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Cleveland fans become eye-witnesses to all that they lost

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 12:32 AM

"Ak-ron Hates You!" the fans chanted of his birthplace, 45 minutes down I-77. In a singsong tone, there was also the creative "Sco-ttie Pip-pen!" which was supposed to make LeBron James feel smaller - for playing with other stars, for not wanting to be "The Man" in Cleveland.

Replicas of his old Cavaliers jersey were again torched in effigy. Four fan ejections, one arrest and at least one object thrown toward the Miami Heat bench Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena later, a kid hilariously penned on cardboard, "We're not terribly fond of LeBron."

Ya think?

Kenny Smith, the TNT analyst, likened LeBron's hyperbolic return to the town and people he jilted this past summer to "going to your ex-girlfriend's wedding that quit you."

That's close to the emotional cauldron that bubbles when anger mixes with memories, when forsaken fans want vindication more than victory at NBA games.

Cleveland got neither.

After the profanity, the cacophony of boos at the Q, the utter disgust of LeBron levitating, scoring and winning with ease - after he and his super friends from Miami trounced the role players he left - at least a few faces shown in the crowd had a look of almost longing, a clear understanding of the talent they lost and the hurt it brought up.

Closure? Uh-uh.

It's too soon.

In Lawrence Kasdan's 1990 dark comedy, "I Love You To Death," Kevin Kline plays a lecherous husband whose wife decides to have him killed rather than divorce him. When her plan goes ridiculously awry, Kline's character awakes from a coma to realize that the traumatic pain his numerous infidelities caused actually proved his wife's ultimate love for him, that, yes, she loved him to death - as warped as that sounded.

Cleveland loved LeBron to death or, at least, to extreme derision.

I attended Latrell Sprewell's ugly return to Golden State and Pat Riley's unseemly return to New York; LeBron's venomous night back home followed the same, disturbing theme: the more excitement the star brings, the more anger when he leaves everyone in a lurch.

LeBron's value went further, though, beyond NBA MVP, global pitchman and straight toward civic heirloom, the homegrown sports hero who stayed, won and whose success actually created jobs. Cleveland didn't need him merely to win basketball games; LeBron had a portion of the Midwest's economy on his shoulders. Fans cuddled him, a franchise coddled him, and all he had to do was love them back and not break up with them on national cable television in July.

But in his inner circle's pathetic need for celebrity, a plan to announce his free-agent choice was hatched and there was no going back.

A town's relationship with its star athlete was severed the night of "The Decision" in July. So hurtful and humiliating to his fans, the formerly humble kid from Akron said he was taking his talent to South Beach - via prime time! Blinking at his entourage's handpicked, imported host, as if Jim Gray were Maury Povich holding DNA results, his reputation plummeted nationally after the scripted TV special. In Cleveland it should have just been called "The Incision," because that night he unwittingly gouged out the burned-out, graveyard of a heart belonging to all Northeast Ohio sports fans.

As much as many of them need to be told to get a life today - and, yes, the people who wished physical harm upon LeBron need something much more serious than a winning team to root for - no one can know the abject disappointment of rooting for Cleveland teams who is not from there, who has never braved Lake Erie's chill and wind in January to see the Browns blow a chance at the Super Bowl.

The tortured souls who endured The Drive (John Elway), The Shot (Michael Jordan over Craig Ehlo), The Fumble (Earnest Byner), The Move (Art Modell), Albert Belle meltdowns, The Curse of Rocky Colavito and no friggin' major professional sports championship since Jim Brown's Browns in 1964, they all thought LeBron was It, the fix-all balm for their title-less hell of a history.

However disturbing the religious connotations were to Nike putting up that huge, "We're All Witnesses" billboard in downtown in 2006, the residents of Believeland bought it into the whole "Chosen One" myth.

For several minutes of supreme basketball, LeBron made them remember more than he made them resent.

Fade-away jumpers swished through the net, old-fashioned three-point plays were converted on speed and strength. And, of course, an extra was knocking down shots on the perimeter: James Jones benefiting from all those double teams that used to make Damon Jones or some other minimum-salary scale player excel.

The great irony during his return was hearing the crowd - some of which resembled the same bloodlust crowd that enjoys seeing the bull get stuck in Spain - erupt in throaty boos over perceived unfair officiating with 4 minutes 28 seconds left in the first half. LeBron had sold a flop well enough to the referee to get a call. What a moment of schadenfreude for the non-Cavs fan.

The big shocker of the evening was not how LeBron and the Heat finally came together after such a sputtering, eight-loss November. Or how 20,000 voices did nothing to psychologically wound an eight-year veteran who off the court is a 26-year-old young adult still finding his way in the world.

No. It was witnessing LeBron penetrate his old team's psyche, watching him bear-hug teammates and almost soften them up with smiles before embarrassing them on the floor.

He was absurdly allowed to flap his gums and carry on a running conversation with the Cavs bench during breaks in the action. Neither Byron Scott, once a Pat Riley win-or-die hoop disciple, nor any of the former teammates James jettisoned for Wade and Chris Bosh genuinely stood up to LeBron. That had to be more egregious to the Q's coarse, loud denizens than a 38-point, virtuoso performance by the guy who jilted them.

Officials and opposing players alike inexplicably let King Fame hold court again. Or, as usual, LeBron was just too damn good.

Either way: How does it feel, Cleveland, to be the other team now, the Pistons in 2007, the Wizards between 2006 and 2008?

Indeed, the real pain felt by a franchise and its fans probably came after the final buzzer of a blowout loss. It's the harsh knowledge that Dec. 2 - not April 30 or May 29 - will now be the most suspenseful night on the Cavaliers calendar. That even if this cut-and-paste roster earned a playoff spot, Cleveland's pro basketball team is again that one-and-done squad. The best player this team and this town has ever seen ended up leaving home because he thought he couldn't win it all here, and now the Cavs have to start over, find someone new to genuinely believe in and love like they once believed in and loved LeBron.

There's a popular theory that heartbreak takes about half the duration of a relationship to genuinely heal. LeBron played in Cleveland seven years. Using that gauge, northeast Ohio will be ready to move on by, oh, 2014. By then, here's hoping they can remember fondly what they had instead of only angrily what they lost.

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