ESPN’s hourlong special on LeBron James’ free agency choice was called “The Decision.” To Cleveland fans, it will go down as “The Betrayal.”
At 9:28 p.m. EST Thursday, the NBA superstar announced, “In this fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” With one sentence, James rejected his hometown team, and forever secured his place on the Mount Rushmore of Cleveland sports villains, right next to Art Modell, the Cleveland Browns owner who moved the team to Baltimore in 1995.
For the past few years, the city of Cleveland has been dealing with rumors about James and whether he would leave the Cavaliers in 2010. The most talked about scenario had James heading to the bright lights of New York City and Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks play ball. Other possible destinations included the New Jersey Nets, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers.
It’s hard to feel sorry for those cities. They win titles all the time. Last season, they each won a championship: New York with the Yankees; Chicago with the Blackhawks; and Los Angeles with the Lakers. (It’s OK to feel sorry for Nets, I guess, but they’re trying to move to Brooklyn.)
It’s also hard to feel happy for Miami — the Heat won the NBA title in 2006. And the city already has an NBA superstar in Dwyane Wade.
None of those cities have known sports heartache like Cleveland. The city has not seen a title since the Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964, before there was even such a thing as the Super Bowl. In Cleveland, there are nicknames for the tortured moments of the city’s sports past: “The Drive” in 1987, when John Elway drove the Denver Broncos 98 yards in just over five minutes to snatch a Super Bowl appearance away from the Browns. A year later came “The Fumble,” when Earnest Byner lost the football on the three-yard line against the Broncos (again!) costing the Browns another chance at a Super Bowl. A year after that came “The Shot,” when Michael Jordan hit a jumper at the buzzer to eliminate the Cavaliers from the playoffs.
Fast-forward to Thursday night. It’s not unusual for teams to lose their franchise player. What makes James’ decision especially cruel to Cleveland fans is that he was our hometown hero. Sure, James grew up in nearby Akron, but he has always said his favorite sports teams growing up were the Yankees in baseball, the Cowboys in football and the Bulls in basketball – because they were winners. He never experienced the pain of being an Indians fan, a Browns fan, or a Cavs fan. We hoped he would at least respect those of us who did — people who still embraced him as one of our own.
On Thursday night, James showed us he doesn’t care — or at least not enough to stay in Cleveland. Instead of completing the challenge of wining a title in Cleveland, James simply left.
But for fans, leaving your team is not an option. Cleveland is a resilient city and so are its sports fans. And when an NBA title finally comes, the success will be all the sweeter for having suffered through Thursday night. I would say it’s a shame James won’t be there to celebrate when it happens, but I don’t think he’d appreciate it.