For almost two decades, the relevance of professional basketball in Cleveland has rested on one man: LeBron James. When James has played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, they’ve been good to extremely good. They’ve won an NBA championship. In the years immediately preceding his drafting, the team was bad. In the years that he left to play for the Miami Heat, the team was bad.
We still had fun, mind you. Kyrie Irving emerged as a Rookie of the Year and All-Star. The Cavs beat the odds on several occasions and became back-to-back NBA lottery champions. And the team found a way to stay in the news, signing Andrew Bynum and once holding a press conference in which Irving and Dion Waiters could make it clear that for real, they really liked each other, please stop asking them about it.
But it wasn’t particularly clear it was an organization going anywhere, and it was pretty clear that the impact of The Decision hung over the head of the team as they attempted to make moves in free agency, and in terms of perception of those who covered the league. Owner Dan Gilbert had reacted badly to LeBron leaving, and most people outside of Cleveland knew it. He later apologized to James when it became clear that it was possible a return might be possible, but the letter he wrote was posted on the team site for years.
The fans, too, reacted with a level of anger that was incomprehensible to people from places other than Cleveland. If you were from Northeast Ohio, if you had been a Cavs fan, if you were a Browns and Tribe fan, the anger and raw emotion came naturally. The Decision felt like a breaking point, or perhaps the bottom. It’s not excusing the hate that was directed at James. There were points where it crossed the line. The booing when he first came back as a member of the Heat made me uncomfortable. It was a vicious booing. It was visceral and it was honest. And that’s what scared me.
That was years and years ago. James is back. He hadn’t won a title his first go-round. He has now. Cleveland was a title-starved town filled with people who had died hard over and over and over again. Most of the time it happened it was a fumble or a trade or a drive or something of that sort. With James’s departure, it wasn’t just a bad break. It was a conscious choice, made by someone from the area who, many thought, should have known better. James isn’t from Cleveland and has made that clear.
After the return, and after an NBA title, Cleveland is no longer title-starved. No local athlete has ever owed Cleveland less than LeBron James. A town that simply doesn’t win championships won a championship in a sport in which the market you play in matters as much as any major sport save perhaps baseball.
It’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that James will spend the rest of his playing days in Cleveland. He has said he didn’t want to switch teams again. His family seems to be comfortable and happy being close to home. He has a team that is likely to be the best in the Eastern Conference as long as he’s healthy and effective. But the whispers are growing that Los Angeles is appealing, and I’ve heard them myself.
He has a small but growing acting career. He has worked as a producer and developed television concepts. His friends have been slowly building an empire with a reach that goes well beyond Ohio and involves much more than basketball. James has won three NBA titles, won multiple MVP’s and should have won more. He won in Miami, he’s won in Cleveland. He might not be able to climb the mountain that is the Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors. You get the sense that he doesn’t have much left to prove to himself when it comes to basketball. Who can blame him?
The Cavs would have a tough time recovering from James leaving again. But the reaction this time, I would hope, wouldn’t be anger. Cleveland fans climbed the mountain with LeBron James. The banner in the building proves it. If he chooses to climb another one without us, he’ll still get a Cleveland statue and his number lifted to the rafters. And his first time back at Quicken Loans Arena, I would hope he’d get a lot of cheers.