There are few people in America who don’t have an opinion on LeBron James signing with the Miami Heat. James accomplished a rare feat Thursday night—alienating NBA fans in five different cities at the same time.
The reaction of the studio audience to “The Decision” was a harbinger of the backlash to come. After James said, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach and signing with the Miami Heat,” there was the sound of one person clapping and a few muffled groans. It sounded as if a fifth-rate stand-up comic had just told an ethnic joke.
The ESPN montage has been constant since—a few happy fans in Miami interspersed with footage of people crying and torching LeBron jerseys in Cleveland.
In retrospect, James’ decision was more predictable than it appeared. The problems were apparent for a while—disappointing playoff runs over the past two seasons, followed by a team meltdown against Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Then came the opportunity to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and the move was complete. Yeah, there was also that whole “no state income tax” thing.
My Facebook friends list was full of angry people Thursday night—not just Cavaliers fans, but also Cleveland natives. And I was disappointed, too.
I’m not a big NBA fan, in part because Pittsburgh has no NBA team, but also because I think the NBA suffers too much from the superstar syndrome and has strayed from the fundamentals of the game. I think NBA referees officially stopped calling traveling back around 1995 or so.
At the same time, the Cavs have been my default favorite NBA team for the past few years. I figured that they gave Cleveland the best chance to win a sports championship—and without beating a Pittsburgh team! I could root for a Cleveland team without being a traitor.
But I also admired LeBron James. He came across as very mature for his age when he was drafted right out of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. While his basketball skills were obvious, he was already filling ESPN with witty, insightful quotes at 18. When asked if he was the new face of the NBA, he said, “No. Jerry West is the face of the NBA,” referring to West’s silhouette on the NBA logo.
From a pure basketball standpoint, it’s hard to argue with James’ decision. The biggest problem LeBron faced in Cleveland was the franchise’s inability to surround him with players who were close to his ability. In Miami, he will be playing for the closest thing to a Dream Team outside the Olympics. Think about this carefully. Dwyane Wade…Anderson Varejao. Chris Bosh…Jimario Moon. All questions of loyalty aside, what would you do?
I’m not going out on much of a limb by predicting that LeBron will be wearing a championship ring one year from today. But I feel for the city and its people who have been left in his wake.
I grew up in Columbus, where Ohio State football has always been the center of the sports universe. Pro sports loyalties (aside from the Blue Jackets—who first took to the ice when I was 33) are split between Cleveland and Cincinnati teams, with a slight leaning toward the Cincinnati sphere of influence.
As such, I did not realize how much pro sports mean to a city until I got to know some Cleveland natives in college. They were passionate about their city and all things connected to it (I haven’t heard so much Michael Stanley Band before or since), including the Indians and the Browns—not so much the Cavs, but remember that this was before LeBron was born. They suffered through every losing season with the familiar mantra of “wait ‘til next year.”
LeBron was a one-man, million-dollar industry in Cleveland. The giant “We Are All Witnesses” Nike ad downtown was well known, while ticket and memorabilia sales, not to mention food, drink and parking, were a bright spot for the otherwise depressed area. A franchise known for years as the “Cadavaliers” was suddenly one of the NBA’s top teams, and a city notorious for its sports losers had hope.
All that is gone now.
By any logical standards (bearing in mind that the games still have to be played), LeBron will have his title—but at what cost?