A monarchy restored, but the subjects never left

LeBron's back

LeBron's back

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.

  1. One would expect Kevin Love to end up here one way or another in the next 12 months. []
  • RGB
  • http://www.centsports.com/?opcode=487541 c3j1v62

    did not realize my town is about sexual assault

  • Yes

    NBATV is replaying 2006 playoffs – sWizards then Pistons. It’s unreal how little help LBJ had he carried them on his back. Flip Murray, Larry Hughes and Eric Snow ugh! Go get Love – all in – don’t waste a single season!

  • deebo

    Remember how in those days we’d say, all LeBron needs is a great point guard? Well those days are here folks! It’s gonna be one fun fun fun heck of a ride and I for one am glad I never left! All my teams are from Cleveland, always have and always will be!

  • The Other Tim

    I am excited. I am wearing my 23 jersey right now.
    I am most excited that the destructive alpha dog fight between Kyrie and Dion is over. The King is here and you are his subjects. Shut up and play hard.
    I’m trepidatious about Miller/Allen/Birdman talk. There was plenty of analysis in the aftermath of the Decision about how out of control LeBron and his posse had become and how LeBron focused the franchise had become. Too pampered. I’m wary of LeBron becoming a defacto GM. And building a Miami North with used up parts.

    That being said, LET’S GO!

  • Jennet G

    Awesome article!

  • Jennet G

    I hated (strong word) Ray Allen when he was with Boston. I now realize it’s because his 3 pointers were like a dagger to my heart. I would love to see him in a Cavs jersey :)

  • Petefranklin

    He refused to come here as a FA as well, I can live without his old used up ass coming here now.

  • Pat Leonard

    I took the same journey from hate to ultimate acceptance and hope that you did. I actively rooted against LeBron and the Heat in the playoffs this year just like every year since he left the Cavs, but it was no longer out of hate like it was that first year where they fell to the Mavericks. I figured that if he wasn’t winning title after title with the Heat, then his chances to return to the Cavs would increase. I am a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the players who are on that team. I can’t figure out how to be one of those guys who loves particular players and will follow them and root for them regardless of their team. It’s not in me. I have a fondness for former Cavs/Browns/Indians players, but I’d step on their grave to get to a win for the city of Cleveland.

    Basketball is my favorite sport to watch. I bought NBA league pass every year since the 2011-2012 season. I knew I wasn’t buying it to watch my Cavs cruise into the playoffs, but I wanted to see the growth of the young players and dream of the possibilities of youth. Teams as young as the Cavs have absolutely no chance to win a championship… that’s just how it is in the NBA. I was resigned to the fact that we were still 3-4 years away from having a realistic chance at winning it all, and that was only if Kyrie Irving and the rest of the young guys each took a significant step forward.

    Suddenly, the best player in the league is on my favorite team again. My brain will allow me to root for him again. The Cavs are probably still too young to win a title, but they’re not too young to contend for one. I don’t have to wait on the slow rebuild anymore, and I honestly could not be more excited. I wish it was Halloween already.

  • JNeids

    I always thought it was “a fresh start over, different everyday.” I learned something today.

  • Jennet G

    Good point Pete! He is 38 after all.

  • mgbode

    I think you beautifully summed up the feelings of the vast majority here. As a subject of the minority, and, outside the realm of the pure jubilation threads, here is my more complete take.

    I never lost the joy from the 2003 to pre-2010 playoffs, even when he left.

    I didn’t hate him when he left*, though I certainly rooted against him and his team.

    Honestly, with him back, I feel robbed. Robbed of the opportunity to see this cast of players come together and form something after suffering through the last 4 seasons. If he was the last piece to push us over the edge, then I would feel differently. But, we haven’t built anything substantial yet. They haven’t even made the playoffs in the watered down Eastern Conference.

    When we drafted LeBron, it didn’t feel like cheating because noone knew for sure how good he would be or become. He kept getting better and we kept making moves to try to better the team around him. It was fun. This time, it’s like we fast-forwarded through the guts of the movie to get near the climactic scene. No matter what happens from here, there are unanswered questions.
    Is Blatt a good coach or did LeBron make him look good?
    Is Kyrie getting better or is it focus on LeBron helping?
    Is Wiggins really good or is it being able to just play a smaller role?
    Et cetera (Tristan, Bennett, Waiters, Delly…)

    I love the journey. I love watching the team slowly formulate and figuring how how to make the team better. Adding a NBA-MVP, possible top5 alltime player is obviously an improvement, but it takes the suspense away.

    Look, I get why most enjoy everything that I just stated as things I am saddened a bit by. It’s fun to have the monster team especially when you’re usually the one getting clobbered. But, I love sports for more than the end-goal and this takes a bit away from it for me. I’ll likely get over it, but it’s where I am at
    today.

    * And, went back and dug and here is what I said right before his last decision that sums up my thoughts pretty well from that time (after the decision, I mostly stayed out of the fray):

    LeBron has no need for loyalty to the Cavs than Kobe does the Lakers.

    The problem is that we, as fans, probably have more loyalty and attachment to LeBron than any other fanbase to their star. Because of the bad era before him. Because he’s homegrown. Because he’s been so hyped and delivered (everything but a championship).

    And, if you don’t call what he did for our franchise lighting it up like Vegas, then I don’t know what to tell you. He didn’t get us a championship (yet), but we’ve never been so close (and I loved the early 90’s Cavs teams).

    http://waitingfornextyear.com/2010/06/sign-and-trade-for-lebron-james-is-a-bad-option-for-the-cavaliers/

  • mgbode

    present Cavs are probably 1 significant piece away. honestly though, is it really Kevin Love?

    the one thing our new-found team has is a ton of shooting. LeBron, Irving, Bennett (I expect a re-birth from 3pt land at least), Wiggins, Delly — all good shooters that should get a James boost in %.

    we are missing a down-low pounder on offense, rim-protector on defense. not sure how to get one of those (not many out there), but if we somehow land our guy there, then we are a real contender (don’t imagine Drummond instead of Waiters, it’ll only hurt).

    see, I can move on to figuring out how to better this team. still, doesn’t feel right yet.

  • Steve

    I know we root for laundry, but I’m having a hard time fully accepting it yet. And I was pretty much over rooting against him after he lost to Dallas. It felt vindicating to show everyone that he didnt just need to leave Cleveland to win. But after that I rooted for him to get one (though just one). A player of his ability deserves to get to lift the LOB.

    And if Garnett were to join the team shorty after he dropped a pair of obscene “f”s on the fans, I’d have a real hard time accepting him too.

    I’m just not sure how people can flip the switch so quickly. Especially when we heard that it wasnt that he left, but how. Or the endless vile things said about him. Go back to his first game back and look at some of the signs at the arena. Joe Cavs Fan could be quite cruel. A large portion of the fanbase took it personal when he left for a businesz reason. And now we get so many prodigal son references as if he was in the wrong and is righting his slight against us. Its just so weird to me that its so easy for so many peoples emotions to seemingly flip on a dime. The only way it makes sense if its simply about bringing a championship to Cle, but that wasnt how the “why Cle hates Lebron” narrative went down over the last four years.

    Ive been called negative (and worse) over the past couple days here, but I’m really not. I’m excited to watch the best player in the game take the spot given to Earl freaking Clark on opening night last year. We’re going to win, and thats all I should care about, but I spent the last four years in an environment that allegedly cared about more than that. Give me moment to adjust

  • RGB

    The first Cavs game I ever attended, Darnell Valentine was a starter.
    I am ready for this.

  • BIKI024

    Is it really Kevin Love?? maybe he doesn’t get a lot of coverage playing for a perennial loser in Antarctica, but he’s arguably the best PF in the NBA and a Top 10 player overall just now entering his prime, only turning 26 in a couple months.

    adding a stretch 4 who can shoot as good as any 4 in the league, including from 3, and a beast rebounder will absolutely make our “Big 3″ by far the best in the NBA with THREE legit Top 10 players (maybe Kyrie regressed a bit this offseason down to Top 15, but he should pop back up into Top 10 with Bron).

    Love may have some deficiencies on defense, but he didn’t really have much help up there, and now will have Bron and Wiggins (assuming they hold on to Prince Andrew) to help.

    there isn’t another guy on the trading block that has the value proposition that Love brings to the table with the current roster.

  • BIKI024

    how it is a “monster team” just by adding Lebron? the core young guys you mentioned have ZERO playoff experience and all under the age of 22 with very little experience of winning in the NBA, with Wiggins and Bennett having little to no experience at all.

    this season will be enjoyable for all the reasons you think you are being “robbed” of, watching the young guys learn and develop under the tutelage of Lebron (as well as Blatt/Lue and Co). not to mention watching how Lebron handles the mentor/teacher role, as well as how Blatt develops as a coach in his virgin voyage in the NBA.

    heck even the 2010 Heat and 2007 Celtics teams with their “Big 3″ were fun to watch develop over the season even though they were title contenders before even stepping on the court together. this team has far less PROVEN talent than them, but of course their potential is crazy good and it will be very interesting to watch them put the work in and hopefully reach their potential as the season unfolds.

  • mgbode

    I know that he’s really good and we shouldn’t pass up on him if available. Just that as far as specific team for we’d still Need that other guy (though could get by with a much lessor version with Love obviously)

  • mgbode

    Any team with Lebron in the East is a monster team. Less than 50 wins would be incredibly disappointing. And, you can feel that way on the rest, but I don’t. Would have much rather have seen the team gross up on their own is all.

  • BIKI024

    so 3 years of watching KI and TT “gross up on their own” wasn’t enough? besides, there will be plenty of grossing up going on this season. heck even the Spurs this year had a lot of grossing up throughout the course of the season. i doubt you’ll be disappointed but who knows with our luck Bron tears his ACL in camp chasing Wiggins around without their shoes off and we’re back to watching them gross up and put up another 30 win season.

  • Jon

    When LeBron tackled that fan during halftime after he drilled that half-court shot is when my anger melted. That was one of the most sincere moments I had ever seen LeBron have, and it definitely gave me a change of heart.

  • BIKI024

    that other guy? you don’t think a Big 3 of Lebron, Love and Kyrie is as good in the league as you’ll find?? 3 players in the Top 15 of entire NBA, maybe even Top 10??

  • whosevelt

    Like Mgbode said above, the Cavs were a 60 win team with Mo Williams as the second best player. Now Lebron is better, Kyrie is already an established star, and Wiggins has at least potential to be a top five player for a long time. It is not hyperbole to say that if everything breaks just right this team could be one of the best ever. Of course, that is getting way ahead of where we should be, which is that in this moment and for the next couple years in the current eastern conference, it is reasonable to expect us to be a monster team.

  • BIKI024

    yes the potential to be a “monster team” is there, but we’re certainly not there yet, which Mgbode seems to think we are.

    these young guys need to learn how to defend and finish games, which they demonstrated these past couple years that they do not know how to do, even with one of the best defensive coaches in the game.

    hopefully having Coach Lebron on the court and in their ears will help them improve defensively, which is the only way they can think about getting close to 60 wins. not to mention a healthy Andy, otherwise we have no rim protecting big at the moment. that 61 win team had Shaq, Andy, and Z splitting time at the 5, we don’t currently have anything nearly as enforcing.

  • whosevelt

    I guess that most of what you’re saying is true. I don’t think they are a monster team right now, after all they’ve never played with each other at all and there’s no telling what the dynamic will be like between the potential supporting casts of Mike Miller and Ray Allen vs. Anthony Bennett and Dion Waiters. But “monster team” is a reasonable expectation for the immediate future and they don’t need everyone to achieve their ceilings in order to be that. They don’t have the ingrained philosophy that they picked up from Mike Brown over six years, but they make up for it with much, much more talent.

  • Wow

    I’d much rather get Miller instead.

  • Wow

    Besides Chicago, no one else in the East will even be close to Cleveland.

  • mgbode

    I think to beat most teams from the west you need a defensive paint guy/rim protector

  • mgbode

    Needless mocking of a typo aside, I think the absolute floor next season is fifty wins. In the East that is home court. The ceiling is really, really high. That is why I said what I said. You do not have to agree.

  • mgbode

    Indiana and Washington are the other candidates.

  • Wow

    I could see Indiana being up there as well. Washington is possible as well.

  • BIKI024

    yeah that’s why it’s so disappointing that Embiid got hurt. But the Cavs luck will continue and Andy can stay healthy! otherwise we’ll have to survive with our transition and perimeter defense.

  • BIKI024

    the Vegas over under will certainly be over 50 with all the bandwagon betters jumping on board.

    either way, i don’t think you will be disappointed with watching “the process” of the team building, chemistry, development, etc over the season. we just have too much youth on the team for there not to be significant growing pains.

  • BIKI024
  • dimoko

    I was with you, up until the step by step reference…

  • WFNY_DP

    I will freely admit that I “left” as a subject in 2010, and that–while I think it’s awesome for the Cavs franchise and for all dyed-in-the-wool Cavs fans–I still don’t completely *trust* LeBron. He again stated very clearly that his goal is to win as many rings as possible. Don’t think he won’t bolt again if the grass becomes greener somewhere else.

    But then again, I’m an old, tired cynic. :-)

  • mgbode

    that’s the thing. I get why most won’t be, but I already am disappointed. I do think there will be some growing pains.

    I’ve got awhile before the season starts, so I am not rushing things with my thoughts on it though. I’ll let it play out.

  • mgbode

    How long do you think it will take ESPN to realize that LeBron’s contract with Cavs expires the same summer as Kobe’s with the Lakers?

  • WFNY_DP

    I should clarify that I don’t think he’s going to leave in two years. I totally get the business aspect of structuring his contract that way. But, if the Cavs don’t win a ring in four or five years? I won’t be surprised at all if he leaves again for the purposes of winning a title.

  • The Other Tim

    What if he’s restructuring next season for LESS so we can bring in Kevin Love as a free agent?

  • Steve

    Sigh. Jonas, Drummond, Noel.

    Ok, that may have been a bit negative.

  • mgbode

    Yeah. I had the same thought but didn’t want to type it out.

  • mgbode

    He is so competitive that he’ll take the league minimum just to 1-up Tim Duncan!

  • Petefranklin

    Looks like we got him!