When LeBron James chartered a private plane to attend former Cleveland Cavaliers teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas' jersey retirement ceremony on March 8, he was doing much more than making a friendly gesture.
He was taking yet another step in the slow process of repairing relations with the team and city that once loved him like a son.
There might not be enough chartered flights or magnanimous gestures in the world to ease the hurt Cleveland felt when James took his talents to South Beach. And we've seen enough vindictiveness from owner Dan Gilbert to cast doubt on the idea of LBJ ever being viewed as anything but a traitor in his hometown.
Then again, James' presence at Big Z's big night was an important step, one that he probably couldn't have taken in the very recent past. In fact, it raised the interesting question of whether James will ever attend another jersey retirement ceremony in Cleveland—his own.
The Simple Part
Before getting into the layers of complicated emotion that weigh against James ever seeing his former No. 23 in the rafters at Quicken Loans Arena (or whatever it'll be called when he retires), it's important to start with the bare facts in favor of James' potential Cleveland immortalization.
Put simply, James is the best player the Cavs have ever had, and it's not even close.
|LeBron James' Place in Cavs History|
|Points per Game||27.8||1|
|Field Goals Made||5,415||1|
He ranks at or near the top of virtually every major statistical category in Cavaliers history, and his 548 career games in Cleveland rank only seventh.
For some perspective, he scored nearly 6,000 more points than Mark Price in 34 fewer games. He grabbed more rebounds than Larry Nance. He blocked more shots than Brad Daugherty.
In other words, James got an awful lot done in a relatively short amount of time.
Individual achievements aside, the Cavaliers enjoyed unparalleled team success with James at the helm. Four of the organization's seven winningest seasons came during James' tenure, and the top two single-season win totals (66 in 2008-09 and 61 in 2009-10) are both directly attributable to LBJ's dominance.
Prior to James' arrival, the Cavs had made it out of the first round a grand total of four times. They did it five years in a row with James in charge.
And Cleveland's only trip to the NBA Finals came in 2006-07, when a then-23-year-old James took the Cavs to heights they'd never seen before.
Stepping back a bit, James is easily the most iconic figure in franchise history as well. He was a savior, a superstar and an MVP. More importantly, he made Cleveland—a historically boring and inept club—cool.
On their own, James' numbers should be more than enough to earn him a jersey retirement ceremony. But his singular importance to the Cavaliers' history puts him over the top. If emotion weren't a factor, this wouldn't even be a discussion.
But emotion is a factor.
The Complicated Part
James burned bridges by announcing his exit during a televised special, and then fans in Cleveland burned his jersey.
Effigies are symbolic by definition, and they're also typically part of emotional outpourings that don't lend themselves to a whole lot of rational thought. Despite the absurdity of grown adults setting a stranger's replica clothes aflame, the sentiment behind those wounded gestures was serious.
LBJ still hears boos whenever he visits the Q. And Gilbert's childish, vitriolic letter remains a crystal-clear glimpse into the lingering sting of James' departure. Even now, the Cavs still like to pretend as though the entire "James Era" never happened.
For example, just try to spot No. 23 in the extremely cool (but historically inaccurate) video projection the Cavs trotted out a couple weeks ago.
Don't beat yourself up if you couldn't find LBJ. He wasn't there.
But hey, maybe the prominently featured Dion Waiters is a more important figure in franchise history...
And even at Ilgauskas' ceremony, James wasn't treated like the rest of Cleveland's legends:
Despite the lingering ill will, the fact that James wanted—and was allowed—to take part in honoring Big Z says a lot. Feelings are still hurt and emotions are raw, but at least we're seeing what looks like the first stages of reconciliation.
Someday, perhaps the complicated relationship between James and his former team will simplify.
Signs of Progress
More than anything else, time will play a big part in erasing the James-Cleveland rift. Given enough temporal distance, even the most painful slights hurt a little less.
And as ESPN's Brian Windhorst points out, the Cavs, surprisingly, may have made the first efforts at brokering peace by syncing up Ilgauskas' ceremony with James' schedule:
The Cavs even chose this date in October after consulting with James on whether he'd be able to fly over from Chicago, where the Heat are staying on an off night. Technically, James is coming at Ilgauskas' request, but the process of picking the game revolved around James' schedule and was orchestrated by the Cavs.
James has always seemed more desirous of a reconciliation, so it's no surprise he readily accepted the invite.
Of course, the ultimate sign of progress would be James' actual return to the Cavaliers as a player. A second tour of duty in Cleveland would render any discussion of James' jersey retirement moot. In fact, Gilbert would probably hoist No. 23 to the rafters as soon as any return was official.
The obstacles to such a scenario are many, and they've been chronicled at length ever since James joined the Miami Heat. Most significantly, Chris Grant, a man James liked, is no longer with the organization. Plus, Mike Brown is on the sidelines again.
James knows how Brown runs things, and he absolutely won't sign up for another go-round with his former coach.
And then there's the lack of supporting talent. The Cavs never gave James enough help, and Kyrie Irving's leadership and durability issues don't exactly make him the most enticing potential teammate.
James won't play in Cleveland again, even if he says diplomatic things like this, via Windhorst: "If they get things in order, they have some really good pieces here. We'll see what happens."
This is not happening, so James will have to rely on time, his resume and the softening of attitudes in Cleveland if he wants to see his jersey retired.
Ultimately, James' credentials are too robust and his place in Cavs lore is too significant for petty emotion to keep him out of the rafters.
LBJ is already the best player in franchise history, and by the time he calls it a career, he might very well be the single greatest player of all time. It'd be patently absurd to deny James a spot next to such luminaries as Bingo Smith, Austin Carr and Nate Thurmond (who played just two seasons with the organization) just because he made the immature move of going on television to announce he was leaving his hometown team.
The overly dramatic dopes who burned James' jersey four years ago might never come around. But I'm guessing the Cavs front office will eventually decide the greatest player in franchise history deserves a ceremony of his own.