HARDWOOD PAROXYSM SURVIVAL GUIDE FOR LOSING YOUR FRANCHISE PLAYER: LeBron James – Cleveland Edition

Does concentration of talent on fewer teams make the league more competitive? Maybe. Does having multiple franchise players on one team or in one bustling metropolis make the league more popular? Possibly. If you lose your best player to chronic and horrible injuries, is it best to tank for the draft and start all over? Sometimes. Will everyone be happy with the answers to these questions? Definitely not. If your team’s franchise player has one (possibly broken) foot out the door or has already left for a sunnier locale, we here at Hardwood Paroxysm want to help you cope with your loss.

SO YOUR BEST PLAYER IS IN HIS OPTION YEAR AND YOUR GM’S AN IDIOT

May 22, 2003: I was sitting on the bench during a District Semifinals baseball game in Bedford, Ohio, while our offense was being put through a buzzsaw by the opposing Orange High School pitcher. Losing 5-2 in the late innings, it was becoming more and more clear that our shot at a state title was about to end. While it was disheartening to come to this realization, there was a positive that came out of that night. Sometime around the 5th or 6th inning, there was an audible buzz in the stands. As much as all of us on the team would have liked to have said our mind was fully focused on the game, we all knew it wasn’t true. Players, fans, and umpires alike all knew what they were missing seeing while attending our game: the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery. What was everyone buzzing about? Through the luck of the lottery, the Cleveland Cavaliers had won the right to the first pick in the NBA Draft. LeBron James was staying close to home in Northeast Ohio. The future of the franchise was about to change. Forever.

A quick synopsis of LeBron’s career in Cleveland: In LeBron’s rookie season, he instantly took the Cavs from a hideous 17-65 record the year before to the 9th spot in the East and a respectable 35-47 mark. In his second season, the Cavs showed improvement again finishing 42-40, missing the playoffs via a tiebreaker with the New Jersey Nets. In the 2005 offseason, the Cavs made a splash acquired Larry Hughes (whose most famous accomplishment is being the namesake of www.heylarryhughespleasestoptakingsomanybadshots.com) three point specialist Damon Jones (whose most famous accomplishment is his Slam Dunk Contest outfit), and Donyell Marshall (whose most famous accomplishment is being the guy LeBron passed to in Game 1 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals with the game on the line). The Cavs also brought in Mike Brown as its new coach. Led by LeBron, the 05-06 Cavs made the playoffs, and oh what an impact Mr. James made. A triple double in his very first playoff game? Got it. Not one, but two game winners in the opening round? Got ‘em:

After being knocked out by the Pistons in seven games in 2006, the Cavs’ offseason moves included drafting Shannon Brown (38 career games played with Cleveland) and Daniel “Booby” Gibson (a deadly 3 point shooter off the bench, but nothing more). Cleveland  got their revenge on Detroit in 2007 by roaring back from a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Finals to win four straight against the Pistons . If you’re an NBA fan, you may recall this little game:

The Cavs would make their first NBA Finals in franchise history before being swept by the Spurs. Having traded away all of their draft picks from the 2007 draft, GM Danny Ferry bolstered the roster by trading Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Ira Newble, and Donyell Marshall for Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith, and Delonte West. This team made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals before being eliminated by the original Big Three of the Celtics. The 2008 offseason saw Danny Ferry’s most successful offseason as he traded away Damon Jones and Joe Smith to Milwaukee for point guard Mo Williams who was tabbed to be the Robin to LeBron’s Batman. The Cavs also picked up JJ Hickson in the draft, a promising young power forward who could jump out of the gym, but was raw offensively. The Cavs were a popular pick to win the title that year. After all, any time you have a guy on your team that can get this red hot…

…you stand a chance at winning title. Fast forward to Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals a.k.a. the single greatest game I’ve ever attended. Already down in the series 1-0 to Orlando and facing a two point deficit with 1.0 on the clock, LeBron took the inbound pass from Williams and, well, I’ll just let the footage I took from my seat in the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena do the talking for me:

In true Cleveland fashion, the Cavs failed to capitalize on the momentum and were overpowered by the Dwight Howard led Magic in six games. The Cavs had one more season before LeBron’s free agency to win a title or do enough to convince him to stay. Their big offseason trade that summer? Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace to Phoenix for a well past his prime Shaquille O’Neal to foil Howard should they meet up with Orlando again. They also signed Anthony Parker, journeyman Jamario Moon, and Leon Powe. After being strongly in the mix to acquire Amar’e Stoudemire, Ferry instead swung a February trade for Antawn Jamison from the Wizards for the 30th pick in the draft. Although Plan B to Stoudemire’s Plan A, Jamison was still hailed at the time as the missing piece to the Cavs title chances. Instead, Jamison turned in the worst debut in NBA history by going 0-12 from the field in his first game in a Cavalier uniform, and he remains little more than an expiring contract on the Cavs roster currently. To recap, since LeBron’s arrival, the Cavs never acquired a true sidekick to LeBron, their supposed “big acquisitions” (Shaq and Jamison) did next to nothing in the grand scheme of things, and the rest for the most part were glorified bench players or fringe starters who were shipped out in a few years. Still, they were picked by many to win the 2010 title. That is, until…

ASSESSING THE REALITY

May 11, 2010: I was sitting in an Indianapolis Buffalo Wild Wings with my then-fiancée (now wife) watching Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Cavs and Celtics. With the series tied 2-2, I had a feeling whoever won Game 5 would be heading to the Conference Finals. After all, there was no way Cleveland was going to win in Boston, and I didn’t think Boston would be able to beat Cleveland three times at Quicken Loans Arena in one series.

By halftime, I knew it was over. The game. The series. The LeBron James Era in Cleveland. Over.

Sure, the score was only 50-44 at the half, but LeBron hadn’t made a shot from the field. In fact, he wouldn’t make one until 6:15 remained in the third quarter. Despite watching the game from BW3, no one pressed that magic button to make it a close game. After three quarters of play, Boston led 80-63. By the end of the game, it was 120-88, the largest margin of defeat ever suffered by a team in Game 5 of a tied series. If it hadn’t been clear the past seven years, it was now; when LeBron wasn’t on his game, the Cavs didn’t stand a chance. You’re not going to believe this, but the additions of Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Mo Williams, Larry Hughes, and a well past his prime Shaq were not the magic elixir to bring a title to Cleveland.

I’m pretty sure I went through all seven stages of grief in one night with thoughts along these lines:

Shock and Denial: How did this happen? The Cavs were a 61 win team! They were heavy favorites in the series! LeBron is the best player in the league! How does he possibly come up this small on this big of stage?

Pain and Guilt: Only Game 7 of the 1997 World Series hurt this badly; only Jose Mesa blowing a one run lead in the bottom of the 9th inning even remotely compared to this. To be so close to taking control of a series and watching it end like that….gut wrenching.

Anger:  You choked LeBron. All eyes were on you nationally; you were a hero locally. We didn’t ask for a super human performance; just play your average game. Can you do that just once? You’re just like CC Sabathia and (now the Artist Formerly Known As) Fausto Carmona in the 2007 ALCS. You’ve never won anything in your life. Never won a single Finals game, let alone a championship. Never scored more than 25 points in a Finals game (still true as of 2012, by the way). You’re not the next Jordan. You never will be. I can’t believe I ever bought into the hype. You’re just like every other star this town has ever seen.

Depression: I am never going to see a Cleveland sports title in my lifetime. The Browns are terrible. The Indians are terrible. The Cavs were the only chance of tasting championship glory in at least the next decade, if not longer. 127 regular season wins in the past two years, and they’re not even going to get a single NBA Finals trip out of it. I hate sports. I hate everything. Why did I have to be born in Cleveland? In the few years I’ve lived in Indianapolis, I’ve already seen them win a Super Bowl. Why can’t that happen to a Cleveland team just once? Why?

The Upward Turn: OK, earlier in the series, the Cavs handed the Celtics their worst home playoff loss ever by destroying them 124-95. Boston responded with two wins in a row. Maybe, just maybe, if the Cavs can sneak out a win in Boston in Game 6, they will come back home in a Game 7 and take care of business. There’s no way that LeBron is going to have two bad games in a row. He’s going to come back and drop a triple double on Boston, and everything is going to be fine. It can’t end like this.

Working Through: One of the most storied franchises in sports history isn’t going to lose two games in a row are they? If one of their star players goes down, they have literally three other guys to pick up the slack. Cleveland doesn’t have that. Alright, I will watch Game 6 with an open mind. Expect a loss, be thrilled with a victory.

Acceptance: It’s over, isn’t it?

Game 6 final score: Boston 94 Cleveland 85

I KNEW IT WAS HAPPENING AND IT STILL DIDN’T HIT ME UNTIL IT ACTUALLY HAPPENED

July 8, 2010: I was sitting in my bedroom watching the debacle that became The Decision. Funny enough, I remember when The Decision was originally announced, I thought it would be a good sign for Cleveland. Surely, LeBron wouldn’t go on national television just to leave the Cavs, right? Once it was announced that he would not be broadcasting the show from Ohio, the picture became clearer. At about 1:00 AM on July 8, I remember watching SportsCenter when the news broke that sources said LeBron would be joining forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. Throughout the next day, I read everything from more sources confirming that to other sources refuting it to other people saying the Cavs were desperately trying to swing a Chris Paul trade to convince LeBron to stay. The absolutely, positively, last minute chance that LeBron was considering staying in Cleveland was this exchange with Jim Gray:

JG: When did you decide?

LJ: I think I decided this morning. I mean, I decided this morning I went day to day. I wake up one morning, it’s this team. I wake up another morning, it’s this team. And it’s a process that I felt it was I may feel like this is the best opportunity for me or not the best opportunity for me.

But this morning I woke up, had a great conversation with my mom. Once I had that conversation with her, I think I was set.

JG: So the last time you changed your mind was yesterday?

LJ: The last time I changed my mind was probably in my dreams. And when I woke up this morning I knew it was the right decision.

Could something have changed between 1:00 AM when the story broke and when he woke up? Short answer: No. Long answer: Noooooo. Shortly thereafter, he uttered his decision we all knew was coming in a way none of us could have foreseen:

“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”

14 words. One dagger to the heart of Cleveland.

From this experience, I can only offer the following advice to fans going through something similar. Orlando fans (hey, even Colts fans) specifically, please read this:

1.  Enjoy it while it lasts. Yes, The Decision made me angrier than anything has ever made me in sports, but I wouldn’t trade the years 2003-2010 for anything. Some people ask why we watch sports, and the answer is that you never know when you’re going to see something that you’ve never seen before. Whether it’s LeBron’s 48 Special, going off for 16 points in two minutes, or even holding a national television show to announce he was leaving the city that supported him since he was in high school, you crave those moments. There are still people from high school I talk to today mainly because we kept in contact by talking about the Cavs during the LeBron Era. Enjoy it because you may never get it again.

2.  Realize that you are not the GM. No matter how much you play with the Trade Machine, you are not in control of the franchise. Believe it or not, we all have access to the list of available free agents in the league that your team should go after. Turns out there are other teams that want these same guys too. You know why? Because they’re good. Getting mad at your team for not signing the guy that will “absolutely win us a title” is fruitless. Remember, lots of Cavs fans thought that the Antawn Jamison trade punched the Cavs ticket to the Finals.

3.  Today’s sports world has become an AAU culture.  If you’re longing for the days where guys stick out their entire careers with a team, build a time machine and set your dial for anytime before 2000.  In an age where players essentially can pick the destination they want to go to, they’re either going to choose to play with a) guys they’re friends with b) a warm location or, in the case of LeBron c) both. Before you look to criticize someone for going to play elsewhere for more money, a better location, or with their friends, put yourself in your situation. If given the opportunity to work with your friends doing something you loved and made millions of dollars doing came about, would you take it?  Either you said yes or you’re lying.

4.  There will be better days ahead.  The 2010-2011 Cavs campaign was as rough of a season as any sports franchise has gone through in recent memory. No LeBron. No star on the team. A record 26-game losing streak. Uninspired play. You name a basketball atrocity committed on a court, and the Cavs probably did it. Twice. A mid-season trade with the Los Angeles Clippers though altered the franchise forever. By trading Mo Williams and Jamario Moon for Baron Davis and an unprotected first round pick, the Cavs ended up landing the first overall pick in the draft which turned out to be Kyrie Irving. Here’s a list of guys that have ever played in the NBA who averaged 22 points and 6 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 40% from the field and 3 point line along with 80% from the free throw line: Kyrie Irving. That’s it.

5.  Don’t give up on sports.  The temptation will be there to just give up and ask yourself why you cheered for your team and/or that player in the first place. Why spend all of that money on jerseys and team gear only to be slapped in the face by someone who doesn’t know your name? While a fan base can energize every superstar on this planet, the individual fan could not possibly be more insignificant in the grand scheme of things to him. Why invest the time and energy staying up late watching games on the off chance that you might see something spectacular? We do it because of the feeling of vindication we get when something like that does happen. We do it so that we can experience moments like I did on December 2, 2010, when I headed back to Quicken Loans Arena for LeBron’s return to Cleveland and was part of the most electric crowd I’ve ever seen in my life. We do it for moments like March 29 last year when the Cavs, against all odds, improbably beat the Heat for their first double digit win of the season. And we do it so we can have a villain to cheer against for the foreseeable future. Is it schadenfreude? Absolutely. Is it also what makes sports great? You bet. Don’t give up.

MY LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT

February 1, 2012. My last words on this. You will see this section in similar, future posts by some of us here at HP where we write a letter to the departing player. I will give it my best shot knowing that I have an impossible standard to live up to thanks to Dan Gilbert. Channeling all of his Comic Sans glory, here it goes:

Dear LeBron,

You were The One. Call yourself The Chosen One, The King, whatever you want. The fact is, you were The One. The One person that could bring a title to a city that is starved for a championship more than any city in America. Look around. The Indians aren’t going to be contending for a title anytime soon; God knows they can’t spend money like the Yankees can on your boy CC Sabathia. The Browns? I’m not sure that they could win the SEC at this point. No, LeBron, the Cavs were the team that could win a title. The script practically wrote itself. “Hometown Hero Brings Home Title.” You could have left for South Beach after winning the Finals and we would have thanked you for your time and moved on. If you had the stat line you did against Orlando in this series against Boston, we would have forgiven you and chalked it up to you not having enough help. Instead, on the biggest stage, in your last home game as a Cavalier, you threw out on the floor your worst game in your career. Some will say you choked; others will say you quit. Call it what you will, but in the end, you failed. Not just yourself. Not just your team. Not just your fans. An entire city. Sure, Cleveland isn’t the glamour of New York, a celebrity hot spot like Los Angeles, or the beach filled views of Miami, but it’s a city that cares. It’s a city whose fans were showing up to your games at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School before anyone who owned a Heat jersey had even heard of you. After suffering through The Shot courtesy of Michael Jordan in 1989, we finally had our own #23 that would lead us to glory. Seven years later we know; you are not Michael. You never will be.

And don’t think any of us have forgotten you saying “I got a goal, and it’s a huge goal, and that’s to bring an NBA championship here to Cleveland, and I won’t stop until I get it.” We know now how hollow those words ring, but do you have any idea how much those words galvanized the fan base? So much hope and promise, now gone. We thought you were different than all of those other athletes in other cities who collect their paychecks and move on. We’ve seen Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle leave for their chance at more money elsewhere. During your time here, you saw Carlos Boozer renege on a handshake agreement with the owner of the Cavs, Gordon Gund. You were different than all of them, or so we thought. Everything you’ve said over the past year about free agency has been a lie. Why did we ever trust you?

Take your talents to South Beach, LeBron. They sure didn’t do any good here.


Eric Maroun

Eric is a born and bred Cleveland sports fan who is convinced that if given the gift of immortality, he still would not see a Cavs title in his lifetime. He currently resides in Indianapolis where he gets to see the Pacers exist in basketball purgatory.