Note to those of you who cringe when I write about basketball: skip today's post.
On December 2nd, LeBron James will return to Cleveland, the city he abandoned to seek greener pastures and greater glory as a member of the Miami Heat. It is the first time that he will have to appear before his former fans, people whose children adored him, who spent thousands of dollars on season seats and merchandise branded with the now defunct number 23, people whose businesses depended on the income the Cavs and their cloud of media attention brought to the city. These people deserved better than what LeBron gave them. On Thursday, LeBron will have to face the music...a tune of his own creation.
For those of you who don't live in Cleveland, I know it's difficult to get what all the fuss is about. Basketball is a business. LeBron was a free agent. He had a right to do whatever he wanted to further his career. Those of us in C-town have heard this stuff. While all of that is true, it is beside the point.
What this is all about is what LeBron said he was. It was about how he portrayed himself and what he promised. It was about someone whose entire brand was built on loyalty, home and community, who lived and breathed these values and convinced tens of thousands of people that he was somehow different in the world of sports. LeBron was the hometown boy who wanted to win it for his city, his state, his people. This, more than his amazing talent, was the reason we bought the gear and thrilled to every dunk. LeBron had made it personal by involving all of us. By leading us to believe that we were in it together.
LeBron had brought our team to the very pinnacle of the basketball world, having accumulated more victories than any other team in the NBA at the end of the 2009-10 season. We were almost completely unbeatable on our home floor and nearly every important game attracted national television coverage. On top of all of this, the members of the team had a chemistry that was the envy of the NBA. Sometimes people thought they had TOO much fun.
Just weeks after accepting his second MVP award (the result of playing with a team he appeared to love), LeBron decided to leave Cleveland in the rudest and crudest possible way. He courted other teams while keeping Cleveland in the dark. He opted not to contact the Cavs owner, someone who had laid out millions to keep LeBron happy, prior to walking away. A student of sports history, LeBron knew that the most galling accumulation of sports disappointments in Cleveland's history were called "The Shot", "The Drive", and "The Fumble". These were all events that had snatched a championship away from Cleveland at the last moment and remained viscerally painful to a hard-working, sports obsessed city that had not had a winning team in 45 years. With this knowledge clearly in mind, LeBron designed an ESPN special called "The Decision" on which he would announce his plans for the future. So brazen was this title, that local sports writers felt sure it indicated that LeBron would resign with Cleveland. No one in his right mind thought that LeBron would stick a knife in the heart of the city by announcing his departure on national TV during a spectacle called "The Decision" (!) which would immediately link his name permanently to the greatest sports debacles in Cleveland's history.
LeBron's defection left the Cavaliers in disarray. Unsure of what LeBron wanted, they had fired their coach and general manager. Once his "decision" was made, it was too late to construct a whole new team. The Cavs were left wounded and limping. The TV cameras pulled away. The fans burned their jerseys. A great many kids cried. The downtown businesses suffered. And Clevelanders were left with a bitter lesson. Few are who they say they are. Maybe no one is.
Has LeBron found happiness in Miami? Not yet. His dancing days appear to be done and he is complaining that he's not having any fun at all . His much ballyhooed team has proven to be fallible, even pedestrian. They have lost 5 of their last 10 games and worse, they are unpopular in most of the cities they visit.
This Thursday, the Heat comes to town with our prodigal son in tow. The Cavs are nervous. The NBA is providing its own security. CNN is covering the game so they can be in on any violence the second it occurs. The Cavs have issued an edict that anti-LeBron shirts and signs will be confiscated. While I am worried about being caught up in a stampede or witnessing drunken bloodshed, I plan on being in attendance. Don and I will be sitting in the season seats we worked so hard to get during the LeBron era (and which are now worth very little, I might add). I had planned on altering one of my many LeBron T shirts for the occasion, but I'm not sure if I'll get away with it. My alterations will not be obscene or profane, simply pointed.
But maybe--just maybe--- Clevelanders are not the only ones who learned a lesson. Brian Windhorst, the reporter who has covered LeBron for most of his career, moved to Miami with LeBron when he left. In a newspaper piece in the St. Petersburg Times this week, Windhorst talked about his own adjustment (as described by a Cleveland blogger):
The focus of the piece is on the transition Windhorst continues to make as a new resident of South Florida. (It) extrapolates on the parallels between the transitions of both the player and media member covering the player, with both having never lived outside the borders of Ohio. I found Windhorst to be candid in the piece and he understandably misses home. He describes the shocking change of scenery – one that has provided rough times in the adjustment for both he and LeBron. (The piece) describes the incredible sweeping views of Biscayne Bay out of the floor to ceiling windows of Windhorst’s new digs. The slick apartment serves as nothing more than a nearly empty and utilitarian place to crash for Windy, however, and the view as they stand there provokes this response:
“We’re not in Cleveland anymore,” Brian said. He paused before finishing the thought. ”I wish we were......"
"LeBron is hurting,” he said in his room, “and I know it, and I can see it…On a certain level, I feel like I can relate to him. I’m not having a lot of fun myself. Really, for both of us, we’re living away from home for the first time in our lives, so probably some of the emotions we’re experiencing are similar. It’s a different level — I’ve got a one-bedroom apartment and he’s looking for a 10-bedroom house — but I’m thinking we’re experiencing some of the same feelings of isolation."
Some things are simply true. Our public figures are not the paragons of virtue we'd like to believe. It's also true that great wealth and power often don't guarantee the happiness that home, loyalty and love do. It's funny how that grass always looks greener. It's strange how true it is that there's no place like home. It's never a good idea to hurt your family; to turn your back on them in a heartless way. Someday you may need them. Someone should have told all of this to LeBron, but it's too late now.
The T shirt I wore to the playoffs last year was bought by my daughter with a few bucks she scraped together. She sacrificed that hard-earned money to make me happy (family again!). It's a take-off on one of Obama's election posters and has a silk screen picture of LeBron under which is written the word 'Hope'. For Thursday night, I've put a strip of masking tape across the portrait. I've changed the letter H to a D.