If LeBron James decides to announce that he’s taking his talents back to Lake Erie, it wouldn’t have quite the same ring as his announced defection to Miami four years ago. But it also wouldn’t have the same devastating sting to Cleveland fans, whose passionate infatuation with James during the first seven years of his career had reached an unhealthy level that bordered on idol worship.
That might explain the current hysteria on display while fans of two teams wait to hear if they will have the chance to cheer for the four-time most valuable player again.
In Miami, an organization and its fans are confused over how anyone would consider leaving a sun-drenched place that provided him trophies and glory. But in northeast Ohio, the mere chance of a prodigal son returning has yielded reckless speculation, T-shirts expressing forgiveness and an inexplicable pilgrimage for some to James’s home in Bath Township, turning his block into a parking lot.
James has always represented Cleveland’s best hope for its first championship since Jim Brown plowed through linebackers to lead the Browns to a title in 1964. The two championships that James won in four seasons in Miami merely confirmed the promise that came with his prodigious talents and made the Cavaliers’ misguided rebuilding efforts all the more painful.
James’s silence throughout free agency — and the refusal from anyone within his tight-lipped camp to dispel the reunion rumors — has magnified the hope. It has caused heartbroken fans to reach deep into their closets and attics to find those James No. 23 Cavaliers jerseys that were tucked away in musty boxes. It has turned a great mystery into a greater possibility, every granule of information or misinformation into a confirmation.
What’s with these pictures of exotic car movers taking vehicles from his house? Doesn’t matter if James does that ever summer or if those were old photos. Had to be related to him leaving Miami.
Did the Twitter account for James’s Website really start following two Ohio media outlets? That’s a clue.
He’s from Akron, right? The area code is 330. The announcement is coming at 3:30. Of course.
Since James has returned from the Bahamas, people have tried to find meaning in a plane belonging to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert being in South Florida, Dwyane Wade dining and hanging out with James in Las Vegas, James posting a photograph of his high school teammates on Instagram, the Miami Heat being the only team to have a one-on-one meeting and James deciding to head to Miami instead of Akron before leaving for Brazil to watch Sunday’s World Cup finale.
The spectacle has frozen the entire league and again showcased the power James wields even if he doesn’t say a word. The league-wide moratorium on player signings and trades ended on Thursday — nine days after negotiations were allowed to begin — but there was very little movement of significance or consequence.
Carmelo Anthony, the second highest profile free agent on the market, has held off on making a decision and left New York, Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers in limbo. Chris Bosh, on a Basketball Without Borders trip in Ghana, has to decide if he should accept Houston’s four-year $88-million contract offer while the Rockets contend with potentially losing Chandler Parsons to the Dallas Mavericks. Wade might already know the answer by now, but did he opt out of a two-year, $42 million contract with the Heat without knowing if James planned to stick around?
The Cavaliers cleared enough salary cap space to give James the maximum contract that he demanded — and deserves — on Thursday. They have an interesting young nucleus with No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and two-time all-star Kyrie Irving, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick who signed a five-year, $90 million extension on Thursday to remain in Cleveland. With a few more veteran pieces, James could make good on his promises to make Cleveland light up like Vegas and to never stop trying until he delivers a championship to the city.
With madness unfolding on Thursday on social media and in front of his house — where police cars guarded the front gate and there was at least one car accident from overzealous fans — James played pickup basketball with high school kids at his camp in Las Vegas. Wade stopped by to visit. No matter how it ends, the friendship of the two players remains solid and real. And they can have few regrets about deciding to play together because it strengthened a bond, provided titles and affirmed the hype that has surrounded James since he was a teenage prodigy.
So much has changed since James sat down with reporter Jim Gray, surrounded by little kids at the Boys and Girls club of Greenwich, Conn., and announced that he was, “going to take my talents to South Beach.”
James has matured. He didn’t make this free agent period solely about him by gallivanting across the country on a tour or making several teams come visit and fawn over him. He let his low-key agent quietly talk to teams on his behalf while he vacationed with family. And, while his decision won’t produce millions for charity it also won’t be televised during an indulgent ESPN special.
His 2010 departure made James a traitor, a liar, a quitter and even worse to some in Cleveland. They couldn’t understand how someone all too familiar the city’s sad-sack history could cause them to suffer once more in a selfish pursuit of rings. Outsiders could take turns pummeling Ohio but not one of their own. Gilbert’s angry letter in the aftermath became another example of the disconnect between players and owners, something that always occurs during collective bargaining and reached extreme levels with the Donald Sterling lifetime ban.
Fans in Cleveland don’t want to be heartbroken again but can’t help but dive all the way in, head first. They never really stopped loving James with their outward hatred revealing the thin line between the two emotions. They have withstood anger and disappointment before — with the Browns leaving, then returning and losing, the Indians and the pre- and post-LeBron Cavaliers — so if James decides to stay in Miami, another setback wouldn’t be the end.
But if James gives them another chance to love him conditionally, and he pays them back with more entertaining and breathtaking basketball, the possibilities of the next four years would make up for the misery of the past four.