"Cleveland, its not you, its me."
On the eve of his first showdown with his former team the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lebron James has gotten used to his new villain role with the Heat. Let's not go as far as to say that he's comfortable with it, but just accepting. No more disapproving Twitter updates. He finally knows what we know. Nothing he will ever do will ever make up for his bumbling of this situation. No clever "What should I do" type commercial will ever undo the damage. What could have been a painful divorce became an earth-shattering act of betrayal to all those who cheered him on during his Cavaliers tenure.
You know that moment when someone realizes that the girl they love will never again love them back?
The moment when its obvious that it's over.
Up until that point there remains a faint mechanism in the brain that doesn't allow a person to cross a certain line of incivility. It's the unconscious voice that says " Don't overplay your hand, she might take you back some day."
For Cavaliers fans, that child-safety lock has been gone for quite some time. And thanks to the new frontier of high-speed social networking coupled with the rise of Twitter - where anyone who has poseable thumbs can also have followers - the anti-Lebron crowd and their sentiments have created a good vs. evil scenario on a global scale.
But which side is good, and which side is evil?
By departing from the team and city that adored him, Lebron James did something that is quite common for an athlete in the "Loyalty-free" era. Businessmen do it everyday. Families are very often forced to uproot their entire lives to allow for opportunities offered to their breadwinner. It certainly is not looked down upon by the masses. Rather, its generally perceived as a necessity that will allow for a better future for everyone down the road. We live in a country where ambition is an ideal. And saying goodbye is certainly one cost of doing business.
But they aren't Lebron James. They aren't idolized by millions. They aren't a part of a communities' identity. In the Cleveland area, it must have felt like King James was a family friend. After all, he was raised in the area. He grew up in front of local tv cameras. Eventually it was his time to throw himself into the NBA ring. And when he was selected by the Cavs, it must have seemed like destiny. All that losing had finally paid off.
Those early years were a dream. He became a superstar faster than the likes of Kobe and Kevin Garnett, who had treaded the "straight to the NBA" ground before him. Those were the days when he could do no wrong. The culmination of those times was an unlikely appearance in the 2007 NBA Finals with a team that wasn't exactly a winner on paper. That was before it was expected. Back when flashing a smile was an example of a free-spirited love for the game rather than an overly-analyzed sign that he wasn't serious enough to be a leader.
His local fans were ecstatic. Finally a Cavalier that would end up as the star of a highlight clip rather than the victim. Here was a fanbase that had been put through hell. But that adversity had only served to make them more thankful and appreciative.
Every few nights he would take his act into their living rooms. And it was very rare that he would disappoint. He may not have known all those supportive Cleveland fans, but you can be sure that they felt like they knew him. Remember that this was before he made it abundantly clear that Akron and Cleveland were only close as far as mileage was concerned.
For Northern Ohio sports fans, those were the days. If a visual aid is needed think back to The Herman's Hermits courtship montage scene in Naked Gun.
Yeah. THATS how good.
But isn't that the way it always starts?
While Cavs fans continued to dote on their home-grown hero, the national media began to grow a bit restless. Apparently tired of their redundant comparisons of Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan, and Kobe's unwillingness (in typical Kobe style) to play along.
Sure he had heard the talk before. But this time it was specific. He was quickly reaching the point in his career that Michael Jordan, at the same age, had won his 1st championship. Instead of adulation on Sportscenter, he was finding more and more chatter about his legacy. Furthermore, it became obvious that if he did not win a championship, than he would go down as one of the more colossal failures in the sport, if not just in general. That could certainly lead to a few restless nights. But it wasn't quite an unprecedented situation.
If you have ever seen college photos of a young Michael Jordan, than you will see the face of someone who not only excelled at basketball, but had fun doing it. And not just basketball, but life in general. At some point (even before his Father's death) he was robbed of his rambunctiousness and enthusiasm. As time wore on, the only grins that he offered were spent on taunting opponents or selling Nike shoes.
Ironically, he was enduring the same negative media onslaught that Lebron would later contend with. He may not have had to deal with comparisons to himself, but he did still have to deal with plenty of others. He was accused of not being a team player. Many experts dismissed him as a pretender to the throne. After all, this was the '80's. If a player wasn't wearing Laker purple or Celtic green, then that player was most likely never going to get a ring.
It wore him down. He got serious. Maniacally serious. Gone was joy and exuberance, and in its place was an obsession for winning and a tremendous desire to prove his perceived "enemies" wrong. And with each title he stuck it to them harder and harder. Winning was everything. Unfortunately for his mental well-being, it became clear that he could never win enough to satisfy his own internal demands.
Like it or not, he is the measuring stick for all those who came after his reign. After Mike, stars could no longer just love to compete, they were expected to develop an all-enveloping desire to win. Friends, family, and mental health should just be considered possible collateral damage. It was made pretty clear that if an elite player did not win at least one title, then their Grandkids would someday read about what a failure their beloved Grandfather was. Don't think this is lost on Lebron.
So, for the foreseeable future, every new "Great Hope" is expected to develop an unhealthy addiction to winning that is absolutely detrimental to living a happy life. It's the reason that LBJ had to mention multiple championships as his goal, rather than just one. That statement certainly makes the thrilling idea of winning a title seem like just another ladder rung for someone who is never allowed to enjoy his achievements until he has six rings.
Thanks MJ. Thanks Media.
Flash back to the last two playoff runs of King James. Both ended in defeats to very good (but statistically inferior) teams. This was no longer acceptable. Not to the media, not to his peers, and certainly not to himself. He could put up big numbers and win boatloads of games for the next 20 years, but without a championship, he would go down in infamy. Free agency was on the horizon, and there were some better options.
And we all know what happened next.
I can't imagine the heartbreak of Cleveland fans when they were trotted out and crushed after the decision. He was more than a great player for the local team. He is an international icon. Almost everyone on the entire planet knows of him - Yes, even your Grandmother at the rest home. And because he was from little old Cleveland - not New York, not Los Angeles, not Chicago - there had to be a great sense of pride.
It was not Local boy goes and does good. It was local boy explodes and goes global.
Not only that, but he was a good citizen. Jordan had his affairs and gambling to tarnish his reputation, but not LBJ. For all of the exposure he received, he was never linked to any untoward activities. He had a charming personality. He publicly showed a lot of love for his mother, who attended his games frequently. Even when he had to jump into the stands to quiet her abruptly one evening, it only served to make him seem like a young man who still gets embarrassed by his mom's big mouth just like the rest of us. He certainly was refreshing.
And then he just left. Not only that, he joined up with his VIP buddies to form a superteam. As faulty as the logic sounds now, it seemed like he wanted to find the best team available that also provided a built in support system (Dwyane Wade.)
It also looked as if he didn't care where he played as long as it was overly stocked with talent and provided the littlest competition for a title. Not only did he need Wade, but he wanted some superstar insurance with Chris Bosh.
Nothing else was allowed to matter, only a title. Pay-cut. Fine. Less points per game. Cool. Eternal hatred from those who loved him more than any other fan-base loved their star.
"Whatever. I gotta win."
He folded to the external pressures. He drank the kool-aid. He was a young man who was hearing the tick-tock of the end of a potentially fruitless career. If he is hearing it now, then imagine how terrifying it would become with each passing year. He knew he did not have the mental strength of Jordan, or his insane drive. The only way to ensure a legacy was to load up.
He convinced himself that it was the only way. Suddenly Cleveland was the enemy for holding him back. And he certainly stuck the proverbial knife in.
It wasn't only that he failed to respect the organization and tell them of his decision at least before the whole world knew. It wasn't that his buddies, particularly Bosh, were running their mouths rampantly on Twitter desperately trying to hype up something that should have been handled with more understanding and care (and less gleeful teenage girlishness.) It wasn't because of all the suspiciously biased news stories that accused him of being a bad teammate that were surfacing. It wasn't even really that he had decided to leave. Ultimately most of the palpable anger came from his need to publicly humiliate Cleveland across the globe and his seemingly uncaring disposition for the city who had once embraced him.
I'm not one to beg for tears out of athletes to prove sincerity. But as someone who is not even from Cleveland (Chicago), I was left waiting for the part where he looked at the camera and leveled with everyone. Something to make his former supporters, many whom had followed him since high school, at least say to themselves "This really sucks, but I guess we did have some good times."
Nothing like that. He wasn't addressing an agent at an arbitration meeting, or a Nike executive trying to further intertwine their interests, he was speaking to his fans who always had his back like no others in the NBA.
Do you know how many kids hearts he broke that night?
Something heartfelt was sorely missing. And now its too late.
Lebron had just had enough. I'm sure that the experience wasn't a cakewalk for him either. Weighing loyalty against friendships and legacies and finances was most likely very strenuous.
And this is where Lebron was stripped of most of his remaining pure love for the game. ESPN sources have described a very different LBJ than the one seen in the past. One who's more serious and less freewheeling. Perhaps a little too solemn. Maybe this new mindset will help him in attaining that vaunted NBA championship one year. But even then, its hard not to feel a little sadness at the situation. King James has lost his youthful innocence (which is in short supply in this cynical world), and the embattled citizens of Cleveland have once again been reminded of the fact that they are, indeed, still Cleveland.
(I wish Harvey Pekar were here for the Lebron "American Splendor.")
But now the story has taken an ironic twist. The Heat are an average team at present with injury problems, coaching issues, and just general confusion. They are, however, a team that at some point will go on a roll. On the flip side, Cleveland is playing nearly .500 basketball, which never seemed likely after the "decision." Suddenly this match-up is no longer David vs. Goliath.
When Lebron enters the Quicken Loans Arena later today, the atmosphere will be similar to an ancient Roman gladiator event. The crowd will be looking for blood, and at this point Lebron may want to inflict some more pain on them for all the insults and cheap shots he has been enduring. It will be humanity at its worst and at its most visible. There will be no singing of Kumbayah at the buzzer. This will not be pretty.
And there really isn't a good guy or bad guy (but for the record, I will be rooting for Cleveland .) King James is desperately fighting against being tagged as an eternal failure, while Cleveland fans will be fighting to avenge the sorrow that was inflicted upon them by someone they used to love.
Sounds a bit Shakespearian.
And quite honestly, I can't really blame either side for anything besides public missteps and immature fits of anger. The wheels were in motion for this showdown long before the "decision." And I'll be watching, and praying for humanity.
For Chicago and National Stories
Follow me on Twitter @ChiBdm