Cleveland reacts unhappily to James's departure

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; D01

CLEVELAND -- The vista outside the Cleveland Cavaliers' arena is still dominated by a mural of LeBron James throwing magic dust in the air, but on a gloomy Friday, all that fell back to earth was rain.

King James is fleeing the city that cheered for him, prayed for him and begged him to stay to win its first NBA championship -- and save Cleveland while he was at it. He's leaving for the Miami Heat, he said, because "I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what would make him happy."

Happy? Not the word that came to the lips of Cavaliers fans the day after.

"A huge loss to the city," said Luther Johnson, a high school principal who was eating lunch near the Cavaliers' home court. "There was a sense of hope, a sense of pride. He put Cleveland on the map."

Earlier Friday, Johnson snapped a photograph of the larger-than-life wall painting that shows James during his pregame ritual of flinging talcum powder skyward. It overlooks a street hung with pre-announcement banners that declare without irony, "All for one. One for all."

Inside the arena, angry Cavaliers management yanked all James material from the shelves.

"It's no longer available," a clerk named Daniel said. "We can't say more than that."

That might have something to do with the fury of team owner Dan Gilbert, who called James's departure a "cowardly betrayal." He told fans in an e-mail that James had "deserted" the region in "a shocking act of disloyalty from our homegrown 'chosen one.' " He vowed that the Cavaliers will win an NBA title before James does.

Bile ran deep all over town. Some fans burned James's No. 23 jersey or stomped on cardboard cutouts of his image. One carried a big sign that said "LeBum." Sports talk radio addressed little else, even broadcasting a Cavaliers news conference where the suddenly star-deprived team's new coach, Byron Scott, tried to sound confident.

"We're still in Cleveland," Scott said bravely. "We still have the same passion about winning."

But a stark one-word headline on the front page of the Plain Dealer newspaper read simply: "Gone." There was no story on the page, just a lone photo of James walking off the court and presumably out of the city. The only other words were attached to a long, thin arrow that pointed to the fingers on his right hand: "7 years in Cleveland. No rings."

No NBA championship rings, that is. Zero. That would be five fewer than the Lakers' Kobe Bryant has, six fewer than Michael Jordan -- and the primary reason that James said he is leaving Cleveland to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

Chris Smith does not begrudge James his parting -- "It was just business," he said -- but he hopes the star knows what he's getting himself into, playing alongside a pair of high-scoring teammates. The Cavaliers, with all their imperfections, belonged to James, 25, who grew up in nearby Akron.

The Heat's undisputed leader and marquee player? Can you spell D-Wade?

"He ain't going to be 'The King' down there," said Smith, who shines shoes at The Arcade shopping center and catches as many Cavs games as he can. "If they aren't jelling right, Dwyane might want somebody to leave."

Smith's own prediction is a Heat title next year, but he pointed out that the Boston Celtics haven't won every year with their own big three. As for Cleveland, "We'll cry for a few nights, but we'll get over it."

Mayor Frank G. Jackson (D) called a news conference to "thank Mr. James for his commitment to the city of Cleveland" and to wish him well. He said the young player's choice "is not going to make or break Cleveland."

In his office later, Jackson said he spoke charitably because he respects James for his play and for his work in the city, especially among youngsters. His fame filled seats and brought attention, he said, to a region that has suffered more than its share of indignities.

Clevelanders will never forget the snub, Jackson predicted, but time will heal their hurt.

Even if opinion was split over the merits of James's decision, it was hard to find anyone who thought he handled the announcement well or believed him when he told a hand-picked ESPN interviewer that he made his choice Thursday morning.

"Let him go," said van driver Don Meyers, waiting for a fare on Superior Avenue. He expects James's departure will hurt the city's wheezing economy, but so be it. He dislikes James and believes Gilbert coddled him. "I'm glad he's out of here. The way he handled it was putting salt in the open wound. But we're used to it in Cleveland."

The name of one Art Modell came to mind. He moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, turning them into Ravens and earning the everlasting enmity of Cleveland fans.

"They must be related," Meyers said disgustedly of Modell and James. "No loyalty."

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