You can still hear the boos booming from certain quarters. They’re loud at first, the audible reflection of a fanbase still seething over past slights.
But as LeBron James unfurled the full breadth of his basketball brilliance one effortless flick of the wrist at a time, the vitriol and invectives offered by fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers slowly began to quiet, replaced by a mix of objective awe and the frantic fervor only a game as good as this one can incite.
Sparked by LeBron’s 43 points—25 of which came in an incendiary first frame—the Miami Heat escaped with a narrow 100-96 win Tuesday night.
In short, another enrapturing chapter in one of the most unique fanbase-player dynamics in all of sports—one that has only grown more complicated with time.
Not surprisingly, the day began with the all-too-predictable speculation over whether the one-time Cleveland cornerstone might make a prodigal return this summer, when James has the choice of opting out of his final year in Miami.
LeBron, on a possible Cav return, "For me to take my mind somewhere else when I know what's on its way [postseason] is almost impossible."— Ira Winderman (@IraHeatBeat) March 18, 2014
In a way, it’s what LeBron is paid to do in these situations: Deflect and defer as politely as possible.
On the other hand, there’s an element of self-preservation—however colored by genuine remorse—at play in James' tact. By leaving open the possibility of coming back to Cleveland, LeBron might spare himself a little extra rage.
But then he steps on the floor, and all the memories come flooding back—crystal clear as the day they happened.
Of a teenage phenom fate wouldn’t let leave. Of a homegrown hero sent to exorcise a city’s sports demons. Of a once-in-a-generation talent transforming the fortunes of a franchise. Of a shameless traitor who forsook his burden.
Time has tempered the tumult somewhat, of course. The fans still show up, eager as much to berate as behold LeBron’s basketball genius, though it’s certainly harder for some than others:
He had 43! “@NOTBRCleveland: sickening to listen to you have so much praise for LeBron. Remember what team you announce for, please.— Fred McLeod (@CavsFredMcLeod) March 19, 2014
For every fan that’s let bygones be bygones, there’s one for whom the mere sight of James—every impossible pass, timely shot, effortless board—elicits jaded jealousy.
He should be doing that here, where he belongs.
For some, like ESPN’s D.J. Gallo, the wrath and rage wrought by LeBron’s decision eventually subsided, aided by a still sparsely cited caveat to that seemingly monolithic media moment:
But even then, there was this nagging thought: ‘Well, his announcement did generate $6 million for charities, with $2.5 million going to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.’ Didn’t all that good coming from a mishandled and tone-deaf announcement by a sports free agent count for something? Did LeBron at least deserve to be hated less than athletes who have been involved in violent crimes? Violent crimes rarely are done with a charitable tie-in, right?
For others, like author and sportswriter Scott Raab, “The Whore of Akron” might never reflower his legacy.
At 29 years old, LeBron’s shot at matching Michael Jordan’s six championship rings—that exacting standard by which everyone from Kobe Bryant to Kevin Durant will be judged—is well within reach. Whether that matters as much as some might believe is a different story entirely.
During his All-Star Weekend press conference, James—responding to biting barbs from His Airness regarding LeBron’s legacy—suggested his true mastery of the craft might not be measured in gold alone, saying, “That’s his own opinion. At the end of the day, rings [don't] always define someone’s career.” (courtesy of Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver.)
If you’re a Cavs fan secretly pining for a full-circle redemption, that’s the best news you’ve heard all week. For as many rings as Miami might yield, delivering even one to the people of Cleveland—a city unrivaled in its sporting tribulations—would rewrite the King James Bible for good.
For now, both sides must look for signs in the smaller gestures. Like the recent jersey retirement of James’ old friend, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, for which LeBron was conspicuously in attendance—though not among the small contingent of “Cavaliers legends” seated front and center.
Still, the event hinted at the slightest of thaws in a place long reserved for frozen feelings. Try as he might to sequester him to suite, Dan Gilbert can’t erase what James meant for the franchise, the city, even Ilgauskas himself.
Three months and change away from the start of free agency, no one yet knows where LeBron’s intentions lie. Securing a three-peat with the Heat will almost certainly bolster James’ chances of re-upping, but with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers taking focused aim, the bull’s eye about Miami’s back has only gotten bigger.
One thing’s for certain: If LeBron plays like he did Tuesday night, the Heat—when healthy—are almost impossible to beat.
Which is why many Cavs fans—more than are willing to admit, perhaps—are hoping the LeBron they watched Tuesday night briefly disappears, if only that they might be witnesses once again.