It was the end of my senior year of college when I first saw the LeBron effect in Cleveland up close. Myself and two friends had found $25 upper deck tickets to Game 2 of the 2008 first-round playoff series between the Cavaliers and Wizards online and made "the decision" to drive from Ann Arbor to the shores of Lake Erie for the game.
What I remember vividly is the pregame scene, thousands of fans gathered on a car-less street filled with what looked to be recently opened bars. We went to a place that had a bowling alley and served $1 Bud Lights. But what's most important here is to realize this corridor of bars was a result of LeBron, a direct correlation to the 12,000 or so fans that attended Cavs games before he came to the NBA and the sellout crowds that populated Quicken Loans Arena once he arrived.
I say this in light of the reaction James is receiving from his former owner Dan Gilbert, Cleveland fans, and to a certain extent, the entire country now that he's chosen to create a super team down in Miami. I was all ready to completely wallop LeBron for his decision, but the aftermath of his hour long special has left me unable to totally lambaste the man.
While my preference was to see LeBron return to Cleveland and become the ultimate folk hero there, I've never felt he owed the town anything. If we're going to judge the guy by championships won, the bottom line was his best opportunity to win multiple titles was to leave the state of Ohio. I understood the fans' reaction -- lighting jerseys on fire and what not -- because they're supposed to be emotional in the immediate aftermath. They've invested time, money, and energy into LeBron and now he's turned his back on them.
But, as that new downtown area of bars and restaurants suggests to me, LeBron's impact was a lot more than basketball. He revitalized Cleveland to a certain extent. Even though he won't be playing basketball there anymore and presumably the team will be much worse, new business is there to stay for the foreseeable future.
With that being said, the reaction of owner Dan Gilbert absolutely disgusts me. Don't let a letter that appeared to be written by a 14-year-old girl who was upset at mommy for not letting her date that high school senior fool you. Gilbert wasn't fuming because LeBron spurned him, he was fuming because his net worth went down by about $100 million Thursday night. Brian Windhorst, the Cavs beat writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tries to sort of justify Gilbert's reaction in a column written for ESPN:
Gilbert hired one of James' friends and paid him more than some assistant coaches to hang out with the team so James would be comfortable. Gilbert allowed members of James' management team to fly on the team jet. He spent $25 million to construct a practice facility that was located 20 minutes closer to James' home than the old one. He rebuilt the locker room. He hired a masseur to travel on the road because James likes massages.
He even fired his head coach, somewhat on spec, with the belief that James wanted a change. It is because of all of that James' decision to walk was such a gut punch to the owner. It wasn't that he didn't see it coming, it was he didn't know what he could do to stop it.
And yet it was Gilbert who chose to just ignore all the signals that LeBron was a fish that had simply grown too big for such a small pond. There were his statements when he signed his original three-year extension back in 2007 that he wanted to keep his options open. His constant refusal to just shut up and no comment when the media would ask him about 2010 free agency -- until the cacophony became too much midway through this past season. Even the little things, like showing up to the ALCS in Cleveland rooting for the Yankees or rooting for the Dallas Cowboys instead of the hometown Browns.
While many in the media have criticized LeBron for how he's handled himself the past few weeks and even years -- the ego, the pomp and circumstance, the feeling of contrived suspense -- the only problem I had with James' decision is that I got the sense he knew he was leaving Cleveland months ago. He should have let the Cavaliers know earlier of those intentions so they would have a chance to re-group and maybe pursue some of these other high profile free agents.
The shame in all of this, though, is what it does for LeBron on the court. Sure, Miami Heat games will become the most sought after ticket in sports the next five years, and the national and international attention affixed -- especially in the next year -- on LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh will be unlike anything we've seen since the original Dream Team. And maybe LeBron and Co. will win five straight titles, since my guess is guys will be lining up to take pay cuts to play with them.
But let it be known now, by going to South Beach (even though technically the Heat's arena is not actually in South Beach) LeBron has given up trying to become the greatest player ever. The most frustrating part about 'The Decision' is that it's LeBron saying there is a ceiling to his talent, something I wasn't aware of until last night. Not only has he proven he can't win a title as the lead dog, he's shown he doesn't really have the competitive juices, the courage if you will, to even try.
LeBron can say all the right things, how this decision is all about winning championships, how he couldn't pass up a chance to play with his talented buddies, Wade and Bosh, how he's fine sharing the crunch time responsibilities from night-to-night. I believe him, too. But no matter the bullshit he feeds us about having a dream the night before or whatever other Disney crap he uses to justify his decision, this just doesn't feel right, a superstar at his peak ceding the spotlight.
The real tragedy is not that LeBron disrespected the city or the fans of Cleveland -- it's that he disrespected his game and the levels of excellence he could have reached.