The King and I

On an otherwise boring weekday back in July 2010, I sat and watched LeBron James and ESPN’s free agency spectacle ‘The Decision’ firstly because I wanted him to come to the Knicks and secondly because in the summer of 2009, it was I, Siddharth, who was the free agent prize of the summer.

This was of course in the Incheon Public School System in South Korea. Like LeBron a year after me, it was also my first time being a hot commodity and with all the parallels between our decisions, as I watched Jim Gray shoot pointless small talk at Bron, I thought I knew exactly what The New Chosen One was thinking. A year earlier, I had just finished a stellar English Teaching season at Dongam Middle School. The school and I had embarked on our journey with ‘championship or bust’ swagger. Sadly, however, our glorious maiden semester had led us down a long, twisty, tumultuous road, which in turn had led me off the face of a cliff into the darkness where I proceeded to fall into a never-ending abyss screaming and flailing, my lungs burning, begging for a break and my soul hoping I would hit the ground soon. Yup, that feeling when you begin to feel as if you have outgrown your teammates. Same same. Their commitment just wasn’t on the level of mine. I wanted out – but I really dreaded telling them that I’d be turning in my jersey for some other squad. They drafted me, you know? That had to count for something?

To help me make a decision, I thought of the good times and the bad times but I couldn’t ignore the fact that my bad times montage was significantly longer than the good times montage. Rebuilding there wasn’t an option for me. And so it went I was at an ‘open class’ a few days later when one of the Superintendents of Education walked up to me and asked me if I was signing there again. I answered “Oh Hell No.” She said she would give me a job at any school in Incheon just to keep me in their school system. This was akin to David Stern promising LBJ a spot on any NBA team of his choice just to keep him from going to Europe. I was shocked. I made her repeat her offer again and again as my chest swelled up each time. It was like pumping up your basketball. I got home, weighed the pros and cons of each available school and set my sights on a team that I thought would compete harder, a potential dynasty situation. We’d turn these kids into worldbeaters, goddamnit. I made the decision to walk out on my first school one month before my deadline. I would be classy and give them a month’s notice.

I walked into Dongam on the day of reckoning, gameface strapped on…and waffled hard. I finally wound up mustering the courage to tell them I was leaving three weeks later. Four days before my deadline. By this time, the brass had assumed since I hadn’t said I was leaving- I must be staying. (Korea’s famous for wacky assumptions.) And this despite me repeatedly saying “I’ll think about it this summer and do what I think’s best for me and my family.” Still, I could empathize, nobody ever wants to be left behind and told they’re not good enough. Dongam school was angry. And desperate. They promised me all kinds of things to make me stay, things like my co-teacher will attend class, a promise they remarkably managed to break within 24 hours of making it. A truly incredible record for promise breaking. My bags were packed but I still felt bad about heading for greener pastures. Leaving (some of) the students was tough and leaving them on (kind of) short notice felt like a (mildly) inconsiderate thing to do. It wasn’t my first time being inconsiderate but it was my first time feeling guilty about it. So I sugar-coated it like crazy.

 I made it sound like it was my fault for leaving and fell upon my sword. Bloodily as hell. Why? Because I didn’t have to rub salt in their wounds. I told them I just couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t cut out to be a middle school teacher. I was on my way and out of respect for the (few) good times, I took the high road. Rejection sucks in any circumstance and if I did things like LeBron, I would have called a round table meeting of every Korean school, televised it live, had all my old students watch and then said something completely idiotic like “I’m taking my talents to Seoul Elementary” or some bullsh*t like that. Absolutely unnessecary. “Listen, I just want to have good facilities like a new whiteboard and a snazzy English Zone that put me in the best position to have the most successful English Fun Camps.” My first school would be standing there shocked. Crushed. I’m pretty sure Mrs Kim would be doing her patented thing where she covered her cheeks with her hands and opened her eyes wide as saucers, looking up with her mouth hanging open.

The point is if I want the fancy English Zone, that’s fine. But do I have to disrespect my old English Zone to get it? Couldn’t I have taken Mrs Kim aside and said “Hey, thanks for trying but I have an opportunity to move on to something better.” That’s what people are supposed to do. When I notified my employer, I was still on the fence about leaving but I knew they’d be in a tough spot even a week later – so a moment came when I had to man up, make a call and stick to it. Today, one year later, LeBron wonders why people root against him. His fans wonder how people can dislike him.Their camp seethes at how they’ve managed to fall so low, so fast and in the eyes of so many. It’s gotten so bad that the much reviled Dallas Mavericks have suddenly become the lovable darlings of the sports world simply for beating the Heatles. LeBron reminds me of a line that Andy tells the Warden in The Shawshank Redemption: “How can you be so obtuse?” ob·tuse/əbˈt(y)o͞os/Adjective 1. Annoyingly insensitive or slow to understand. )   That got Andy locked up in solitary.

I’ve never had any issue with LeBron going to Miami. In his shoes, I would have gone either there or Chicago. It’s totally understandable to me that he wanted more help than he got in Cleveland. I have no problem with LeBron not responding to pressure like a Michael Jordan. Nobody does. That’s why Michael Jordan’s Michael Jordan. I try not to fault a person for how they perform their job, everybody makes mistakes and has a bad patch no matter how talented they are. It’s not fair to compare or to expect a miracle every time out. I can only hold a person to the same standard I hold myself. And I would never ever treat anyone the way he treated Cleveland. When I found out about ‘The Decision’ on ESPN, I assumed he had to be staying. I figured he would announce “I’m staying in Cleveland”, and they would have cameras already set up to film some fireworks show at some Cleveland landmark. The Witness sign? Jacobs Field? I don’t remember ever being as shocked by any TV moment as when he delivered his insanely dumb prepared statement about taking his talents down to south beach. Before I knew anybody else hated him for it, I felt like I was watching him wreck any goodwill he had. Live. And all for the sake of marketing? Where was the conscience to put his own people’s feelings before hype and salesmanship? I don’t hate LeBron James. I hate King James. How come nobody ever talks about what a poor choice of nickname ‘King James’ is? It’s not clever, it’s not funny, it’s not endearing. It’s corny, boring, self-aggrandizing and it’s set him up for ridicule. For example, all the “Queen James” haters. His nickname should have been “Beast” James. Nobody could ever question that.

You’re not supposed to come into the game with a title, you’re supposed to leave with one.

As for myself, I didn’t burn any bridges, I moved on and loved my second school a hundred times more than my first. Still, I do think back about the first one sometimes and I’m happy that I did right by them. You always remember your first.

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