Cleveland and the Chronicles of LeBronia: Talent, Tampering and...Albert Belle?
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While typing this story, it's come to light that the Cleveland Cavaliers have allegedly been spending millions on suspicions that the Miami Heat tampered in their quest to sign LeBron James. Apparently the plan is for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert to present David Stern with a bevy of evidence that will show that the Heat met with LeBron in one form or another as early as 2008. While I truly could care a less about tampering, it surely does add to the spectacle that has taken over the world of sports since the Cavaliers lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semis. Who are we kidding, this is a story that started way back in eighth grade...okay, I'm not going back that far.
The saga of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers really is some sort of strange trip for us Cavs fans, isn't it? There's a small part of me that's waiting for the eight-part series, complete with a wardrobe and a talking lion. That's how utterly ridiculous all of this is: LeBron James, a hometown hero turned villain, returning home as a player for the Miami Heat.
With tomorrow night's reunion festivities between the Heat and the Cavaliers growing ever so close, it's hard to believe that this is what it has come to. Seriously, think back about seven years ago when LeBron was drafted by the Cavs. The consensus worry from the second he signed and beyond was whether or not LeBron James would re-sign with his home team. Every day, someone asked the question, and every day the answer was always, "Enjoy what you have right now, don't worry about free agency. It will take care of itself," or "Don't worry, LeBron will never leave Cleveland. IT'S HOME!"
I think all of us have thought about what the worst case scenario was with LeBron. Most likely, it always came down to LeBron signing with a team we couldn't stand (Chicago or Detroit), but I don't think anyone ever thought it would come to this, even after the ridiculousness of another free-agent escapade in 2004.
Cavs fans had already been through the ringer of idiocy already, with the crazy story of one Carlos Boozer. The Cavs came to a deal with Boozer a year before he could become a restricted free agent. Boozer agreed to sign a six-year, $39 million dollar deal with the Cavs if they would release him from his current deal, which would have only paid him $700,000. The Cavs promptly released Boozer, drew up the paperwork for the new deal, then turned on the T.V. to find a smiling Boozer singing a six-year, $70 million dollar deal with the Utah Jazz. Boozer denied making any promises to then-owner Gordon Gund. Of course, Boozer's sports agency, SFX, "fired" Boozer in protest of the move.
My point isn't to re-hash Boozer's move, or even to talk about the merits of one's word against one's desire to make twice as much money. My point is simply to throw in the insanity of what it's been like being a Cavaliers fan over the past seven years. I suppose, as a Cavs fan, this should be a "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
Let's exit Narnia for a moment and spend a few minutes in the real world. What led to LeBron's leaving? Was it planned with Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh from the start? Was it hatched because of the Cavs' struggle to get to the finals? Was it hatched in the mistaken belief that Gilbert and the Cavs weren't putting the right pieces together? You make the call, not that it really matters.
Prior to the 2007-2008 season, LeBron was a restricted free agent. There was no question, really, that he was going to sign somewhere else. Dan Gilbert, who had purchased the Cavs from the Gunds in 2005, made it clear that he would sign LeBron at all costs. LeBron and the Cavs came to an agreement, but it was a curious one. LeBron, instead of signing a six-year max deal, chose to sign a three-year deal, with a player option for a fourth year. Ironically enough, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade followed suit and did the same with their respective teams after consulting each other (and really, at this point, we all know this has been going on for some time, right?).
All was right in the world, as LeBron led the Cavs to the NBA finals in 2007, where they were promptly swept out of the finals by the San Antonio Spurs. Still, it seemed to follow along the trajectory for LeBron and titles in Cleveland. They were one step away. But there was still the issue with that contract. Did the Cavs only have two years left to win a title with LeBron? No...c'mon...even though every fan thought he could leave, and it never left the mind altogether, he was still a hometown kid. This wasn't Albert Belle (more on him in a minute). This wasn't Manny Ramirez. This wasn't Jim Thome. This was 'Bron. This was the best player in the NBA. This was the kid that grew up in the area. He gets it.
The Cavs spent money to help LeBron. First was the Larry Hughes experiment. Hughes had averaged 22 a game the year prior to coming to Cleveland. The knock on Hughes (listen carefully DWade) was that he played a game similar to LeBron's. It proved to be true. Hughes (not as good as you DWade, don't worry) never really accepted being a point guard, and when both were on the court, there was a lot of stepping on toes. Hughes would be dealt away 2-and-a-half years later after three years of progressively worse play. On to another set of players in the LeBron six-pack.
Hughes was dealt in a massive trade in which the Cavs acquired Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Wally Szcerbiak and Delonte West. All fit pieces to a puzzle that would help the Cavs take the next step. Wallace was the inside presence. Smith was more presence and some finesse and experience inside. Szcerbiak was the outside assassin the Cavs had always lacked. Delonte West could step in as the new point, taking over for the ousted Hughes. It looked good on paper but ended up lacking substance. Wallace, Szcerbiak and Smith were all past their prime, with West being the lone shining star in the deal. The team never meshed, and the Celtics bounced them out of the playoffs in seven games in the Eastern Conference semis.
The following year brought Mo Williams into the equation, in a trade that sent Joe Smith and Dwayne Jones away. The move appeared to work, as the Cavs rolled to the best record in the NBA, and then swept through the Detroit Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks to get to the Eastern Conference finals. There, they ran into the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic, who realistically dominated the Cavs in a six-game series win. Of course, this wasn't before LeBron hit a buzzer beater in Game 2, taking another step towards immortality. Of course, it's often overlooked that the Cavs lost the series...but...such is life. LeBron won his first MVP award, and still, all was right in the world. After their finals run two years pbefore, they were making strides. All seemed on course for a title in 2010.
Now the Cavs and LeBron needed a big man to stop Howard, so they went out and got the "Big Aristotle" from Phoenix. Enter Shaquille O'Neal. The Cavs also brought in Jamario Moon and Anthony Parker, swingmen who weren't the names the Cavs wanted (Ron Artest, Trevor Ariza), but who could defend and shoot threes. Again, the Cavs seemed to have all the right pieces. Again, they led the NBA in wins. To top off their team, the Cavs traded for Antawn Jamison with long-time Cav Zydrunas Ilgauskis. Then, Big Z came home a month later. Unfortunately for Cleveland, it wasn't to be, and after years of trying to put pieces together with LeBron, it was time to keep the big piece. You know, the guy who just won the MVP for the second straight season?
There were all the instances of LeBron wearing a New York Yankees caps.
There was LeBron officially changing his number from 23 to 6 for the following season.
Have I mentioned the rumors of Delonte West and Gloria James yet?
Things really got strange. There was the strange series against Boston, where LeBron did quit in that Game 5. There was the indelible picture of LeBron taking off his Cavs jersey the second he walked off the court against Boston. There was the inner circle, William Wesley, Leon Rose and Maverick Carter, standing outside the locker room after that game, grumbling about Mike Brown (to go along with all the rumors over the years that LeBron wanted Brown gone). Brown was fired at the request of owner Dan Gilbert, and then Danny Ferry resigned as well. All was presumed to be in an attempt to keep LeBron.
The Cavs then went after Michigan St. head coach Tom Izzo hot and heavy. They took a home run shot at a coach that may or may not have panned out in the NBA. Yet the Cavs and Gilbert felt it was the type of shot they would need to take to keep their "chosen one." Of course, LeBron wouldn't have nothing to do with the process, which was curious in and of itself. LeBron was already gone...in a sense. Izzo tried to get ahold of LeBron, but to no avail. Izzo turned the Cavs down.
In the meantime, Pat Riley was busy trading and giving away his entire team. Still, the Cavs were the favorites, right? Or, was this the plan all along?
There was a rumored meeting of the Big Three in late June. The Big Three say it didn't happen. Most of the NBA inner circle says that it did. Who cares, to be honest, but it just adds to the story.
The Cavs hired Byron Scott as their new coach. He was a former player who won titles and had taken the New Jersey Nets to the finals. He also would bring a faster-paced offense, one that could entice LeBron to stay.
Then came the formal presentations in downtown Cleveland. LeBron narrowed down his choices to New Jersey, New York, the Heat, the Bulls, the Clippers and the Cavaliers, and they were all coming to Cleveland...to give LeBron their presentations. To get into those would take days, but we were left with snippets of LeBron sightings as he zipped by in his fleet of cars or walked by a window in the Cleveland office space. Each day saw Cleveland fans lining the street, showing LeBron that home was where the heart was. And in a strange twist, the Bulls signed one Carlos Boozer, who then tried recruiting his former teammate. How would THAT have gone over?
Then came "The Decision," a day after DWade and Bosh signed with Miami. LeBron, on national T.V., announced he was "taking his talents to South Beach." It was July 8th. All the major free agents had signed with other teams, and now, LeBron was gone. The Cavs were holding an empty bag. Who did LeBron pick as the one to interview him? Jim Gray, the same guy that gave the wonderful interview slamming Pete Rose on the day he was inducted into Major League Baseball's all-century team. Good choice 'Bron, perhaps a talking rat named Ripacheep.
What can I say? LeBron chose to leave. There likely wasn't a good way to do it, but like I said before, in my worst-case scenarios, it never occurred to me that LeBron would handle it the way that he did. Of course, Cleveland was fairly impervious to the "LeBron was a spoiled brat" rumors that had purveyed around the league since 2004. There were rumored tantrums all over the country, including his time spent with Team USA. Now it was becoming a bit more clear (understatement) to the general populace of the town that bore witness.
LeBron was gone, and things continued to rumble through Narnia. There were the rumors that Pat Riley actually met with LeBron during the All-Star game weekend, and potentially, even earlier than that. There was the rumor that LeBron was sidetracked against Boston because of something other than what was out in the general public (something worse than the Delonte West/Gloria James rumors?). There were the burning jersey and the tearing down of the banner that had been part of the Cleveland skyline for so long. There was the WWE event in Miami the night after "The Decision," in which Wade, Bosh and LeBron came out to a packed house (probably the first time in the history of Miami basketball, and likely the last) dancing and prancing as though they were modeling Versace.
Michael Jordan said he would never have done what LeBron did because he was too busy trying to "beat those guys." Bird followed suit, and so did Magic. Charles Barkley was probably the biggest voice against the show as a former player, calling it a "punk move."
The owner got into the act, slamming LeBron an hour after "The Decision." Again, the basic gist of the letter was to call LeBron a quitter, a traitor, disloyal, and then promised a title in Cleveland before the now cursed Miami Heat brought one home. You could almost hear Mark Cuban cheering in the background, "See, I'm not the crazy one!" Of course, then Cuban was fined for complaining about the officials.
Now, LeBron has the oddest of bedfellows. Albert Belle, the much maligned former Tribe left-fielder has come out, giving LeBron advice on his return. You remember Albert. In college, he went after a fan in the stands. With Cleveland, he threw a strike into the stands, pelting another heckler. He used cork bats, then had Jason Grimsley steal the bat by crawling in an air duct to get it out of the dressing room where it was being stored. He tried to run down some kids on Halloween night after they egged his house. The list goes on and on but ends with Belle leaving Cleveland for Chicago and $55 million.
Belle's advice to LeBron and Cleveland?
Will the LeBron James saga ever end in Cleveland?
"My advice to LeBron is to take the high road and act professional," said Belle. "I hope the fans do the same. I don't want them to embarrass themselves on TV. I'd like to see everybody hug and kiss before the game and then the fans can boo the heck out of LeBron during the game. He still should have had the courtesy and professionalism to call [Cavaliers owner] Dan Gilbert and say, 'I'm doing this show and I'm going to Miami.' When I signed with Chicago, I had my agent [Arn Tellum, the same agent that fired Carlos Boozer, by the way] call John Hart to see if the Indians would match it because I wanted to stay. John Hart said 'bull ... you don't have that kind of offer on the table.' My agent got mad and said, 'We'll be signing with Chicago tomorrow.'"
Wow, Albert Belle, as the voice of reason. What's next? Is LeBron going to buy seats for Art Modell in the front row?
The biggest debate is whether or not LeBron will continue his tradition of "tossing the chalk" into the air before the game. While it's assured to illicit more than a few jeers, the only wonder is whether or not it will start off a stampede.
So here we go with the no horrific shirt rule, and the no derogatory signs rule, and the no bringing in batteries rule, and the no charge the court rule. I mean...this is an NBA game, right? Not some epic battle between some kids through a wardrobe, talking animals and a white witch. I mean, I've heard Pat Riley called lots of things.
Cavs fans are now ready to "welcome" LeBron back to his not quite hometown (Akron isn't Cleveland, as he's started to try and remind us all), but certainly his hometown team. You can't help but feel strange. Here we are again, welcoming home another player that "took his talents" somewhere else, except this one is fundamentally different. We made LeBron one of us (and c'mon folks, we all know that he wasn't really one of us, right). Wait, we didn't make him one of us, he IS one of us. He's from the area, and not only was he a great player, but he was the reigning two-time MVP, the King, the player that was going to give Cleveland a title. He was going to become...legend...wait for it...dary. He was going to BREAK THE CYCLE. He was going to stay.
Eh...not so much.
"I got a goal, and it's a huge goal, and that's to bring an NBA championship here to Cleveland, and I won't stop until I get it."
Apparently, he meant to say, "I'm going to bring my championship from another team to Cleveland to show everyone." Time to move on, but one game to go.
Fool me twice, shame on me.
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