It was the one part of The Decision that hurt the most.
As if it was bad enough that our star athlete had gone on national television to take his talents elsewhere, it wasn’t just another athlete. LeBron James was not some wunderkind who had grown up on the West Coast, gotten drafted by the Cavaliers, played out his contract with Cleveland, and decided to leave in free agency.
No, this was someone who had grown up in Northeast Ohio, someone who had been cheered by many of those same Cavs fans while he was still in high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s. The Fighting Irish’s games literally had to be moved out of their own gym to the University of Akron’s arena to accommodate the incredible crowds as more and more fans flocked to games and media came from all over the country to get a glimpse of the next big thing. Of all people, he was the one that should have understood the pain that he was going to cause the most sports-tortured fan base in America by ramming a metaphorical knife into their back in front of nearly ten million people.
But once the smoke had cleared, both literally from jerseys being burned in the streets and figuratively, we were able to step back and realize that LeBron never was one of our own. He grew up a fan of Michael Jordan and his Bulls, not the hometown Cavs. He made it abundantly clear that the Cowboys were his favorite NFL team, despite what State Farm would have you believe. And in one of the all-time troll moves in the history of fan-athlete relationships, he famously showed up to a Yankees-Indians playoff game in a Yankees hat, and showed it off to the crowd throughout the game. Suddenly it was becoming clear that despite spending his entire life in the Northeast Ohio area somehow, someway he managed to insulate himself from the sordid history that the city of Cleveland had endured.
All of that changed with The Letter – no, not the Comic Sans screed written by Dan Gilbert, but the eloquent explanation laid out yesterday on Sports Illustrated’s website in James’s own words. As I read through the letter as a Cavs fan, and once I quadruple checked with other people to make sure that this wasn’t an elaborate prank from The Onion, one part jumped out to me:
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
Those words were all we ever wanted to here. So often, sports fans fall into the trap of cheering for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld would say. We want the athletes we cheer for to care as much as we do about our city and about our team. For a fan base to have any athlete truly recognize that passion is special; when that athlete is actually from the area himself, it’s nearly unprecedented.
LeBron James is returning to the city as a potential savior. Before the 2004 Red Sox brought a World Series to Boston, the city had been without a World Series title for “only” 86 years. After that, it was said that no member of that team would ever have to pay for a drink or meal in Boston ever again.
Between the Cavs, Indians, and Browns, it’s been 141 combined seasons that Cleveland fans have endured with another team in their respective leagues raising a trophy at the end of the year. So what will members of a championship team that ends that drought to be afforded? For those who treat sports as a religion, we have a tendency to almost deify certain athletes by praising and worshipping them. While Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has been a central figure in this entire saga, it’s actually another Michigan native whose words pose the best question to LeBron James. To quote Eminem: why be a king, when you can be a god?
The city of Cleveland has the potential to take it to a new level if King James is able to deliver the Larry O’Brien trophy to the shores of Lake Erie. Grown men will weep tears of joy. Statues will be built in his honor. And the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will rock like never before. This is what awaits LeBron James as he heads back home for the foreseeable future.