I spent nearly four years holding onto a lot of hard feelings when it came to LeBron James. A lot of us did.
The first year could only be described as raw and open wound hatred. The second year, culminating with LeBron’s first championship, was acceptance. What Cleveland had been resisting had happened, and even though it was incredibly painful, it allowed the wound to start to clot and scar.
In year three, it was more apathy than anything. Watching James and the Spurs go toe-to-toe, I at least started to watch for the spirit of a good series of playoff basketball once again. One or two rings, it didn’t matter as much. Then, the fourth and final year in Miami, one could feel the tide start to turn. Some people, a good portion of people, no longer wanted to actively boo James at all. The Heat started to look human in the regular season, and there was the thought that maybe, just maybe, if things didn’t end in a three-peat, James would look to move on to somewhere else.
Meanwhile, life went on in Cleveland. My love of the Cavaliers never diminished. I watched 300 some games of the “non-LeBron” Cavs and agonized over the highs and lows of historically bad teams. There were oh-so-many Alonzo Gee small forward minutes, Earl Clark out of bounds two-steps, a 26-game losing streak, two different unsuccessful head coaching tenures, and one general manager dismissal. We had Kyrie vs. Dion, the Bynum era, and the last gasp push to the playoffs with the Deng and Hawes acquisitions where the Cavs gave out second-round picks like Circle K Polar Pop vouchers after a game at The Jake.
Hope is a beautiful thing. It keeps you warm on lone winter nights. It implores you to flip on the TV at 7:00 on a Tuesday night to Fox Sports Ohio when you’ve been at work racking your brain and an early night’s sleep would be a much easier decision. It invites you to converse with like-minded hopeful fanatics, forge bonds, grab tacos and beers, make up goofy-ass hashtags and nicknames, and overall, care when caring isn’t easy. Hope makes you do film and cap analyses, and draw up dream trade proposals. Hope allows you to put one foot in front of the other as a fan even when you can’t see the end game.
Sometime shortly after July 8, 2010, I put my wine and navy No. 23 jerseys away deep in a closet, articles of clothing that I had worn literally hundreds of times. I told myself to forget about them, but never to lose awareness of roughly where they were. They were a lottery ticket, for lack of a better term. I remember Brian Windhorst and Jason Lloyd talking about how they believed he would be back someday. Initially, I laughed at the notion. Then, as time passed, I envisioned a Thome-esque return, a brief cameo dulling of the senses that would give James a return home. It would likely be too late to make any sort of tangible difference. Instead, 29-year-old LeBron is back in the prime of his career as a Cavalier. It still doesn’t seem real.
One of the most satisfying outcomes of this return is that Cavaliers fans get to reclaim their history from 2003-2010. Old footage of Flight 23, the L-Train, hammers thrown down in wine and gold, chase-down blocks, Gooseys, impromptu photo shoots, a scowl that had no regard for human life, Sasha Pavlovic wrapping up his teammate, an embrace with a Lithuanian legend at center court, 25 straight and 29 out of 30 no longer need to cause any pain. For many, appreciating those particularly good times was unmistakably and irrevocably attached to remembering the unraveling and the end. That’s no longer the case.
The Cavaliers are far from a finished product. As the roster currently stands, James joins veterans Anderson Varejao and the contract of Brendan Haywood. Everyone else lacks any sort of playoff experience. With three years or less in the league, Irving, Waiters, Thompson, Bennett, and Wiggins all have a lot to learn to reach their potential. However, that’s also part of the intrigue.
LeBron just saw first-hand as 38-year-old Tim Duncan, 36-year-old Manu Ginobili, and 32-year-old Tony Parker reloaded after seeming doomed to fall back into fringe contention just a couple of years ago. How did they do it? Enter Kawhi Leonard (23), Danny Green (27), Tiago Splitter (29), and Patty Mills (25). The Spurs had championship grit and experience and forged those young players into the Popovich Way quickly.
This Cleveland roster is far from complete1, but as currently constructed, James has five players as running mates that are less than 24 years of age and were selected in the top four of the NBA draft. If James’s recruiting is as good as it was in Miami with veteran minimum acquisitions, he could play the seasoned veteran on a team just scraping the surface of his prime into the sunset of retirement. LeBron has 11 seasons under his belt and a lot of minutes, but this young, athletic roster could keep him from prematurely showing his age. Remember how much of a shock to the system watching the Heat fly around the court in their first two years together was? The Cavaliers are younger and more athletic.
The number of people actively rooting for the Cavaliers is going to multiply several times over. Bandwagon fans become casual fans, casual fans become engaged fans, engaged fans becomes diehards. Such is sports fandom in winning situations. But, for the Cavaliers fans who never left, never stopped watching, never stopped tweeting, never stopped caring, never stopped hoping, the appreciation for what we had, what we lost, and what we have now regained is more so absorbed into one’s bloodstream than it can be articulated in words.
Four years ago, LeBron James nearly brought me to the end of my sportswriting days. Four years later, I’m as re-energized as can be. Now, my drive is to be here to cover something special, something we have only seen from afar. For this tale of redemption and revitalization to come full circle, James and the Cavs will need to win the title. Not next year. Or the year after that. But, at some point in this run of LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier 2.0, they must overcome the odds and pull it off with talent, heart, hustle, grit, strategy, and luck.
As cautious as we are in Cleveland to be confident, as closed off as we all were for fear of getting hurt, I’m not afraid anymore to talk about it. Larry O’Brien’s trophy is no dream to laugh at when stacked up against the long odds everything that just happened: Pulling off a Baron Davis trade and stealing another team’s winning ticket, wishing on a 1.7% chance of 14 ping pong balls to fall in required order, or counting on a 2-time All-Star point guard to sign a long-term contract with a new head coach, new general manager, and a winning percentage hovering around .350, or re-welcoming a hometown hero once beloved then tarnished into the most dreaded of villains and now once again unearthed as the beacon of hope.
If you recall the ’90s sitcom “Step by Step” and its catchy theme song, “Step by step, day by day, a fresh start over, a different hand to play”, it summarizes what the Cavaliers and Ohio have been given. “We’ve got the kids and a plan” and “only time will tell, if all these dreams fit under one umbrella”. Step by step, Cavs fans, we’ll get there. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.
- One would expect Kevin Love to end up here one way or another in the next 12 months. [↩]