LeBron James Always Strongly Considered Returning to Cleveland...You Just Weren't Listening
Sunday, March 22, 2015, I was at home on a brisk but sunny Sunday afternoon watching the Cavaliers take on Central Division rival Milwaukee Bucks on the road. LeBron James took over the 4th quarter after the Cavs had been down by as many as 13 points. Also, J.R. Smith rained down 7 out of 9 3-pointers including three straight 3's in the 4th to help the Cavs pull away in a 108-90 win over the Bucks. It seems that the Cavaliers are preparing themselves for the playoffs. Two nights earlier, the Cavs clinched a playoff berth with a win over another tough Central Division rival Indiana Pacers in a grind-out 95-92 win, another team that was in the hunt for the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. This will be their first postseason appearance since LeBron last played for the team in 2010. I have been a Cavs fan through it all, good and bad. I'm excited to see my team is heading back in the playoffs to contend for an NBA Championship, which would not only be the first in franchise history. But, it would be Cleveland's first pro sports title since 1964 when Jim Brown led the Browns won the NFL Championship. When they clinched the playoff berth, I couldn't help but flash back to that night in July 2010 from the Cavs in the basement of losing to now being back in the penthouse of contention.
Thursday, July 8, 2010, I was in my apartment in Cleveland watching ESPN after a day's work. This was the night of "The Decision" myself and every fan in Cleveland and across America was on the edge of our seats anticipating where will LeBron James land. Some reporters were already reporting that LeBron was headed to Miami, but the Clevelander in me held out hope. My feeling was, "LeBron is gonna to come back to Cleveland. He's not gonna leave, it's his home." All that changed close to 9:30 p.m. (EST), when Jim Gray asked the question to James at the Greenwich, Connecticut Boys and Girls Club, "LeBron, what's your descision?" LeBron stared right into not only Gray's eyes, but into America's eyes and into Cleveland's eyes, and announced, "This fall I'm taking my talents to South Beach and joining the Miami Heat."
As a Clevelander, I was totally shocked, disappointed and devastated all in one minute after I heard those words come out of his mouth on ESPN. It felt like your girlfriend called you up to meet her downtown, and once you get there she tells you that she's leaving you for your best friend in front of the downtown crowd while people in the crowd are filming it. At the time, I felt LeBron came off as cold, callous and unsympathetic towards the fans of Cleveland with this national TV announcement. My best friend called me as soon as he heard the news of LeBron's departure, we vented our frustrations to each other. I listened to Cleveland sports talk radio from that 10:00 that night 'til 6:00 the next morning as the hosts and callers on their shows were venting and ranting their anger, hurt and frustrations. I tried to call to chime in for hours, but the lines were busy all night; I thought the phone circuits were gonna break because many people called into the shows constantly. I had never stayed up that late listening to sports radio in my life.
"The Decision" set off a serious chain reaction of events throughout the city of Cleveland that night. The local news and radio shows dominated the airwaves with their reactions, opinions and (little) support to watching its own native son breaking up with the city on national TV. Some fans throughout the city of Cleveland burned LeBron's jerseys as if it was an impromptu bonfire. The mural across from Quicken Loans Arena with his image that read, "We Are All Witnesses" was taken down within 24 hours. Also, the fans, including yours truly, were wishing, hoping and rooting that he never wins a championship in Miami. That's what fans do, it's our jobs to react and display our passion and frustration. As the old saying goes for the definition of a fan, "fan is short for fanatic." And, the bookend to the aftermath of the ESPN special was infamously written by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Gilbert wrote the letter against LeBron to Cavalier fans, and posted it on the team's website later that night.
He said that James' act was a "cowardly betrayal", and he also felt that he quit on the team. And, he declared close to the end of the letter that the Cavs will win a championship before LeBron. I think if LeBron would've told him weeks before the announcement that letter never sees the light of day. Also, race was thrown around very loosely by the likes of Jesse Jackson and other African American media members. Most of them felt he reacted like a slave owner that had ownership over him. Gilbert didn't write the letter because LeBron was an African American player or he felt he had ownership. The only reason I felt race was thrown into it because it was black player/white owner. Some people even compared him to Donald Sterling not too long after Sterling's recorded conversation with his mistress hit the air. Now, Sterling had a history of racial discrimination in his real estate business whereas Gilbert has never been hit with that accusation.
Now, I'm not condoning anything Gilbert did, but he reacted to what he just saw. He was upset that he had to find out his best player was leaving his franchise on national TV like everyone else. I can understand Gilbert's anger and reaction over the fact he found out LeBron heading to Miami by one of the members of his inner circle minutes before the show aired instead of LeBron being upfront with him. But, it was petty for him to write the letter and posted it on the website (the letter that ended up on the website was the radio version compared to what he originally wrote, the original draft was more raw). But, regardless of the TV special or the letter, the damage was already done to the team, the city and its fans.
The fallout of "The Decision" and the letter left a bad scar on the Cavaliers fans, their psyche, Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers as a team and an organization as well as the city of Cleveland as a whole. A nasty stain was soiled on the souls of Clevelanders, Northeast Ohio residents and natives everywhere. It was a free-for-all with NBA fans, the national media and even stand-up comedians. Comedian Gary Owen, an Ohio native, took a shot at Cleveland in his special "True Story" by quipping, "I've been to Cleveland, I've been to Miami; not a tough decision. That's like asking a dude, 'Who would you rather fuck, Beyonce or Precious?" Any LeBron or Heat-related article I read on the Internet; people wrote comments such as "They should be glad he played for that city for 7 years." Also, everyone felt that Cavs fans look like bitter exes and jilted lovers that can't let go. Or, the national media and fans would constantly these three words to the fans: "Get over it." But, it felt like LeBron was rubbing it in Cleveland's faces even more the day after "The Decision" where he, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh had there "Welcome Party" in American Airlines Arena, and LeBron proclaimed that the Heat will win "not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7; we can win the next 8 championships easy." The comments not only pissed off Cavs fans but NBA fans in general.
In the post-"Decision" era, the Cavs went from first to worst overnight. Head coach Mike Brown was out, Byron Scott was in. General manager Danny Ferry stepped down from his position, Assistant GM Chris Grant took over the helm. The franchise went through some dark, turbulent times in James' absence. The team went through the 2010-11 NBA season with an NBA record 26-game losing streak finishing with a 19-63 record, the 2nd worst record in the league. But, in the midst of the losing streak, a light began to shine at the tunnel. The Cavs made a traded Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to the L.A. Clippers for an unprotected 1st Round draft pick. In the NBA Draft Lottery, the Cavaliers won the #1 and #4 picks in the Draft. Before us Cavs fans could find out who we were getting with those picks, my fellow Cavs fans and I were rooting for LeBron and the Heat's failure in the 2011 NBA Finals. And, failed they did when the Mavericks beat them in six games for their first NBA Championship.
A couple months later, the Cavs selected point guard Kyrie Irving at #1 and forward Tristan Thompson at #4 in the 2011 NBA Draft. As the team began the rebuilding process, they were question marks with the two first rounders. Irving had only played 15 game in his one year at Duke because of injury, and Thompson was ranked lower than some players in the rankings entering the draft. Although, the Cavs finished the 2012-13 short season 24-58, the two first round picks proved to everyone they belonged in the NBA. Irving won the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge, named to the 2012 NBA All-Rookie First Team and was named Rookie of the Year. And, Thompson also played in the Rising Star Challenge and was named to the 2012 NBA All-Rookie Second Team. The next season, I was rooting the Heat to not win a title, it didn't work. The Miami Heat won the NBA title against the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. More hate came towards Cleveland from the national media.
LeBron On the Possibility of Going Back to Cleveland While He Was With the Miami Heat
ESPN did interviews with the network's Cleveland radio affiliate 850 AM WKNR asking about how does Cleveland feel about LeBron winning his first championship. It felt like everyone nationally loved throwing salt into our wounds by reminding us that, "LeBron had to leave that crappy city, now he's in a real city and he's won a championship." I just kept asking myself, "Why aren't they asking Oklahoma City, they were the ones who just played in the NBA Finals?" But, they just wanted to show the nation how Cleveland is still not over losing LeBron. The next season, LeBron did a practice interview with the media, and he entertained the thought of going back to play in Cleveland as they Heat were heading to Cleveland to play against the Cavaliers for the first time now that LeBron was a champion. The national media felt that he was using it as a ploy so that Cleveland fans would move on and not have so much animosity towards him anymore when he returned to play against the Cavs. They felt that he has it too good in Miami for him to leave and go play anywhere else.
I was back for another season rooting on LeBron and the Heat not to repeat. The next season, Miami repeated as NBA Champions by outlasting the San Antonio Spurs in a hard-fought seven games. James was now a two-time NBA Champion, Finals MVP of both of the Heat's NBA Finals victories. But, after the 2013 NBA Finals, I also took time to do some serious self-evaluating. I sat back and took a look at myself over the reason why I'm not enjoying basketball like I once had. I realized that I'm the reason why I'm not enjoying basketball because I'm wasting time and energy rooting against the Heat. I realized that it was time for me to move on. You can't get anywhere going backward, the only to get somewhere is going forward. So, I decided that I was going to just enjoy basketball and focus on my team. It worked. The 2013-14 season was the first time I just sat back and truly enjoyed NBA basketball.
As the next season tipped off, there were questions circling around the NBA. Will LeBron James pick up his player option to stay with the Heat or opt out to become a free agent? Rumors strongly started brewing that LeBron might be considering a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The national media still didn't want to believe it. In their minds, "How could he go back to a city that burned his jersey after he left? How can you go back and play for an owner that wrote a scathing letter about you after you left?" Or, the stock questions, "How can you leave Miami for Cleveland? How can you leave Miami for Ohio?" A lot of people like myself in Cleveland were hopeful but severely doubtful that he was going to return.
The Cavaliers re-hired Mike Brown after firing Scott, who was the head coach for three seasons. In the middle of the season, Chris Grant was fired and replaced by assistant GM David Griffin, the organization was in disary. Even though, LeBron was away in South Beach his eye was always on Cleveland. LeBron would always watch Cavalier games while he was with the Heat, and he would also DVR them while his team was playing on the road. He was very impressed with Kyrie Irving's game from afar. But, he finally got the opportunity to see his game up close at the 2014 NBA All-Star Game. Irving, in a reserve role, took the game over scoring 31 points, and being named the game's MVP. Irving's play in that game really impressed LeBron. My oldest brother and I were watching the All-Star Game together, and he told me, "LeBron was jockin' Kyrie at the All-Star Game, I think he's coming back to Cleveland." I still wasn't sure because I felt half of it was the Clevelander in me, the half was I know the media would scrutinize him for it.
The Cavs finished with a 33-49 record and finished 10th in the East. They missed playoffs by two and a half games. The Cavs fired Mike Brown (again) after one year being the head coach. The team promoted Griffin permanently to General Manager, and Euroleague coach David Blatt was hired the head coach. This is Blatt's first head coaching job in the NBA after coaching overseas for over 20 years. Some critics praised the hire but other critics felt it sealed the deal for LeBron not to return to Cleveland. The Cavs also won the #1 pick in the NBA Draft Lottery for the third time in four years. Some media members felt that The Lottery was fixed for Cavs to make up for the fact they lost LeBron. I felt that was ridiculous because the lottery is nothing but a drawing. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't.
Meanwhile in the 2014 NBA Playoffs, the Heat were the odds-on favorite to win the East and even pull off the "Three-peat." The 2014 NBA Finals was a sequel to the 2013 NBA Finals as the Heat and Spurs were matched up again. The Heat were going for their third straight NBA title. The Spurs were looking for redemption after losing the previous year's Finals in heartbreaking fashion. The Spurs had a healthy lead in Game 6, but missed free throws and Pop taking out Tim Duncan late in the game opened up the door for the Heat. Chris Bosh tipped a loose ball out to Ray Allen for the game-tying three-pointer and the Heat would prevail in overtime. Then they would go on to win Game 7 and the NBA title. The Spurs annihilated the Heat in five games, which felt more like a sweep, to reclaim their 5th title. Mission accomplished for the Spurs, but LeBron was at a crossroads heading the offseason. Now, the question was being asked more stronger: Would he stay pick up his player option or opt out as a free agent? I started to have a little bit of belief that he could come back to Cleveland.
On June 25, 2014, LeBron's agent announced that he was opting out of the Miami Heat to test free agency. Many teams figured out how could they clear cap room to sign LeBron. Most of the national media speculated that he was doing this as a ploy for leverage so that the Heat can bring in another max player. They also strongly felt that he would return to Miami for at least another year. Or, they felt if not Miami he should go to Houston, L.A., New York or Chicago; very few mentioned Cleveland was a possibility. But, there were some media members that didn't rule out the possibility of LeBron coming home. Stephen A. Smith, host of "ESPN First Take", was telling his co-hosts and ESPN colleagues that there was a "50/50" chance that he could go back to Cleveland. A lot of them didn't want to believe it. They tried to rationalize why it wouldn't happen: the fans burning his jersey, a first-time GM and head coach, winning 2 out of 4 NBA Championships, Pat Riley, no state tax in Florida, nobody is supposed to leave the glitz and glamour of Miami for Rust Belt Cleveland.
Also, Heat fans and media members were confident that LeBron was going to stay. They felt that he would never go back to Cleveland after experiencing "the good life" down here in South Beach. They would come up with anything to convince themselves that he was staying. They would use things such as four straight NBA Finals appearances, the weather, Pat Riley, how Cavs fans and Dan Gilbert treated him bad after he left, the beaches, the nightlife and the hot women in bikinis. The Heat fans in 2014 were just like Cavaliers fans such as myself in 2010. My uncle, who's a die-hard Heat fan, felt that not only LeBron would return to South Beach but Carmello Anthony would come along with him. But, Miami Heat president/general manager Pat Riley didn't help his own cause by publicly calling out LeBron that "you don't find the first door and run out it" and "stay together if you have the guts." The next two weeks, myself and fellow NBA fans were on suspense waiting for the announcement. My confidence had been a little more higher than it was before about him returning, and finally after waiting that long; the announcement came.
Friday, July 11, 2014, the announcement broke the airwaves and the Internet simultaneously, and shocked the national media and NBA fans. LeBron James published an essay on the Sports Illustrated website that he co-wrote with Lee Jenkins, the headline was: "I'M COMING HOME." I was at work when I heard the announcement on the radio and I was excited. Almost everyone was talking about it on the news, on the street and even at my house. This will go down as one of the greatest moments in Cleveland sports history. Not only the franchise felt like they were huge underdog in this sweepstakes, but the fans felt that way as well because we had been scrutinized and laughed at for something that happened four years earlier. The city was buzzing like crazy from the inner city to the suburbs. But, I also took time to reflect on everything leading to this point.
I realized how that we were all immature that night in 2010. LeBron was only 25 when he did "The Decision", I was only 27 when it happened and Dan Gilbert had been the owner of the Cavs for only five years. It all boiled down to was it was a young player and a young owner. Both sides were angry with each other before and after "The Decision." Nobody looked good in the end because everyone was defined by the special; LeBron was defined by "The Decision", Gilbert was defined by his letter and Cavs fans were defined by the jersey burning (even though it was only a few people). Gilbert met with LeBron in Miami in late June to bury the hatchet and clear the air. I looked back and realized that I wasn't angry about him leaving; I was angry about how he had done it. I also realized he had to go off and learn how to be a champion. But, LeBron, his family and friends realized that Northeast Ohio is home to them. National media, that's what he was trying to tell you a few years ago; he would always come home. You either weren't listening, or you didn't want to listen because many of you wanted be in South Beach all the time. No matter where you're from or where you've been as the saying goes, "There's no place like home."
Cleveland Fans' Reaction After The Decision
Cavs Fans' Reaction to The Decision (Part II)
Cavs Fans Burning LeBron's Jersey in 2010
LeBron's Now-Infamous Championship Declaration
LeBron Opts Out (II)
The Debates Began!
Pat Riley: State of the Miami Heat Press Conference
LeBron: "I'm Coming Home"
Gary Owen: Lebron vs. Kobe
Dan's Gilbert's Letter
LeBron James: "I'm Coming Home"
- LeBron James announces return to Cleveland Cavaliers - NBA - SI.com
LeBron James explains to SI's Lee Jenkins why he's returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers after spending four seasons with the Miami Heat.