It’s difficult to be angry that LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers. He delivered a championship and the greatest Father’s Day gift in Cleveland sports history. He’s done so much for Cleveland and the Cavaliers that I frequently just use the word “unassailable” when discussing James and his legacy with fellow Cleveland sports fans. Even in saying that — and believing it with my whole heart — there’s a dark underbelly at the bottom of the crater that was left in the middle of the city of Cleveland when he decided to take on the Lakers’ legacy and make it part of LeBron’s.
In our quietest voices and in our quietest moments when we’re not officially on the record for the world to see, I think there’s some resentment that James’ star was seemingly too big for him to play out the rest of his years with the Cavaliers. If there’s one name that can loom large enough to help defend the fact that LeBron James is now an instant Lakers legend, it’s Dan Gilbert. LeBron chose to leave, but it’s hard to blame him from an unintentional roster dismantling that took a three-headed monster of James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, and somehow wound up starting a season with Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, and Dwyane Wade in the starting lineup against Irving’s Boston Celtics.
I don’t want to relive all the moves that Gilbert made that systematically poked holes in the hull of the mighty SS LeBron, but by the end, if it were not for the brilliant captain, that sucker had lost every bit of its seaworthiness thanks to a certain miniature mortgage magnate.
That’s the funny thing about being a sports fan, however. Even with a convenient scapegoat and reasons that are wholly reasonable, you’re left holding a grocery bag with the sustenance that you didn’t get to choose off the shelf of the downtown Heinen’s. You pay what you pay and even if it’s nice that they saved you the runaround, you’re now looking at a payload of aging produce from under the yellow lights of a suburban Discount Drug Mart. And yeah, I guess you could choose not to eat at all, but that hardly seems like a realistic option.
When the greatest Cleveland Browns player in the history of the franchise walked away, he retired from the game of football. It wasn’t without controversy as he was late to report to the team and Art Modell called him out on it as the man paying Jim Brown’s $60,000-per-year salary to have him shooting Hollywood movies. Brown took that message and decided that it was time to walk away from the game of football as reigning MVP at the age of 30.
Jim Brown was far and away the greatest professional athlete in the city’s history until LeBron James showed up. Brown is not without his issues, of course, with a long list of legal issues including violent incidents against women. There’s nothing in LeBron’s biography that comes close to even the mildest issue on Jim Brown’s record, so I’m only comparing these two legends in terms of their athletic career arcs. The fact that LeBron left the Cleveland Cavaliers twice looms pretty large, even if we allow ourselves to live in denial.
LeBron’s got the ultimate trump card that he delivered a championship — the first since Jim Brown’s Browns championship of 1964 — but there’s at least a little bit of contrast that he left again. He defied many of the things he said in his letter upon returning to Cleveland. He had defied the idea that he was too big for Cleveland and destined for one of the biggest media markets in the world for his entire career before finally succumbing to the most obvious and simplest story lines that even the most mediocre of sportswriters ever could have imagined. From the very moment anyone could see LeBron’s impending free agency, it was presumed that he would head to New York or Los Angeles. And like a sitcom that finally allows the festering flirtations of an on-screen duo to result in a two-episode wedding story line, LeBron James and Magic Johnson consummated the world’s biggest bromance.
In the end, I’m not mad about it. Most Cavaliers fans I know aren’t mad either. The fawning sports media from Bill Simmons down to the beat writers accept it so easily and readily that there’s an air coming off of them like they’re all just more highly evolved than an average, primitive sports fan that might deign to root for a team rather than a single star or the whole league.
So, you could say there’s an awkward relationship to the whole thing this time around. I don’t wish any ill on LeBron James and I don’t know anyone else who does either. Still, I’m not a LeBron fan except when he’s wearing a Cavaliers uniform. His Cavaliers were wondrous and delivered some of the greatest times in my life. He deserves nearly all of the praise for that. But there’s a flip side that is unavoidable: If LeBron gets all the credit for when the Cavaliers have been their best, he also gets the credit when he’s decided to leave and they’re at their worst. It’s not black or white, but many many shades of grey.
And the story isn’t all the way played out yet. LeBron’s career isn’t finished. Maybe he comes back one last time and retires as a Cavalier. Maybe he comes back at Vince Carter’s age and is part of one last big-time playoff run, albeit probably not as the same kind of centerpiece he has been over the vast majority of his career. With LeBron James, you know anything is possible.