Unlike many faceless cities across America, Cleveland is a city with a strong self-identity. If that is good or bad is debatable and beyond the scope of this article, but it is a truth that permeates into the very soul of our fandom. We know who we are, and we maintain an "us-versus-the-world" attitude in all things. It just manifests itself in sports more than, say, debates about which medical industry-based city is the best.
I’m sure the medical industry debate comes up at hotel bars during medical conferences, but obviously sports are one of the few things literally anyone can relatively safely debate. You can be anyone and talk about NBA basketball. People care about it just enough to wildly and passionately argue with other people about it, but it isn't important enough to truly offend most sane people the way arguments over politics or religion or other things that truly matter may offend.
So Clevelanders argue about sports as a proxy for arguing about things that really matter. We argue about sports as a proxy for our own selves and our own city. It’s a continuation and manifestation of a regional identity. Sports in Cleveland are unified with the city’s identity even when us Clevelanders are arguing among ourselves.
We booed Albert Belle together in lockstep. We still boo Carlos Boozer, and he hasn't been relevant as a player in years. Even when he was relevant during his Utah days, he spent a lot of the time injury-prone. It doesn't matter. He lied to a beloved blind owner, so screw him. I will still boo Boozer when I see him play, and I don’t even care anymore that he did what he did.
But then there’s LeBron James.
His departure was a galvanizing force for diehard fans. It was a uniting force for Cleveland fans in general even if only the diehards were still watching. Akron still loved LeBron for all the things he did and continued to do for that city, but all the fans elsewhere came together in the shared hatred Cleveland does so well.
Some fans were over the top, slinging threats and racial slurs towards Lebron. Those were the only breaks in our unity, but those were also extremists. Those are people who took things well beyond the confines of sports discussion and hatred and outrage.
I started writing about basketball in the wake of Lebron’s decision to play for the Miami HEAT. I know a lot of other people who did the same. The world famous Cavs Zine was created in that same wake as well. These are things that seem impossible considering the Cavs went from being a contender to one of the worst teams in the NBA.
I didn’t realize that was the beginning of the end for our unity. It felt like we were all on the same page in that first season after Lebron left. It felt like we were on the same page more than we ever had been before. That was short lived.
People forgave Lebron at different rates. Some altogether after the HEAT lost to the Dallas Mavericks. We became less unified in our shared hatred for him. I was over Lebron leaving after he won his first title. I had wanted the Cavs to win one before he ever did, and with that dream smashed to ruins, I had no reason to actively cheer against him personally anymore.
Of course, there were the ever present rumors of Lebron’s return, and that hinted at the loss of our unified front more than anything. People took stances before he came back whether they would accept him back or shun the Cavs completely. Some people refused to think about it either way, considering those rumors an impossibility.
I was for Lebron coming back. When he left the first time, he broke me of my ability to be a fan of an individual player. (The lone exception being Dion Waiters, who I would still love even if we found out he was a secret serial killer, Dexter-style.) I was for anything that made my favorite team better, and clearly adding the best player in the world to my favorite team would make it better.
I have also always maintained the opinion that the only way someone can fully apologize for something is through their future actions. Words mean very little to me, which I guess is a funny thing for a writer to write. LeBron could only fully atone for leaving by coming back to the Cavs and winning a title. I don’t understand how someone can be mad at LeBron for what he did and then also refuse to let him set things right. Coming back was always the only way he could truly make things right again.
My father and one of my best friends from college were two people who maintained pre-Return that they don’t want Lebron back and could never forgive him. I would describe both as overall Cleveland sports fans over specifically Cavs fans, but my college friend watched nearly every Cavs game since LeBron left, so that categorization would be a disservice to him. I didn’t argue with either of their opinions because:
A. My father watched or attended almost no games. He got all his opinions from local sports talk radio and sports columns. He wanted the 2011-2012 Cavs to trade their young guys to try to make the playoffs. It was clearly going to be no use talking to him.
B. My college friend is informed and stubborn and nobody else can or will ever change his mind. It’s part of what I love about him and his sports fandom, but I am also not in the business of arguing with people who have no interest in counter-views.
On the day of the Return, my father was upset about LeBron coming back. His words were: "I am not happy," which in this case was a rare understatement for my usually overly expressive father. He was legitimately upset LeBron came back, and I think he fell into a momentary depression.
His tone changed immediately when I sent him LeBron’s SI Letter. He was instantly happy and excited, although in his usual completely uninformed Cavs fandom, he expressed fear the Cavs "couldn’t afford a good team" around Kyrie and LeBron. Obviously, I laughed at him and explained the Cavs salary cap and roster situation. We ended our telephone call with my father convinced the Cavs would be awesome. He was a converted LeBron-forgiver.
I avoided talking to my friend for a few weeks after the Return, but when I did text him, he was still anti-LeBron. And yes, he shunned the Cavs like he said he would. He offered to give me all of his Cavs stuff, which was a confusing gesture from a person who is a solid half foot taller than I am. He wouldn't forgive, and I've seen and heard rumblings from others like him. He isn't alone.
This is the sad part of the Return. I wanted all of Cleveland to be in this thing together, but our fan base isn't whole anymore.
My wife is convinced those who have sworn off the Cavs now will come back once they see the team winning a bunch of games. She’s from Buffalo, so her opinions on that matter are infused with this weird Buffalo optimism that permeates that fairy land. She isn't familiar enough with the Cleveland grudge. It’s a grudge that has turned inward on itself.
I hope this isn't something that detracts from what should be an unforgettable season. Those who are all-in on the Cavs out-number the shunners. They’re louder, too, so we have that working in our favor. Some people who fell silent between the LeBron years are coming back to the bandwagon. They’re more than welcome, even if strangers have started to accuse me of being a bandwagon fan myself when my Cavs fandom comes to light. That’s annoying, but the more fans the Cavs have, the happier I will be. The bandwagoners can help drown out the noise of the shunners.
That just isn't how I wanted it to be, though. I thrive on an us-versus-them mentality. It’s one of the best parts of being a Cleveland sports fan. I was hoping when the Cavs were good again, it would be all of Cleveland versus all of everyone else. That won’t be the case, and that’s the regrettable downside to LeBron’s return.