Rookie of the year, savior, celebrity, All-Star, League MVP, liar, traitor, villain ... LeBron James.
There isn't a player in Cavaliers franchise history that has been the direct source of such dramatic highs and lows. He was embraced, cherished, babied and even treated as a scapegoat during his time in Cleveland.
Before LeBron became a Cavalier the team was in a pretty dark place. Ricky Davis was the teams leading scorer despite not always shooting at the correct basket. The team went 17-65, fired their coach midseason and featured the comical stylings of Smush Parker and Darius Miles. They did have an all star in Zydrunas Ilguaskas who had played the closest thing he had to a complete season since his rookie year. But when you are that bad in the NBA, the ping pong balls usually begin to pile up in your favor. Some years that results in Anthony Bennett, but this year resulted in something much, much different.
LeBron James was from Akron Ohio and had been in the media spotlight all throughout high school. He had "Chosen 1" tattooed across his shoulders and was featured on the the cover of Sports Illustrated. For a team that was looking for a spark, LeBron James was a flamethrower. James welcomed the pressure and there were many questions on how he would fare upon his entry to the NBA. We didn't have to wait long:
LeBron James averaged 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists in his rookie season en route to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award. It was the only season of his Cavalier career that he was not honored with a spot on the All-Star team. The Cavs just missed the playoffs that season finishing the year with a 35-47 record, but the hype was real and the fans in Cleveland finally had something to cheer for again.
From that point on LeBron just kept improving. In his second year in the league he guided the team to a 42-40 record, but unfortunately that wasn't enough to get into the playoffs in the East (those were the days...) and they found themselves on the outside looking in yet again. In his third season the team success managed to catch up to the idividual. Under the tutelage of first year head coach Mike Brown, Lebron James became the youngest player in NBA history to win an All-Star MVP and the Cavaliers clinched their first playoff appearance since 1998 with a 50-32 record. The Cavaliers were able to defeat the Washington Wizards in the first round before falling to the mighty Detroit Pistons.
LeBron scored a career high 31.4 points a game that season to go along with 7 rebounds and 6.6 assists. A proud franchise and fanbase that had been through an extended period of frustration was witnessing the dawn of a new era of Cavs basketball. The failures after the Price, Nance and Daugherty era were behind us and a hope began to burn inside that we may finally see that elusive Cleveland sports championship.
No team I root for has won a championship. Unlike many of you, the Cavaliers are the only Cleveland sports team I root for. But the lack of success of the teams I care about, especially the Cavaliers, has made me all too familiar with the plight of the Cleveland sports fan. At the time I was probably too young and naive to realize just how difficult and rare of an occurrence a championship in any major league was. The Cavaliers were my team, in my favorite sport. I was a witness, and what happened the following postseason was the point of no return for me as a Cavaliers fan.
After dispatching Washington and New Jersey in the first two rounds of the playoffs the Cavaliers found themselves down two games to nothing against the Detroit Pistons. The same foe that had eliminated the Cavaliers the year before had a commanding lead in the series. LeBron and the Cavaliers were able to win both of the following games back home at Quicken Loans arena before travelling back to the Palace of Auburn Hills. Game five, like all the previous games in the series, was a closely contested affair. Then, in the fourth quarter, LeBron James had one of his defining moments as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers:
It was after that game that it felt like the Cavaliers had something bigger than the curse of Cleveland sports and nothing could stand in their way. Well, except for the metronome of death that is the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs methodically and systematically destroyed the Cavaliers in the finals, slowing down LeBron and sweeping the team under the rug in only four games. It was a tough experience as a young sports fan, but it felt like it was building towards something. The Cavs would have their time and "King James" would receive his crown.
Well, you know the rest. That was the closest LeBron's Cavaliers would ever come to winning an NBA championship. The following year they took the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics to the final moments of game 7. Then came an 8-0 rampage to start the 2008-2009 playoffs as LeBron received his first league MVP trophy; only to have disaster strike as the 66 win Cavaliers fell to the nuclear-hot Orlando Magic. It was at that time that the feelgood vibes that surrounded the team began to be whither away.
The following season was poisoned from the beginning. The Cavaliers brought in Shaquille O'Neal to help LeBron get over the top, they traded fan-favorite Zydrunas Ilguaskas to the Washington Wizards at the deadline for Antawn Jamison. While Ilguaskas was eventually waived and rejoined the Cavaliers, he never received the same role he once had and the tension on the team was palatable. To make things worse, everywhere the team went the questions of "what will LeBron do in the summer" followed. It was probably the most miserable 60 win team to follow in the history of the NBA. The team laughed and had fun on the sidelines, but the looming decision that LeBron faced was on the minds of everybody around the league.
Finally, against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, LeBron James did the one thing you can never do in professional sports... he quit. While I'm sure LeBron didn't go into the series thinking "I'm not even going to try anymore", the bottom line was that when the going got tough in that series he stopped playing. His heart wasn't in it and he quit on his team, on the city he represented and the fans that had supported him tirelessly over the past seven seasons.
[Editor's note: LeBron had some type of elbow injury. Or he didn't. Something happened.]
With the Cavaliers eliminated, and LeBron an unrestricted free agent, he went on national television to tell the world that he was leaving the Cavaliers.
In sports we cheer when the team we root for scores. Not because we are satisfied, but because it is building towards a potential win. Wins provide you with the opportunity to play for something more. To be the only team to end their season on a win and reach that ultimate glory. If you were to watch a game on DVR and you knew your team lost, you wouldn't get as excited about each play that went their way. The LeBron James era is defined by the building up of hopes and dreams, only to have them ripped away prematurely. While there was tons of success, individual accolades and countless highlights, the ultimate goal was never reached. We followed up a 66 win season with a 60 win season, but when push came to shove our leader had already moved on in his mind.
It's fitting in my mind that LeBron James finished in second on #CavsRank. He's the most talented and decorated player to ever play for the Cavaliers. Whether you like it or not, at some point in the future the Cavaliers will retire his number for all that he accomplished on this team. But he was never able to get to that top spot in his time here; in his surrender and retreat he not only left an incomplete legacy, but a trail of destruction that the franchise is still trying to recover from to this day. He is the biggest reason why I am a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers, because of the joy I felt during his time here, and the bond I felt with the city of Cleveland after his departure.
I just got back from visiting Cleveland for the first time in my life on Sunday. Even despite a horrendous season, you could tell the crowd was just looking for anything to cheer for and believe in. I've moved on from The Decision, I don't blame you if you haven't. LeBron brought us so close we could taste it, then he tore it all away. It took him failing in another situation for him to finally grow into the man he needed to become to get over the hump, but that is meaningless to the Cavs fans that were there from the beginning. We're left with fond memories, hurt feelings, empty highlights and an incomplete legacy.