“There can be no disappointment where there is not deep love.” These were words Martin Luther King Jr. used, unbeknownst to him, to perfectly describe the relationship between LeBron James and Cleveland, Ohio.
Disappointment is the best word in my vocabulary to describe my state of emotion right now.1 That being said, I have a small vocabulary and have no clue how to put my emotions into words. Right now it seems like I kind of just want to scream and make noises. That would accurately depict how I am feeling. The last four years have easily been my four favorite years of Cleveland sports, and I think it’s only right to start this off by praising and thanking LeBron.
On July 11th, 2014, my girlfriend, now wife, and I were walking around downtown Boston. I had been a nervous wreck the whole week while waiting on LeBron’s decision, because as a grown man, I let the decisions of my favorite athletes control my entire life. I was doing my best to be respectful and not check my phone every five seconds trying to see what the latest “fan with sources” had to say on Twitter so that I could enjoy our vacation. I desperately needed to know what that one personal trainer in Cleveland was saying at that time. LeBron news was a drug. And then, a moment I’ll never forget, some random guy wearing a Boston Celtics jersey yelled to no one in particular, “He’s back! He went back!”
Vacation ruined. For the rest of that day I was glued to Twitter. Michaela did not even exist as far as I was concerned. We still talk about that day all the time, and I, somewhat jokingly, explain to her that LeBron James means more to me than she ever could.
The rest of Cleveland went into a frenzy. Just the presence of LeBron James was enough to celebrate. I remember Around The Corner in Lakewood did 23 cent beer, and the line outside of GVartwork to get their latest “Forgiveness” shirts stretched several blocks of Detroit Avenue. Cleveland hadn’t won a championship (yet), but having LeBron back on our side was good enough reason to celebrate like we had.
LeBron and the Cavs have meant so much to Cleveland the last four years. And I say that not even referring to basketball, but to the community itself. Some of the best memories I have are being packed in shoulder-to-shoulder in Lakewood bars, screaming in excitement, sweating in anticipation, and groaning in despair, all while literally being on the edge of my seat with some of my best friends. What made the Cavs’ run so fun was that everyone was your best friend when the game was on. You may not have known the person next to you at the bar, but you knew that they were a Cavs fan, and for those few hours, you may as well have been brothers and sisters.
Game 7 of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals was one of my favorite memories. I was watching the game with my sister and dad at my parent’s house. My sister would repeatedly walk out of the room because she couldn’t handle the stress, and then immediately run back in at the sound of every cheer from my dad and me. Next door, my neighbors were having a watch party, and they were on a ten second delay from us. And at the watch party across the street, another ten second delay. Every time the Cavs, usually LeBron, scored, we would cheer and shut up so that we could hear the cheers next door, and then the cheers across the street. It’s stupid little memories like that, that we as fans will forever remember. And we owe a lot of thanks, if not all, to LeBron for letting us have those memories.
LeBron also gave us the ultimate feeling of joy. Finally having a champion in our city. I don’t think anyone will ever forget where they were on June 19th, 2016. I, unfortunately, was by myself in my living room in North Carolina. But I felt as part of the action as anyone who was celebrating on East 4th street, as I watched on Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. And believe me when I say I was on top of the world the next morning at work. None of my fellow Marines were Cavs fans, or even NBA fans, really, but I didn’t care. I walked around for months as if I had done something. LeBron James allowed me to feel the pride of being a champion when all I did was watch, and for that, I am forever in debt.
LeBron James didn’t have to come back. Most guys wouldn’t have. This city destroyed LeBron James when he left. The Cavs owner destroyed him. LeBron could have chosen to leave that behind. I was there on December 2nd, 2010, James’ first game back at the Q as a member of the Miami Heat. As an immature, frustrated 17 year old, I was part of the crowd screaming profanities and making sure that this young 26 year old knew that Akron, Ohio, did in fact, hate him. If I was LeBron, after being a part of that, there’s no way you could have convinced me to come back. I would have talked for years about how trashy the city of Cleveland was and I would have never thought twice about my decision. So when you think of it like that, it almost makes it hard to question or be frustrated with his decision to leave a second time, but at the same time, there’s so many reasons to be disappointed.
If there’s one knock I have on LeBron, it’s that I don’t think he ever embraced the city of Cleveland the way the city of Cleveland embraced him. When LeBron came back, I think he did it for himself, not for the city. LeBron James cares a lot about his legacy, and he knew that winning a title for this city would cement him as a hero forever. For the rest of his life he can talk about how he came back to a city that cursed his name for four years and he won them a championship for the first time in 52 years. When the Cavs won the championship in 2016, and LeBron shouted “Cleveland, this is for you,” it now almost seems as if what he really meant to say was, “here, Cleveland. Now get going.” In hindsight, it almost feels as if we went to prom with LeBron, but LeBron made sure to let us know he was just going with us because we didn’t have a date and he felt bad, not because he really liked us.
I say all that because I don’t think LeBron ever saw himself finishing out his career in Cleveland, regardless of what his letter said. If he could hold the Larry O’Brien trophy in front of more than one million people, driving towards his own mural outside the arena, and not say to himself “man, this is where I want to be” then I don’t think anything would have ever changed his mind.
Cleveland isn’t LeBron’s home, and I don’t think he ever felt it was. He said repeatedly after he left the first time that he was from Akron, not Cleveland. And he always seemed reluctant to call Cleveland home, opting to say Akron and Northeast, Ohio, instead. Cleveland can’t be LeBron’s home, because home isn’t that easy to leave. Twice.
To pile on to my negativity, it is also beyond frustrating that LeBron refused to commit long term to this city. He repeatedly signed one year deals to maximize his salary, but immediately signed a four year deal in Los Angeles. If this place was so special to him, why couldn’t he commit?
I also think LA has been played for a while. I don’t think LeBron ever gave Cleveland a thought (not that I can even blame him). Just like I don’t think he gave Cleveland a thought the first time, and I don’t think he gave Miami a thought the second time. LeBron is too smart and plans too well to be making these decisions over night. Would you make a life/career altering decision within a week? I wouldn’t. LeBron has known he was going to LA for a while, and when JR Smith forgot the score in game one of the Finals, LeBron packed his bags (realistically, someone else packed them for him). That being said, I don’t think it ever impacted his effort on the court, but I think he knew that this would be his last year as Cavalier, at least for now.
Even with all this bashing I am doing, I still support LeBron. I still understand and respect his decision to go to LA. I know that LeBron doesn’t owe me, or any of us, anything. LeBron gave us more than he ever had to, and I’m forever grateful. I’ll forever have mixed feelings about LeBron, though. I will have more good things to say than bad, and I’ll have more good memories than bad, but I will never be able to understand why Cleveland wasn’t enough for him.
When LeBron left last time, I was so focused on being angry that I missed out on four years of the greatest basketball player of all time’s prime. I don’t want to do that again. I won’t do that again. I won’t actively root for the Lakers, mostly because it’s the Lakers. But I won’t ever root against them. When April comes around, and the Lakers and Warriors are playing in the playoffs, I’ll probably be just as consumed by the game as I have been the last four years.2 Though I will definitely be disappointed as I watch him dominate the NBA as a Laker, I will hold on to hope that he comes back to Cleveland in four years, for, as Thomas Jefferson said, we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.