On Thursday night, the king will return from exile. However, he will not be welcomed as he walks through the palace doors. Instead, he will be sneaking in the back door of Quicken Loans Arena and heading directly to the visitors’ locker room. Certainly no way to treat a king. LeBron James was the hometown hero of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but on his return as a member of the Miami Heat he will be treated like the crosstown rival.
This summer I experienced the LeBron free agency at ground zero in the city of Cleveland, but as an outsider. Coming from Birmingham, Ala., a town with no professional sports team, I couldn’t — and still don’t — understand how and why an athlete can have the emotional control over an entire city that LeBron held. But it was clear that he did. The city of Cleveland loved LeBron more than Gainesville loved Tim Tebow, more than Yalies love shopping period, more than Kanye loves himself … maybe.
At large public events leading up to The Decision, people walked through the crowd handing out unadorned flyers, each with a single word on a black backdrop. COMMUNITY. COMMITMENT. FAMILY. It was sponsored by morethanaplayer.org. I thought they were a part of some conservative group or religious organization attempting to promote family values in an urban setting. I was wrong, but not by much. While not a religious cult, these individuals did made up a cult, a sports cult — they were members of the Fans for LeBron Committee.
Despite all the signs, I didn’t fully understand the pervasive LeBron phenomenon. Any confusion ended upon seeing the reaction to The Decision, the hour-long special announcing his choice to take his talents to South Beach. If I had asked any Clevelander to name the worst five people of all time, I’m sure the response would have been LeBron, LeBron, LeBron, LeBron and LeBron. Not even my boss, who valued professionalism to a fault, could hold his tongue when he saw the cover of The Plain Dealer, which showed only a picture of LeBron facing away and the word “gone.”
Those same fans who took to the streets in hopes of convincing LeBron to stay then took to the streets again. This time, though, the only messages spread were those depicting LeBron as the anti-Christ. And like kids fighting on the playground, the native Clevelanders did not pull any punches. They went after LeBron’s mom with T-shirts labeled: “LeBron is heading south, but his mom is heading West.” They went after his legacy by tearing down his signature billboard. And, perhaps most offensively, they went after his game. They accused the man who made the Cavs into a championship contender for not trying his best. They can criticize how he left the team, but the one thing they can’t do is criticize how much he gave to them on the court. Nobody who watched him score the last 25 points for his team against the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs has the right to challenge his play on the court.
In reality, LeBron probably did the Cavs fans a favor by handling his decision to leave in such a tasteless manner. Imagine if LeBron had respectfully and privately informed Cavs management of his intent to leave the team on the first day of free agency. The grounds for much of the bitterness of the city of Cleveland would be gone. What would have been left for the Cavaliers’ fans to unite around? New leader Mo Williams’ career average of 14 points per game? Power forward Anderson Varejao’s hair? By shattering the hearts across Cleveland, The Decision granted Cleveland blanket sympathy to harvest all the bitterness and hatred they could while ignoring the fact that they are left with the remnants of a basketball team. I doubt LeBron’s crew of high school buddies that represent him planned it that way, but perhaps Cleveland should be thanking them nonetheless.
But that was then, and today LeBron returns to the Q for the first time as a visitor. Upon hearing that the NBA and Cavs management plan to have heightened security at the game my first thought was really? Do they expect Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell to be in attendance? Here is the real question for Thursday: What should the Cavs fans do?
So what should they do? Should they throw D-cell batteries onto the court at LeBron? No, they should forgive; forgiveness shows strength. Owner Dan Gilbert and fans have already played the role of angry ex-boyfriend. They have written inappropriate letters, burned old jerseys, and spread harmful stories. Five months have passed and now it is time for them to play the role of mature ex-boyfriend. You know, that stage where if you bump into your ex, you can genuinely give her the nod and a smile. The stage where you can laugh about the dumb things you did when you were together. In the context of Thursday’s game when LeBron’s name is announced in the starting lineup for the Miami Heat, there should be a standing ovation for the years that LeBron bled for Cav nation. It would be a sign of respect that they would show to any hometown player or veteran.
But what will they do? Boo him like a bad comedian at the Apollo. It has been almost 15 years since Art Modell broke his word and moved the Browns franchise to Baltimore. He still can’t show his face in Cleveland.
I guess some cities take more time to recover than others.
William Desmond is a junior in Berkeley College.