The LeBron James haters, the ones who really do seem like the basketball version of the Flat Earth Society, their ranks dwindling by the season, are at the front of the parade of the great point-missers in sports. So they probably hate that Sports Illustrated just made LeBron its Sportsperson of the Year.
It's a generational thing now, Sportsperson of the Year, for those of us who grew up thinking SI was the main event, with Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford and Curry Kirkpatrick and the rest of the heavy hitters there in the glory days. But that award, to me, remains a very big deal, and high honor. Time magazine goes with the President-elect this year. SI goes with the King.
LeBron came home to the Cavaliers and did everything except promise an NBA title and then delivered one, leading his team back against a team with the best regular-season record in NBA history, leading the Cavs back from 1-3 down to the Warriors, ultimately producing one of the biggest and best moments, for any city but particularly this city, in the history of all American professional sports.
But if I were picking my own Sportsperson of the Year for 2016, I would pick Theo Epstein.
Theo: Who didn't get a single hit or throw a pitch or score a run for the Chicago Cubs, but whose talent -- or gift -- as a baseball executive was the beginning of the end of all the waiting on the North Side of Chicago.
He was the general manager of the Red Sox when the Red Sox won it all in 2004 and ended 86 years of waiting in Boston, ended everything that had gone wrong in baseball in Boston since Babe Ruth left for New York. That would have given Epstein, who had become the boy prince of Fenway Park when he was 28 years old, all the bona fides he would ever need in Boston, or in baseball.
The Red Sox won in '04 and won again in '07, and even when they won again in 2013, you could still see Epstein's fingerprints on that team, despite the fine work that his protégée, Ben Cherington, did with them. By then, Epstein was in Chicago with the Cubs, running the baseball operation there, taking on even more bad history than he had taken on at old Fenway. The Red Sox had at least made it to the World Series in 1975 and 1986, even if their fans had their hearts broken -- with a sledgehammer in Game 6 in '86 -- both times. The Cubs not only hadn't won the Series since 1908, they hadn't even played in one since 1945.
A lot of good things had happened in Chicago sports after World War II, of course. Michael Jordan had happened and Da Bears had happened and the Blackhawks had won Stanley Cups and even the White Sox had ended their own waiting in the World Series of 2005. Just not on the North Side. Not with the Cubs.
Then Theo came to town, saying that he would need time, even as Cubs fans went right out and bought jerseys with his name on the back. The world knew that Cubs fans had nothing but time, for over 100 years. And would have put their own curses against the Curse of the Bambino anytime, straight up.
"I was ready for the next big challenge," Epstein said when he was introduced as president of the Cubs on Oct. 25, 2011.
Epstein signed a five-year contract for what was reported to be $18.5 million. If the figure is accurate or close to being accurate, it means that Epstein is the greatest bargain in baseball since George Steinbrenner put up around $2 million of his own money to get the Yankees in 1973.
Even when Michael Jordan was making more than $30 million a season for the Bulls in his prime, we all thought Michael was underpaid, the way LeBron is underpaid now with the Cavs, even working off a $100 million, three-year deal, which means he is making about what Michael used to make.
But what has Epstein been worth, really, to the Cubs? How do you quantify the guy who built the organization and built the team that ended all the waiting at Wrigley Field? How do you properly monetize that? We can debate all day long about whether you'd pick Michael first or LeBron first -- or Bill Russell -- if you had all the best basketball players on the schoolyard and were choosing up sides. Or which NFL quarterback, out of all the quarterbacks, you take with the first pick of an all-time draft.
But even knowing that Theo has never been a one-man operation, because no executive ever is in sports, knowing that he had Larry Lucchino as his backup in Boston and has Jed Hoyer as his wingman in Chicago now, who else besides Theo would you call the most important front office guy of all time in baseball?
Eighty-six years of waiting in Boston. Gone. One hundred and eight at Wrigley. Gone. As wonderful as the optics were when the Cavs had their parade after beating the Warriors, go back and take a look at what happened in Chicago after the Cubs won, what was actually called, no lie, the seventh-biggest gathering in the history of the planet.
Joe Maddon's guys did that on the field, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester and Aroldis Chapman, and David Ross and Javier Baez and Kyle Hendricks. But it started with Theo, a week past five years from when he signed that original five-year deal. There is a wonderful moment, right at the end of "Jersey Boys," when the Bob Gaudio character says, "None of this could have happened without me." None of what happened on the North Side happens without Theo Epstein.
"To me," Epstein said the day he took over the Cubs, "baseball is better with tradition, baseball is better with history, baseball is better with fans who care, baseball is better with ballparks like this, baseball is better during the day, and baseball is best of all when you win. That, ultimately, is why I'm here today."
They won. He won. It was Dizzy Gillespie who always said that the professional is the guy who can do it again. Theo did it again. When Lucchino hired Epstein, it was as if he changed the legal limit for general managers, and now there are young guys running teams all over baseball and all over sports, and they carry more power, most of them, than their managers and their coaches, and have become huge stars. Theo is the biggest star. It doesn't happen if he didn't win in Boston. Then he did it again there. Now he does it again in Chicago. By the way? He doesn't turn 43 until Dec. 29. I'm a New Yorker. You think I'm kidding when I talk about him coming to run the Knicks, or the Jets? I'm not.
Theo Epstein: My Sportsperson of the Year. You add it all up for 2016, he was the real King.