Could Anyone Really Be Mad at LeBron If He Leaves Cleveland Again?

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterJune 27, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 09:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers acknowledges a young fan in the second half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on April 9, 2018 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
B/R

Editor's note: Every day this week—heading into the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. ET July 1—Bleacher Report will look at every angle of LeBron James' upcoming decision with reports and features from our most plugged-in NBA reporters. Today, B/R looks at how the way the media, and many fans, view LeBron's impending choice has changed since his first decision in 2010.

Part 1: LeBron's On-Court Options Are Limitless
Part 2: Ripple Effects of LeBron's Decision
Part 3: Would Anyone Really Be Mad at LeBron If He Left Again?
Part 4: How to Wine and Dine Your Way into LeBron's Heart
Part 5: B/R Staff Predicts Where LeBron Will Land


On the night the King abandoned Cleveland, Greg Brinda brought two items to his radio studio: a LeBron James bobblehead and a hammer.

It was nearing midnight on July 8, 2010, and the city was pulsing with rage in the wake of James' shocking announcement: "I'm gonna take my talents to South Beach."

While Cavaliers fans burned jerseys and stormed the streets, Brinda—the self-styled "dean of Cleveland sports"—prepared for his nightly talk show on WKNR-AM. He'd built a career on strong takes and outlandish stunts. He once hired a witch to lift a curse from the Indians, back in the 1980s.

But this moment in Cleveland sports history was uniquely devastating. This move by James—the Akron-born former No. 1 pick, who'd practically grown up in the Cavs organization—felt like a betrayal. It demanded a visceral response.

"Let's basically dismember him," Brinda recalls thinking.

So, with his microphone on and a colleague filming for posterity, Brinda placed the LeBron figurine, in its bright blue No. 23 throwback Cavs jersey, on a rag...and swung away.

"Smashed it into a million pieces," he says.

The vitriol did not end at the Ohio border. Across the country, fans, pundits and former NBA stars excoriated James for his decision. He was branded disloyal, cowardly, a fraud. He was accused of taking the easy path by choosing to partner with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Overnight, he became the league's biggest villain.

A lot has happened since then. James won two championships in Miami, made a celebrated return to Cleveland in 2014 and delivered a title—the city's first in over a half-century—in 2016.

And now he might leave again. Despite James' best efforts, the Cavs were thoroughly outclassed in a four-game Finals sweep by the Warriors this month—the third time in four years Cleveland has lost the title to Golden State.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

The gap between these rivals has never looked bigger. The Cavs roster has withered. No one would be surprised if James—now 33, his championship window narrowing—formed a new superteam somewhere else, as he did eight years ago.

James is set to enter free agency July 1, and an eager army of rival executives will make their pitches. Depending on which rumor you subscribe to, James might soon be decamping for Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Houston.

So, ready the hammer?

"Not this time," Brinda says. "If he wants to find [a new team], we're not gonna like it. But we got that championship."

If there's a prevailing sentiment that has crept into the mainstream—on talk radio, in internet forums and in newspaper columns—this seems to be it: LeBron promised a title and delivered. All debts are paid.

"He's off the hook," says Anthony Lima, who co-hosts the morning show on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland. "We can't be mad at him again. He changed sports in this town forever."

He adds, "It's nowhere near the emotion of what it was eight years ago."

That doesn't mean Clevelanders want their native son to flee, of course. There will be broken hearts and angry words if he departs again, to be sure. But the entire tenor of the conversation around LeBron seems to have changed. And not just in Northeast Ohio, but also nationwide. Scan the blogs, message boards and overheated debate shows, and the general discussion is not, Is it OK for LeBron to leave? but, Where should he go? and, Which team offers the best chance to contend? and, Which stars should he play with?

Should he join the 76ers, with young studs Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, or choose the veteran duo of James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston? If he chooses the Lakers, can he persuade Paul George to join him?

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Where it was once deemed an act of cowardice and treachery for a player of LeBron's caliber to choose his own destination and his own co-stars—that is, forming a superstar alliance on his own terms—now it's practically expected. And almost commonplace.

Two summers ago, it was Kevin Durant, ditching Oklahoma City for Oakland. Last year, it was Paul, forcing a trade to Houston after losing faith in the Clippers. And he wasn't alone.

The summer of 2017 was dominated by disillusioned stars on the move—George and Carmelo Anthony landed in Oklahoma City, Jimmy Butler in Minnesota, Kyrie Irving in Boston.

We are firmly in an age of superstar empowerment—a movement sparked by James eight Julys ago. And while fans in a given market will always understandably cringe and rage when their favorite player abandons them, the broader conversation has perceptibly evolved. The idea that an elite athlete—drafted by a team he did not choose—might eventually seek happiness elsewhere no longer seems strange or shocking.

"He redefined the 'free' in free agency," says Dave Zirin, who writes about the intersection of sports, politics and economics for The Nation.

"I think the mindset of the typical fan has gone from, How dare someone go to another team to play with their friends and build this superteam? to, Can people please get together and beat Golden State? Like, by any means necessary," Zirin says. "Can LeBron and Kawhi [Leonard] come together with Chris Paul and James Harden and the ghost of Wilt Chamberlain? Anything to beat the Golden State Warriors."

It's nearly impossible to quantify these things, of course. There is no Gallup Poll to track the changing attitudes of sports fans, no media watchdog dedicated to categorizing the opinions shouted on sports talk shows like First Take or Around the Horn.

But there does seem to be a shift in the way we discuss player self-determination, at least in the NBA. Those who work in and around the league, including former commissioner David Stern, have seen it.

"I think the reality of our rules—and their benefit for players, teams and fans—has taken hold," Stern wrote in an email, "and our fans have accepted that player free agency and a team's ability to draft, sign and trade players are all part of a successful ecosystem."

J Pat Carter/Associated Press

If attitudes have shifted, James surely played an influential role in redirecting the conversation. Winning two titles in Miami served as a sort of vindication—proof that he'd made a wise, justifiable choice. To wit: No star in today's NBA wins championships without elite help. So there was little handwringing (at least, outside of South Florida) when Jamesin search of younger All-Star partnersreversed course in 2014 and returned to Cleveland to play with Irving and Kevin Love.

James' popularity ratings effectively tell the story.

Prior to The Decision, James was the NBA's most popular player, according to Q Scores, a company that tracks celebrity likability. In a survey conducted that spring, 32 percent of sports fans gave James a positive rating.

"Then he hit that brick wall," says Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of Q Scores.

By 2011, James' "positive" rating had plummeted to 16 percent, while his "negative" Q score spiked to 34 percent (a 14-point increase).

The numbers began shifting after the Heat won the championship in 2012, Shafer said, and have been improving since. Today, James has a positive score of 32tops in the NBA once more—and a negative score of 16 (well below average).

"He's fully recovered with sports fans," Shafer said. "But it took a while."

Winning surely helped. Returning to Cleveland—with a heartfelt Sports Illustrated essay framed around inspiring children in Northeast Ohio—reshaped the narrative. The move, James wrote, was "bigger than basketball." And yes, that 2016 championship cast James in a much different light—in Cleveland and beyond.

"That was the most important thing," Brinda says—and the greatest mitigating factor for Cavs fans if James were to leave again.

Yet it isn't just LeBron's on-court achievements that have forced public opinion to evolve. It's everything else James has done.

When he left Cleveland, James was 25 years old, a reticent figure on the public stage, guarding his opinions and his insights tightly, his legacy not yet secured.

In eight years, James has become not only a three-time champion, but also an entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a powerful voice for social justice. He has spoken out on gun control and police violence and has called out President Trump by name.

NBA basketball player Lebron James and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton arrive for a rally at the Cleveland Public Auditorium November 6, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Donald Trump barnstorms five states Sunday while Hillary Clinton implores her
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

"LeBron James is such a different person now," Zirin says. "He's gone from being the young player who couldn't win a title in Cleveland to being a mogul-activist-champion. And it's a synthesis the likes of which I don't think we've ever seen in sports."

James alone, Zirin says, has successfully fused "being this kind of mogul with being somebody who stands up against racism, stands up for human rights, stands up against Donald Trump."

"In the public eyes," Zirin says, "he's more than earned every single right to do whatever the hell he wants with the rest of his career."

The media landscape has also evolved dramatically, Zirin notes, thanks to the explosion of social media and emergence of new outlets. There's an ever-broadening understanding of how the league's system works and more voices than ever covering the NBA. With that has come a greater embrace of stars taking control of their fates rather than entrusting them to fickle owners or incompetent management.

And then there's the Warriors, who in four years have morphed into the NBA's new evil empire, with three titles and an obscene collection of talent, including Durant, who joined two years ago.

The Warriors are so good that fatigue might be setting in, and the search is on to find a true rival—a team with enough star power to match the Death Star by the Bay. This could explain why the thought of a LeBron alliance with George and Leonard in Los Angeles is so appealing, even if you're not a Lakers fan.

If James can no longer contend for titles in Cleveland—and at present, that's a reasonable assumption—could anyone blame him for leaving again?

"All Cavs fans know there's a realization that this might not be the best scenario for him," Lima says.

As the calls come in each morning, whether optimistic or fatalistic, the emotions are "nowhere near" the intensity of eight years ago, Lima says.

"I think people are a lot calmer about it," he says. "I think they remain hopeful. But at the same time, they're not delusional. They've kind of been bracing for this throughout the entire season, ever since Kyrie made a decision to leave."

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

"It's like losing a loved one," Lima says. "You're never gonna fully come to grips with it, but you can understand it."

Some locals, like longtime Cleveland columnist Bill Livingston, have already softened their tone on a possible second LeBron departure. Eight years ago, Livingston wrote James was "monstrously self-centered" for having the audacity to join Wade and Bosh in Miami. But in a Plain Dealer column earlier this spring, Livingston's message was one of solemn resignation.

"It is hard to see James sticking around on a team that is consistently being out-quicked and out-coached," Livingston wrote.

Terry Pluto, another veteran Cleveland columnist, struck a reflective tone earlier this month for the Plain Dealer, writing, "For now, the talk should be how James has given Cavs fans a sense of pride and a title to cherish."

Even some of the most fervent fans—even a hammer-wielding, bobblehead-smashing, brusque-talking radio host—are moderating their emotions in anticipation of a potential Decision 3.0.

"He gave us 11 years. And he got us a championship," Brinda says. "Sure, the majority of fans obviously want him to stay. But this time, I think LeBron will do it, if he does leave, in a more classy way. And I think the fans will be a lot more amenable to it.

"Nobody wants him to leave. But if that's the inevitability, that's the inevitability."

              

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @HowardBeck.

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