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Cruella LeBron becomes a villain

Goodbye, Golden Child.

Ending the greatest recruiting war in NBA history — and his career-long honeymoon — LeBron James announced Thursday he’ll sign with the Miami Heat, creating the most controversial team since Shaquille O’Neal met Kobe Bryant and leaving a smoking crater in Cleveland.

In so doing, James did everything skeptics said he wouldn’t.

He didn’t go for the most money, spurning $128 million in Cleveland for $99 million in Miami.

He didn’t insist on having his own team. joining a superstar ensemble in Wade County, which was Dade County before it was temporarily renamed to help keep Dwyane Wade.

After seven seasons of carrying Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Co., James now has Wade and Chris Bosh on an East power as glamorous as the Lakers, the heretofore-unchallenged kings of glitz.

(By the way, if Jerry Buss is still looking to unload Lamar Odom to save money, someone should tell him to hold up.)

Shaq and Kobe needed years together to make the Lakers soap opera idols, or enough-already villains.

James did it for the Heat in one day, selling his announcement to ESPN as a one-hour special, serving himself up to his critics like a roast pig with an apple in its mouth.

Despite the storm about to break over his head, James had every right to leave, if it meant breaking every heart in Ohio (and driving owner Dan Gilbert off the edge, which would explain his open letter noting “our former hero ... deserted this evening ... [in a] narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his ‘decision’ unlike anything ever ‘witnessed’ in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.’”)

After seven years, all the Cavaliers had around James were people like Williams, Antawn Jamison, J.J. Hickson and Delonte West.

James nonetheless spent last week trying to get Bosh or Amare Stoudemire to join him.

Only after Bosh turned down a sign-and-trade did James turn toward Miami.

As a basketball decision, it was arguably OK, although Chicago had the better, deeper roster.

As TV — and a reflection on James — it was a disaster.

Injured elbow or no injured elbow, it was inevitable that James would be bashed after his second-round pratfall against the Celtics.

ESPN’s Skip Bayless, who had long insisted James was Scottie Pippen, not Michael Jordan, gave him a “D as in Dog-minus.”

Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski called him a “narcissist” who “quit on his teammates ... a young Alex Rodriguez, so insecure with himself and his MVP awards, so desperate to find validation in the courtship of free agency.”

Lo and behold, James, who had accommodated only frenzy to this point, then made his deal with the devil, dressed as ESPN.

James, who once flew to Nebraska to meet Warren Buffett, prides himself on his business acumen. In the real world, he and his “people” — friends from high school — are children dressing up as adults.

The over/under on how long ESPN would withhold the news turned out to be an incredible 27 minutes, 17 more than a network exec had announced.

Rather than go low-key, ESPN gave it the full self-important, self-referencing treatment:

6:00 — Stuart Scott intro, blah, blah.

6:01 — Recent James interview, saying, “At the end of the day, we all know this is a business.”

6:02— Panel discussion, blah blah.

6:11 — Graphics with James in Cavaliers, Heat, Bulls, Nets and Knicks uniforms.

6:12 — Scott: “Coming up, it’s the decision we’ve all been waiting for — the King will chose his next court!”

6:13 — Three-minute commercial break for search engine, designer water, insurance company, fast-food chain and promos for telecasts of All-Star Home Run Derby and the World Cup.

6:16 — James interview from 2008 saying, “At the end of the day we all know this is a business.”

6:17 — Last canvas of ESPN panel. Notes Jon Barry of James: “He doesn’t look happy.”

6:19 — Another three-minute commercial break for the search engine, insurance company, et al.

6:22 — They finally go to Jim Gray with James.

With the audience hanging on every word, awaiting The Decision, as ESPN calls it, Gray, a real newsman who had been handpicked by James and had allowed himself to be dragged into this to play emcee, asks:

1. What has James been doing?

2. What has he thought about this process?

3. Did he enjoy it?

4. What did he expect?

5. How many people know his decision?

6. Can they be counted on one hand or two?

7. When did he decide?

8. When did he last change his mind?

9. Did the team he’s going to know?

10. Who did he ask for advice?

11. What was the major factor?

12. How deep did the evaluation process go?

13. Did he have any doubt?

13. Did he want to sleep on it or would he announce it now?

And, most incredibly:

14. “You still a nail-biter?

At 6:27, perhaps having run out of chit-chat, Gray asked what The Decision was.

“This is tough,” James said later, having lined up more help on the floor and, if he had no idea, a legion of haters off it.

“It’s very tough because you feel like you let a lot of people down.”

He doesn’t know the half of it.

mark.heisler@latimes.com


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