, not off of it. In this day and age, it's hard to blame him.
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