After a few days, I woke up and realized that LeBron leaving was the best thing to happen to true Cleveland fans.
Yes, he was born and raised in Akron, close enough to know what being a Cleveland fan was all about. Yes, it included a lot of heartbreak, but overall, every time we’d come back—true die-hards, one would say.
But he really wasn’t "one of us." We don’t associate ourselves with winners. We associate ourselves with ourselves. His appearance at an Indians playoff game with a Yankee hat, his on-field friendship with Terrell Owens while wearing a Cowboys shirt; it pretty much said he was a frontrunner. It’s a free country, and frontrunners are allowed, but it ain’t our style.
Off the court, there was many stories that added up to a legend. In a nutshell, we're not a VIP city. We once threw George Clooney out of a club for not fitting its dress code (note: I knew the dress code, I followed it and I got in on a different night).
Local legends exist all over northeastern Ohio about his treatment of those who waited on him and his entourage. I've never seen it, but I've choked on enough smoke to guess where the fire burned. Over time, he probably developed a taste for the VIP treatment, and we began to love him for his on-court talents and little else.
LeBron knew that we hadn't had a championship parade since 1964 (a typo almost just made that 1064. It just seems that way). He knew the expectations. We tried to make them work, with a variety of coaches and player moves designed to maximize his leadership of the on-court play.
And for a large part, he came through. We went from being a doormat in the neighborhood of the Clippers to one of the league’s elite (I mean, what if he’d been as good as Darko Milicic?). He got two MVPs, and we got 127 wins in the two years after making an NBA Finals. Cavs games went from something to see only if "CSI" was on repeat to must-see-with-your-friends-at-a-sports bar events.
But for all the unprecedented heights he led us to, there was still one he didn’t—the ring. The absolute top. As things accelerated and gelled, the promises matched the pressure to finally dust off the parade route and end with an entire league looking up at us for a change. He knew it was his duty. We put up with him so he’d bring us the ring. That was the deal. We did our part. He ultimately didn’t do his.
Instead of taking responsibility and promising to work harder as an individual and a leader who could maximize his team, he turned on them. Blamed them. If the Cavs had won, he’d taken the credit. But the Cavs didn’t, and he shed the blame.
The team was supposed to bring him a title, not the other way around. And since we didn’t bring him a title, he found a situation that can bring him a title. Hell, put anyone in the right situation and the right thing will happen. Only he’ll take/be given questionable credit for it should it happen.
He took a team of "nobodies" to the 2007 NBA Finals, but he can't lead an upgraded supporting cast back? Those two consecutive regular season crowns were all him, right? Blaming the supporting cast, all of whom he signed off on, is a joke. When you're the leader, you take responsibility and blame just as much as you pursue credit and glory.
If he's unwilling to take blame for his team, then he's unworthy of taking credit for their successes as well.
In a city of die-hard fans, he proved to be the ultimate fairweather player. If the Heat don’t win it the first time around, I’ll be watching to see if his double-standard plays on.
With all the analogies going on, let me just offer my own. Find a starving man. Have him sit outside the kitchen while a gourmet feast is cooking. Have that hungry guy sample a bite or two, then when it’s done, tell the guy he’s not the "proper" clientele the chef intended for. Pack it up and hand him a five with directions to McDonald’s.
That, ultimately, was LeBron’s attitude towards us. We don’t hand out the star treatment to people who think they’re "elite." Miami will. That’s the way he wants it, and that’s the way he’ll get it (think about it. The more you put up with his VIP attitude, the more you'll understand.)
But he is taking more than his "talents to South Beach." On the court, he’s taking a giant target off our backs. We’re not "LeBron and the Cavs" anymore. We’re the Cleveland Cavaliers once again.
Make your jokes. We’ve heard them all. But even as LeBron grew into his "King James" persona, we felt more and more hijacked.
Gilbert’s letter illustrated that. While many claimed it was the ranting of a childish jerk, that it would dissuade free agents from coming to Cleveland, there was a message that sang in harmony with the still-loyal fans of the franchise: Don’t screw us. We’ll have your back, but if you think you can just come here, collect a paycheck and not care if we win or not, we don’t want you.
Only dedicated players whose passion for the game matches that of our fans need apply. Divas who come in caring about their own stats will stay away. Those that put team first and who’s only stat will be the number under "W" in the standings will come. And we’ll embrace you even more than LeBron.
What also made me feel good about LeBron’s departure was simply that with the futility we’ve had, we’re more accustomed to being the underdogs. Those who compare James to Art Modell have temporarily forgotten that Modell took the franchise.
While LeBron was a "franchise" player, there will still be five guys standing on a wood floor wearing Cavs unis. We don’t care if they’re five stiffs from the docks, they are ours. And if they show signs of improvement, we will have their backs more than ever.
Elitist/frontunning/bandwagoning/Lakers/Celtics fans will never understand what that means, as they’ll taunt us that we "don’t have a team."
But once you’ve literally not had a team, still having one means everything, and the fans that remain will exemplify who was on the bandwagon and who really is a die-hard. We know the attendance stats from pre-LBJ to now. It will dip, but it’ll be interesting to see the how far, especially with Gilbert’s little love letter to us.
The team is till here. We’re still here. We tried to do it someone else’s way (LBJ’s), and now we’ve got an owner who is now truly one of us—or who is at least more understanding and better able to fake it. To paraphrase Rush’s "The Trees," the oak is gone, now us maples can have our light. The King is Gone! Long live the Kingdom!
For better or worse, we can now do it our way with a team we can root for. There are no coattails to ride on anymore. No divas will want to come here, leaving just selfless men who have nothing to lose but the occasional game or 60.
Even if they do, as many now expect, we’ll have their backs if they do it for us. Not for their "brand."