Everyone already knows the facts. Arguably the best active player in professional basketball follows the trail of money to South Beach, Florida, leaving his home city of Cleveland behind. In a heinous series of decisions that came across as tremendously arrogant, James went from being well-liked to a character of pure villainy to Ohio and most of the surrounding region. When things got tired in Florida, he picked up and announced he was returning home four years later, and sentiments of vitriol turned immediately to bliss. As highly reductive as possible, that is basically what happened. But like I said, you do not have to follow basketball at all to have been aware of this.
When it was becoming more and more apparent that LeBron was returning to Cleveland, my friend and I discussed the moves over breakfast. We tried to come up with some accurate analogy to describe the events, and it is honestly impossible without delving into the world of fiction. Comparing this to another situation in sports simply cannot be done. My friend offered the suggestion of Brett Favre. A face of the organization (check) leaving a city who adored him (check) to play for a rival team after a series of terrible choices (check). This is a good example, but it does not come close to the scale of James. For the state of Wisconsin, it’s easy to forgive Favre when you inherit a top-tier replacement quarterback in Aaron Rodgers and win a Super Bowl three seasons after Favre’s departure. When LeBron left, he took with him all hope from the Cavaliers organization.
Another viable comparison is Albert Pujols leaving the St. Louis Cardinals to join the Los Angeles Angels. Another similar story, franchise player and one of the best hitters in the league sees more money available in another town and leaves a successful team behind to a general sense of resentment. But like the Packers, did not stay down for long, replacing Pujols with Carlos Beltran and returning to the postseason the following year and the World Series the year after that. By no means were the Cardinals left in disaster. After five straight seasons in the playoffs, the hapless Cleveland Cavaliers managed a .311 win percentage without James.
The disaster in Cleveland was not limited to just basketball; the city was nearly riotous. Gone was the probability that Cleveland would receive a major sports championship since 1964. James jerseys were infamously burned. Dan Gilbert made some extremely regrettable comments, which childishly claimed that Cleveland would be more successful in LeBron’s absence. Even if someone in Ohio in 2011 did not follow basketball, they certainly felt the effects.
As much damage as he did in leaving the city, coming back had the exact opposite effect. When James finally did announce his return, the response was incredible. All of the media coverage was so positive--his apologetic letter and patching up with Gilbert--that it looked like he did everything right. I predicted it would not take long for Cavs fans to forgive and forget, but it happened much quicker than anyone expected. The joy in the city was palpable in every video shown of people cheering and crying and hugging in the streets. Watching season tickets sales sell out immediately. Even the “Wine and Gold” scrimmage attracted 17,000 screaming visitors, after four years of the arena barely filling 80% capacity. LeBron means so much more to this region than just basketball.
As the 2014-2015 NBA season is dawning later this month, many people say that LeBron is the only story they really care about this year. The sense of goodwill towards the man, the team, and the city is totally overwhelming. Even as an outsider, I find myself rooting for Cleveland sports, as long as they are not across Lake Erie in Detroit. The fact that LeBron did not shock the world and opt to play for the Pistons notwithstanding, I could not be more pleased with his return to the Cavaliers. With one move, he undid a lot of the mess he caused. Along with everyone else, I will eagerly watch him play what will probably be his final years in Cleveland. Let a new era of the King begin.