Sunday, July 11, 2010

Time to move on

I remember the night as if it were yesterday.

It was a big night in the sports department of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Thursday night May 22, 2003. I worked on the copy desk at the time.

It was the night of the National Basketball Association draft lottery. It was a night that could eventually change the Cleveland sports landscape. LeBron James was the prize and the moribund Cavaliers needed to get him.

The anticipation of getting LeBron welled up inside many of those who worked that night. The evening couldn't go quickly enough.

After all, LeBron was a local kid. So what if he was just 18 years old. He was 18 going on 28. He had that certain "it" factor coming out of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School. We had seen him grow up and at one time or another, most of us had handled a story about him from our high school writers.

Then again, this is Cleveland and almost nothing good happens to Cleveland's professional sports teams, right? So why should we expect a miracle? Even though the Cavs and Denver Nuggets shared the worst record in the NBA that season and had an equal crack at LeBron, you just knew there was no way Cleveland would get this lucky.

And even when the Nuggets wound up finishing third in the LeBron sweepstakes and it was down to the Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies, you just knew LeBron was Memphis-bound. That's a Cleveland thing, if you know what I mean.

Then when league official Stu Jackson (at least I think it was Jackson) opened up the penultimate envelope and said Memphis owned the second pick, shrieks of joy, amazement and disbelief rang out. Not in just in the sports department, but all over the newsroom.

For once, Cleveland had won something big. The miracle had arrived.

And for the next seven seasons, LeBron delivered. He was everything we expected (sometimes unfairly for such a kid) and then some. He elevated his game to the point where he was considered by many the greatest player in the NBA. It was a crown he wore with what we perceived to be grace and humility.

LeBron took the Cavaliers to heights never before witnessed by the club's fans. He soared and took the franchise with him. He put Cleveland back on the sports map. It was good to be a Cavaliers fan. No. Check that. It was great to be a Cavaliers fan. He allowed Cleveland fans to finally feel good about themselves. He made Cleveland relevant, important on the NBA landscape, much like Dwyane Wade did in Miami.

The Indians were in the tank and the Browns scraped the bottom of the National Football League barrel. Cleveland sports fans needed a pick-me-up and LeBron provided it. They hadn't experienced pride like that since the Bernie Kosar days with the Browns.

And with one snap of the finger, it was gone. Just like that. It looks as though LeBron peeling off the Cleveland jersey after the Boston Celtics eliminated the Cavs from the playoffs this past season was more symbolic than I thought. The light that had beamed like a beacon to the rest of the sports world was snuffed out.

That's because LeBron made the conscious decision that the only way he could validate his greatness was to wear at least one championship ring. And he convinced himself that Cleveland was not the place where he could do that.

Never mind the fact that a lot of great athletes down through the years have never won a title. Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter of all time, never won a World Series. Appeared in just one. Ernie Banks never appeared in a World Series. Both men are in the Hall of Fame.

In the NBA, greats such as Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Dirk Nowitzki, George Gervin, Pete Maravich, Reggie Miller and Patrick Ewing have never won a ring. That does not in any way tarnish their greatness.

LeBron believed greatness would be better achieved down in Miami, where he could join Wade and Chris Bosh, his good buddies from the U.S. Olympic team. They would form the 3 A-Me-gos, a triumvirate of egos that very well could rival any in NBA history.

He chose Miami as his base for that goal. But if it is his desire to become a world icon, he's in the wrong city with the wrong team. The Heat is Wade's team. LeBron will find that out soon enough.

His ego, which was stroked unmercifully by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, will take a severe hit in South Beach. It'll be interesting to see how he handles not being No. 1 like he was in Cleveland.

In choosing Miami, he has damaged his brand. That which was Lebron is taking severe hits all across the sports landscape. The manner in which he ditched Cleveland on national television with the amateurish "The Decision" will leave several scars. And the cowardly way he let the Cavs know of his decision will never be forgotten.

The least LeBron could have done was man up and give Gilbert a call personally. He said what he did was based on a business decision. Well, that's the way it's done in the business world. Not having one of your lackeys make the call.

Gilbert then compounded the situation by reacting like a petulant child with a scathing open letter to the fans, savaging the man who helped put his team on top of the NBA world. LeBron hurt him and he wanted to hurt the superstar right back. Tenfold. Hundred fold.

He called LeBron narcissistic, which was true, but failed to note he fed into that narcissism. LeBron got everything he wanted. Gilbert did not know how to say no to his meal ticket. And the "cowardly" label was right on.

But when he "personally guaranteed that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA championship before the self-titled former 'King' wins one," and "you can take it to the bank," he went too far. It no doubt felt good to write that at the time. But when he looks back on it, that's a declaration he will regret.

Not once, though, did Gilbert mention the real reason for the letter. LeBron's departure hit him hardest in the wallet. The Cavs will take a significant hit at the box office. The team Gilbert bought from Gordon Gund isn't nearly as valuable now as it was a month ago. In his vituperative letter, he pandered to the emotions of the fans.

(Sudden thought: Too bad David Stern can't step in and void the deals in the best interests of the NBA like Bowie Kuhn once did in baseball many years ago with Charlie Finley of the Oakland Athletics. Lawsuits would follow and Stern, an attorney, knows he would lose.)

The Cavs now drop back into the middle of the NBA pack. They go from an annual 60-victory team to one that will struggle to win 35. Lost will be the roughly $25-$30 million in revenue LeBron had generated downtown. Some business will have to be shuttered as a result. Gone also will be the 25-30 times Cleveland and the Cavaliers received national TV coverage.

You can bet that when the Cavs and Heat meet four times this season, all four games will be somewhere on national TV. The drama will be palpable, especially for the first game in Cleveland.

It's not like an Art Modell situation where the former Browns owner will never show his face in Cleveland again. (And no, LeBron did not displace Modell as the No. 1 hated man in Cleveland. But he did move into slot 1-A. Modell took a franchise. LeBron took just himself.) LeBron has to come back to what can be best described as a hostile situation. It will be incumbent on Gilbert to make certain nothing happens.

But no one can save LeBron from the public outrage he is certain to face when he returns to his Bath, Ohio mansion every offseason. His friends will still be his friends. "Akron, Ohio, will always be home to me," he says. But it is problematical how he will be treated when he goes out in public. Wonder how much he can get for his 35,000 square foot digs?

In the end, there is no question LeBron became intoxicated with the notion that he could fill one hand with championship rings and perhaps two or three more for the other hand.

If nothing else, this should prove once and for all that athletes do not care about the fans. All they care about is themselves. It has always been that way. The players hear the cheers and are emboldened by them. But in the end, they don't care about you.

So which NBA team are you going to be rooting for this season besides the Cavs? I know who I'm going to be rooting for. Any team that is playing Miami that night.

The sign read: Born Here. Raised Here. Played Here. Stays Here.

Change that last line to read: Betrayed Here.

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