On this day four years ago, I wrote a post in the aftermath of The Decision. I recalled how bizarre the whole experience was, and how unfun it was to see your team and your city excoriated on national TV. I wrote that I liked Dan Gilbert’s letter, even if it was a little childish, because the people of Cleveland needed someone speaking for them that night. I made the point that it wasn’t that he left, because I couldn’t really blame him for that, but the fact that he did it on national TV that made it such a ruthless betrayal.
During that first season with Miami, LeBron seemed to embrace his villain role, and I was happy to root against him along with what seemed like the rest of the country. But despite that, and sometimes in spite of themselves, the Heat made it all the way to the Finals. It seemed like LeBron was well on his way to his first championship (of not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…) when the Heat took a 15-point 4th quarter lead in Game 2. But the Mavericks stormed back, won Game 2 and then 3 of the next 4 to steal the championship from Miami. LeBron hadn’t played up to his usual standards in the series, and he had been humiliated on national TV.
I like to think the first seeds of a comeback were sewn that summer, when in late August the Indians managed to bring Jim Thome back to Cleveland from the struggling Minnesota Twins. Thome wasn’t nearly the high profile free agent that LeBron was when he left, but he was certainly part of the disappointingly long legacy of Cleveland players leaving as free agents for greener pastures. I was there when Thome came back in 2006 with the White Sox for the first time, and he was booed pretty heavily. But over time those boos died down until, at the very least, it was a 50-50 mix between boos and cheers. And in 2011, when Thome finally returned, despite the fact that he was well past his prime, he was welcomed back and all was forgiven (they’re unveiling a statue of him next month). I like to think LeBron saw this reception, even if there isn’t any evidence to support it.
And then in 2012, the Indians acquired their biggest free agent this century, if not ever: they hired Terry Francona. The Indians’ manager doesn’t play a position, but for the first time since, well, The Decision, Cleveland sports gained some credibility. With Francona helping, the Indians managed to sign Nick Swisher (who is also an Ohioan), Michael Bourn, Scott Kazmir and others, and Francona’s first season was by all accounts a success.
But it was around that time, in 2012, when newly-ringed LeBron started talking publicly about a return to Cleveland at some point. By then I had gotten over my personal anger, and LeBron had shed his villain persona. I was back to rooting for him, having forgiven The Decision as a good guy being misled by some slimy agents and PR people. I always sort of figured he’d at least try to come back at some point. Even when he was playing for Miami, he seemed connected to Cleveland, always calling himself a kid from Akron. But I thought he’d be back when he was past his prime, maybe when he was 36 or 37 with a minutes limitation and bad knees. That would have made a good story, but probably wouldn’t have brought much more than some closure and some early round playoff exits. So even though I thought he’d be back eventually, I sort of looked forward to it in a general detached sports fan sort of way, sort of like how I’m viewing Derek Jeter’s farewell tour this year.
Two years later, and it was July 1, 2014, and LeBron was a free agent again. Everyone sort of expected him to opt out, either to send a message to the Miami front office or to give the front office more flexibility to refresh the roster. Maybe it’s just the recency, but this free agency period felt a lot crazier than the last one, maybe because LeBron kept his poker face until the last possible second. We read into everything, from meetings his agent set up to color codes on his website to accounts he followed on Twitter. I really didn’t think he’d go to a new team, but the more the thing dragged on the more it seemed like something was different.
After 10 full days of frenzied coverage, LeBron announced his decision in the most un-Decision way possible: with a classy, introspective, and heartfelt letter that talked very little about his basketball talents, and much more about his love for northeast Ohio. In that way, it probably didn’t make a lot of sense to anyone except people who live in or grew up in Ohio. (As someone who also left Ohio for warmer climates, I can verify that it’s a great place to live and to grow up. It’s also a place that’s really easy to take for granted.) By the last line, you knew what his decision was, but he said it again, emphatically: “I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
The Heat were really good sports about the whole thing, overall. I loved Pat Riley’s statement where he said he was disappointed, but couldn’t begrudge a man for going home, as well as this tweet from the Miami Heat:
Thanks for the memories pic.twitter.com/ATASOdKdcB
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) July 11, 2014
Things won’t be quite the same as last time. On the down side, we’ve probably already seen LeBron at his best, at least in terms of a physical beast who can dominate both ends of the court. He’ll still be the best or among the best players in the NBA for years to come, but unlike his first stint, we won’t be wondering about his on-the-court ceiling; I think we’ve already seen it. But it’s off the court where things get so much more exciting. The LeBron that returns is more mature, knows his place on the team and knows his place as a leader in the community, as more than “just a famous basketball player”:
But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
It’s exciting to see someone with such a high profile bet so much on Cleveland. LeBron is still at the height of his powers, and could have literally been the best player on any team he chose to play for and been the king of whatever city that team was in. But rather than the glitz and glamour of Miami or the legacy of the Lakers or Knicks, he chose home. Don’t get me wrong: Cleveland’s roster is an intriguing one for LeBron and should be at the very least fun to watch when he actually takes the court, and there were certainly worse places LeBron could have chosen. But if he was looking for the easiest path to more rings, Cleveland wasn’t it. But LeBron chose the Cavs anyway, and even the deepest cynics have to admire that, at least a little bit.
What does this mean for us, as Clevelanders and Ohioans? It occurred to me yesterday that when LeBron played for the Cavs last time, we sort of took him for granted at times. Sure, he was a great player, but we always haphazardly compared him to other great players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, acknowledging LeBron’s greatness but wishing we had one of those guys with both greatness and championship pedigree. During the last four years, LeBron’s absence from the Cavs almost spoke louder than his dominance of the rest of the league: without him these last four years, the Cavs had the worst record in the NBA and didn’t make a playoff appearance. No, LeBron didn’t manage to win a championship those first seven seasons, but when the team around him was a high lottery team, it’s not hard to see LeBron wasn’t really the issue.
During LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland I think I saw him play only twice. I sort of held a grudge against die-hard Cavs fans because I’m a die-hard Indians fan, the Indians had suffered for far longer and it seemed like the Cavs were much closer to a championship. I’m much more of an Indians fan than a Cavs fan, but in the spirit of not taking him for granted, maybe this time I won’t be as picky about who wins a championship first. And even if LeBron doesn’t deliver a championship (which I hope he will), maybe we can all remember how much more fun it is to be a Cleveland fan with him than without him.
Four years ago, I titled my post “The night is darkest just before the dawn”, and I’m pretty happy about that title today because it now seems prescient. In that darkest part of the night, I never imagined that the dawn was only four years away, and yet maybe that’s where we are today. It wrapped up a great week for Cleveland, and don’t look now, but the Indians and Browns don’t look half bad right now either (my half-season review of the Indians is coming next week). LeBron (sort of) said it first, but I’ll say it again: it’s an exciting time to be a Clevelander.
It might have been his last game; he played like it was his first game.
LeBron James was, as Bill Simmons put it, perplexingly and indefensibly awful last night. 15 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds betray how poorly he actually played, which was like it was his first playoff game ever and he was afraid of the moment. Perhaps the most telling sign of how bad he was: with time left in the fourth quarter, fans were walking out of what, let’s be honest, was most likely his last game in Cleveland this season and potentially (more so than ever) his last game as a Cleveland Cavalier.
After the game, LeBron had every right to be frustrated. Angry. Disappointed. Instead, after being asked about his game, he said, “Nah, I’m not disappointed. I’m never disappointed in my play. I feel like I could do more, but I’m not disappointed at all.”
No big deal. Easily the biggest game of the Cavs season in probably the most important season in the Cavs’ franchise, but hey, no big deal. He also added this gem:
I spoil a lot of people with my play. When you have a bad game here or there, you’ve had three bad games in a seven-year career, then it’s easy to point that out. So you got to be better.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to be out there and be the best player on the court, and when I’m not I feel bad for myself because I’m not going out there and doing the things I can do. But I don’t hang my head low or make any excuses about anything that may be going on, because that’s not the type of player or person I am.
A lot to digest here. First, it’s certainly been more than three bad games, but never on this stage and never because it seemed like he wasn’t even trying. Second, having a bad game is forgivable: everyone has bad nights. Putting in poor effort is never acceptable, and that’s what happened last night. (Back in 2007, the Indians had some bad nights in the playoffs, but I was never concerned with their effort like I am the Cavs’ or LeBron’s.)
(Sidenote: I’m currently watching a Rachel Nichols SportsCenter report about Cleveland’s “fragile state of mind” following that loss and anticipating a do-or-die game six. And game five was “no big deal.” Really?)
But the major implication here was that Cleveland fans are “spoiled”. Sure, I can see that. Here’s a franchise who’s never won a championship, whose intra-city sister franchises (the Indians and Browns) haven’t won since 1948 and 1964, respectively. But hey, LeBron’s been MVP twice in the last two years, right? The Cavs have put up 60-win seasons twice in the last two years, right? Isn’t that enough?
If you’re LeBron, all you have to say is “hey, I had a bad game”, or “hey, my elbow hurt”, or “someone switched my Nikes with REEBOKS!” Don’t blame the fans for expecting too much; don’t dismiss your poor play as no big deal.
Last year, the thing that got under my skin about this team is that there was this “One Goal” mantra where it always seemed like the players were thinking “which finger should I put my ring on? I know tradition is the ring finger, but I think it’d look sweet on my pinky” rather than “hey, Orlando’s making a lot of threes, maybe we should do something about — POINTER FINGER.” This year, the mantra is “All for One”, which I guess is supposed to mean that everyone on the team and in the city is working towards one goal. But what’s that goal really been: a championship or keeping LeBron happy?
If it ends up that the Cavs lose game 6, and LeBron leaves, it won’t just be another athlete in a long string of athletes to grow up in Cleveland, say how much they love it, become a superstar, and then promptly say “so long, Cleveland, it’s been real” before exiting. It’s kind of like how Packers fans must have felt last year when Favre signed with a division rival, only instead of leaving at the (what was supposed to be) the twilight of his career and completing his legacy, here’s a guy leaving in his prime after perhaps his worst game as a professional. It’s like if Obama was elected, then said “hahaha, I’m leaving for France, see you all on the flip.”
The best case scenario here is that LeBron and the Cavs win game 6 and 7, prolonging their existence in the playoffs, and making last night’s game just a minor blip on LeBron’s record. But let’s face it: after their showing last night, it’s an unlikely scenario.
On Sunday evening I sat in Starbucks for an hour an a half, finishing Now I Can Die In Peace, an excellent collection of columns by Bill Simmons chronicling the Boston Red Sox’ trials, tribulations and ultimate triumph (twice). The entire path of the book parallels the plot of the 1994 epic film The Shawshank Redemption. Simmons likens the Sox’s tragic and stunning defeat in 1986 to Dufresne being incarcerated, and eventually, after some ups and downs, the Sox found redemption in 2004, after winning the ALCS in cathartic fashion, coming back from their darkest hour against the Yankees to ultimately prevail.
I’m not a Red Sox fan. Far from it. But I understand the plight of the Red Sox fan pre-2004, since it’s what we as Indians fans are going through now. (And seriously, Simmons, you give us no respect in that book. It’s all “Cubs this”, “Cubs that”. Chicago has the White Sox, Bulls and Bears, all of whom have won a championship in the last twenty-five years.) The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, and haven’t been in a World Series since Edgar Renteria’s soft line drive ticked off Charles Nagy’s glove and fell into center field at Dolphin Stadium.
You could argue that the 1997 Series was the darkest moment of the Indians franchise since Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch in 1920: two outs away from a win; a team that had two home run hitters who are currently in the top 20 all time; a team that will have at least 3 Hall of Famers before it’s all said and done. It was the ball rolling through Bill Buchner’s legs for the Indians.
While Simmons wrote the book about the Red Sox, he’s a Boston sports fan in general, and included the column he wrote after the Patriots upset the Rams the Super Bowl in 2002. His reasoning was that it was important for the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. Because a Boston team won a championship, the snakebitten Red Sox could finally win one.
Like the Sox before the Patriots, the Indians have made the playoffs since 1997, but haven’t had success even getting to the World Series.
Enter the 2010 Cleveland Cavaliers. Here’s a team that is competitive dominant because of one player, a player that may or may not be around next season. Fans are clamoring for a championship while LeBron is still in town, in case the unthinkable happens and he leaves for free agency.
I’m not a big Cavs fan. I’m not the biggest fan of LeBron, and I’m not a fan of the way the front office treated Ilgauskas this season, and I find going to a Cavs game to be a somewhat painful experience. But I’m a fan of Cleveland. And like every Clevelander, I’m rooting for them to win it all this year. But I’m subscribing to the “Simmons Trifectus” theory (as it shall henceforth be called) rooting for them so that the Indians (and *gasp* the Browns?) can possibly win one down the road.
Is all of this hocus? Maybe. But despite the Indians going 3-6 on the road trip ending tonight (on a bunt, no less), they’ve played decent ball, and with some breaks here and there, might start surprising people. If the Cavs win, and people are in a better mood for the summer, I think you’ll see people coming to the ballpark and maybe attempting to recreate that late-90s vibe. There’s no way that’s a bad thing. As a Tribe fan, and as a Clevelander, I’ll take whatever I can get.
So I’m writing today for one reason, and one reason only: because it is too cold to walk back to my apartment. Yes, despite global warming’s best efforts, it is 10 degrees outside, with -6 degree windchill. People always think global warming is such a bad thing; I think the grass is always greener on the other side. Except in this case, of course, because the other side is a world with no global warming and thus another ice age, apparently.
- Barack Obama’s inauguration (which is next Tuesday, finally. Doesn’t it seem like this whole coronation has been going on for years?) is going to cost a lot of money. For those too lazy to read the article, the figure is $160 million, according to this and a few other sources. (Interestingly enough, you can’t find a cost of the inauguration anywhere on CNN, NYTimes, etc. Weird, eh?) For a nation with an economy that “is in a crisis not seen since the Great Depression,” this seems a little excessive, particularly when the same Democrats who are okay with this huge party were not in the same free-spending mood when Bush took office in 2004.
The whole attitude with Obama taking office really disturbs me. Not only is CNN covering Obama’s rise to power like ESPN covered the Boston Celtics and New England Patriots last season (“Isn’t it great kids? Now you know that all it takes to have a winning team is millions and millions of dollars and a league that gives you the calls you need to win!”), but it’s almost like the nation is at a standstill while we wait for Obama to take office. And why wouldn’t we be, when when he states that all we need to do is wait and the government will bail us out?
The attitude should be completely different: if you’re down and out, work your way up. If you’re at the top, think of the people who are down and out and make sure you keep working so you stay up. I think the biggest stereotype of conservatives is that we don’t care about the people who are less fortunate than us. This is completely untrue: instead, we rely on ourselves and our churches and our communities to help out the less fortunate when they need it, instead of waiting for the government to do it. And unlike the government, we expect that our resources are used wisely, not squandered away before getting in line for the next check.
- In other “one-guy-is-treated-as-a-savior-when-really-he’s-not-all-that-great” news, Steve Jobs is taking a leave of absence from Apple. Coupled with modest sales in the holiday season, Apple is now without its leader at least until June (but who knows).
- It’s really cold outside. Like, really really cold.
- I don’t really follow the Cavs much, but its hard not to notice their impressive start: 30-6, after Tuesday’s win in Memphis. It would be really nice if LeBron stayed in Cleveland, but I honestly don’t see it. One benefit of the NBA vs. MLB, however, is the salary cap: LeBron, the Cavs, the Knicks, the Celtics, etc. know that there is an absolute ceiling, so if LeBron is able to win the eastern conference with the Cavs this year (or maybe win it all) he’ll know that Cleveland gives him one of the better (if not best) shot at being a perennial contender.
As an aside, I recently attended a Cavs game for the first time in a couple years (last Wednesday, against the Bobcats). It’s a completely different experience than any baseball game I’ve ever been to; baseball games, I think, let you just kind of blend in and enjoy the game, where the Cavs game (and maybe all basketball games in general) are constantly fighting to keep you engaged in the game. I have no problem watching the game with my full attention, but I don’t particularly like being shot at with T-shirts every timeout. And I think this is mostly a function of being in a smaller space indoors, but I left the Cavs game with a headache.
- Expect my pre-season report on the Indians soon, including my projected starting lineups, rotations and bullpens.
I think that’s all from the frozen tundra that is Cleveland, Ohio. Hope you’re all staying warm, wherever you are, and it’s good to be back in the blogosphere.
I’m 3/4 done with my college career, and without a doubt the last year was the hardest. The good news is that this time next year, I’ll be planning for life after college and hopefully becoming more of the person I’d like to be.
- After work tonight, a friend and I decided to try to get one of those famous 23 cent pizzas. Actually, the original plan was to get more than one – as many as possible, actually. Unfortunately, we weren’t counting on every single Clevelander having the same idea. The talk radio people like Mike Trivisonno (who is normally fun to listen to, for the record, but has his moments where he’s just an absolute moron) were very annoyed that so many people were taking advantage, and as the previous article states, there were some issues. But tomorrow is another day, and by this time tomorrow, we’ll all remember that Papa Johns doesn’t really make great pizza.
- The Indians took a series in New York (mostly thanks to Cliff Lee and David Dellucci, two oft-maligned southpaws on this blog), but another southpaw, Travis Hafner, is really struggling.
All you can hope for with Travis Hafner is that he’s seen video of his swing from this year (and presumably last year – last year he wasn’t ever bad enough to merit drastic reconstruction on his swing, but it might have been enough for him to develop some bad habits) and compared it to video in 2006. To me, after watching the video, it’s pretty obvious. Of course, it’s far easier said than done – but the season is still young, and Hafner has plenty of time to turn it around.
Ben Francisco is up, and is getting regular playing time, which is nice to see. He’s had some good solid hits already, and his defense in the corner outfield spots doesn’t leave me holding my breath as much as Dellucci.
- And now a message from every mathematician in the world: “To Hillary Clinton: It’s Over”. She doesn’t seem to think so, and I guess when you have as much money as the Clintons do (although that amount is dwindling, because she keeps loaning herself money) you can alter math.
One thing I’ve noticed about John McCain recently – his supporters are far easier to get along with than either of the Democratic candidates. Perhaps the Democrats are a little edgy because they see McCain gaining ground quickly while Obama and Clinton battle it out, but seriously, there is no need for the fawning on the message boards: “OMG PRESIDENT OBAMA I LOVE YOU” or the hatred: “OMG PRESIDENT CLINTON II BARACK OBAMA SUCKS”.
I’m typing this from my work laptop and I’m really not a fan of the keyboard or touchpad (I have a docking station and a mouse at work, but not with me at the moment), so I’m going to adjourn. Once again, I apologize for the lack of updates lately – hopefully I’ll be on a more regular schedule soon.