As the last three days saw Cleveland’s sports fans shift from hopeful to anticipatory to holding their phones over public restroom toilets while shouting threats at all the fake Adrian Wojnarowski Twitter accounts, some went so far as to say that LeBron James—in keeping his lips and this offseason’s “Free Agency Award” winning envelope firmly sealed—was turning 2014 into an even worse PR debacle than 2010. After The Decision, it took James a good 18 months to once again be comfortable in his own basketball skin and play to win for himself, not to prove a point to everyone else.
The Wait thankfully never came close to all that. Save a few screamers bathed in Twitter rage, Cleveland fans actually remained pretty reasonable about the whole thing. What happened in 2010 was a nationally televised defecation on a fan base that already spends every waking moment in a complicated, almost symbiotic relationship with despair.
Cleveland’s call to distance Itself and its fans from the worst sentiments of that day grew to the point where, this week, everyone would have felt a little better about their region and team had Gilbert made public the apology we now know was made to James privately.
But self-esteem and regional confidence were not the only things to fester under the heat from The Decision’s studio lights. The embarrassing public displays of frustration — fans burning James’s jersey and lobbing taunts and insults at their once-revered player — capped by Dan Gilbert’s infamous Comic Sans open letter that the Rev. Jesse Jackson later criticized as portraying James as a “slave” to his “master,” Gilbert. This racial insensitivity was the national egg on the face of the city and the organization that, until the last moment, many thought would be the one bridge too greatly burned for James to cross back over. At the time of the letter, most fans saw their own frustrations echoed by a passionate owner. Since then, though, Cleveland’s call to distance Itself and its fans from the worst sentiments of that day grew (if not aggressively so) to the point where, this week, everyone would have felt a little better about their region and team had Gilbert made public the apology we now know was made to James privately.
“We all make mistakes,” James said about meeting with Gilbert and, while that statement may say very little about James’s real feelings on the matter, the chance for James, Gilbert and the fans to move forward from it, goes beyond sports and may be go down as being the most important overlooked part of this public reunion.
Compared to all that, the free agency slog of 2014 was just annoying. It’s fine, the vast majority of Cavs fans maintained all week. Yes, we’d like to have the best basketball player on the planet “light up Cleveland like Las Vegas” – as James once promised on a late-June night in 2003 – but we like some of what the team has in place. We like GM David Griffin (who now has had possibly the best first four months of anyone in any job ever). We like the David Blatt hire. We like Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins. Our ability to enjoy professional basketball does not hinge on whether we are asked for a second dance by that handsome 6’8″, 240 pound fella in the corner there tipping his headband just so.
Congratulations, Cleveland. No harm, nothing set on fire. Though, it’s just the kind of live-and-let-live attitude that many had criticized Cavs fans for ever since James’s agent, Rich Paul, set his clients two finalists as Cleveland or Miami. Do Cleveland fans really have so little self-respect as to willingly let back in the man who so recently tested their team loyalty like an M-80 tests a mold of Jello?
Well, this is sports. This is entertainment – it’s entertainment that I and many others share a participatory interest verging on mild obsession with. So even when we feel bad, it’s a much better bad feeling than actually having to feel bad. Trying to track this back to actual feelings of self-respect and self-worth is like making a real apocalypse out of every Michael Bay film. Which, granted, is entirely easier for a Cleveland fan to say now than if South Beach had retained James’s talents for another few contract years. Sure.
But the pressure will be there for the Cavaliers to succeed, just like it was when James went to the Heat. At least for the moment, James has even pledged a degree of patience with the organization to build a long-term winner, a pact that he could never have entered into in Miami. “We’re not ready right now,” James said in his announcement. “No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.” He’s smartly downplaying his expectations now, but he will be 30 by New Year’s, is in the height of his prime, and is joining a young team that was anything but mentally tough last year.
Rather than seeing the team as his next, easiest stop to grab some rings, it’s the project and place that James truly wants to be invested in right now. Having the best player in the world fully committed to the city makes this truly a special time to be a Cleveland Cavaliers fan. Now the only thing we’re counting down to is the 111 days until the 2014-15 NBA season kicks off.