NEW YORK — Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's effort to rally his city the night LeBron James fled town might keep other basketball players from wanting to come there.
Gilbert said Thursday night in an open letter to Cavaliers fans that James' decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat was a "cowardly betrayal" that ended a "narcissistic, self-promotional" buildup to a spectacle that the sports world has never before seen. Gilbert also said in an interview with The Associated Press that James quit on the Cavaliers during their playoff loss last season to the Boston Celtics.
The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player announced his decision during an hourlong ESPN show Thursday night. Gilbert's reaction came less than two hours later and was posted on the team's Web site.
Kevin Durant, the NBA's leading scorer last season who just signed a new contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, said on his Twitter account that, "I really don't think it's professional that Dan Gilbert is talkin about LeBron like that," and free agent Tracy McGrady took note that Gilbert "went OFF."
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Pro athletes from other sports commented as well. NFL receiver Larry Fitzgerald said on the social media Web site that he was shocked Gilbert would talk so badly about James.
"That owner profited so much 4 the years bron played in Cleveland & now he's the bad guy?" Fitzgerald, of the Arizona Cardinals, asked on Twitter.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco asked on Twitter why a free agent's decision to leave a city is an act of treason but, when a team cuts a player, it's part of the business.
Gilbert was right to send a passionate letter to the team's fan base, though his word choice might have hurt his chances of landing future players, said William Sutton, professor in the University of Central Florida's DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program.
"He's got to be as outraged as his fans or they're not going to be his fans," Sutton said in a telephone interview. "But when a player is thinking about coming there and has to wonder, 'Will he be talking about me three years from now?' what he's done is created the question."
Prior to the tirade, Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, was an owner players would have wanted to play for because of his passion and business sense, Sutton said. "He took away some of his own aura by the choice of some of those words," Sutton said.
Cavaliers General Manager Chris Grant declined Friday to say whether Gilbert's comments might hurt the team's ability to sign free agents. "Dan's owned the team for five years now; I think he's earned the right to voice his opinion," Grant said at a televised news conference, which Gilbert did not attend.
The Cavaliers' new coach, Byron Scott, said he didn't think Gilbert's comments would scare players away.
"An owner acting that way, he's showing a lot of passion for the city, a lot of passion for the organization," Scott said. "I thought that he was speaking from his heart."
While all of the NBA team executives spurned by James said they were disappointed with losing out on his talents, Gilbert was most expressive.
"This shocking act of disloyalty from our home-grown chosen one sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn," Gilbert said of James, a 25-year-old native of Akron, Ohio. "If you thought we were motivated before tonight to bring the hardware to Cleveland, I can tell you that this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our motivation to previously unknown and previously never-experienced levels."
Gilbert went too far, though his comments probably wouldn't keep others from signing with the Cavaliers in the future, former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an analyst for ESPN, said in a telephone interview.
"If I was him, I wouldn't have done it that way, but he has every right to do it," Van Gundy said. "A player doesn't play for an owner. It's not like you have everyday contact. You play for the coach. Had Byron Scott said that, it may have had a more lasting impact."