LeBron James' capital-D "Decision" came with a familiar edge to us Lions fans. Cleveland, another eternally put-down Midwestern city in another eternally put-down Midwestern state, had been abandoned by their beloved star at the peak of his powers. After years of hype and speculation, after several teams gutted their rosters in an attempt to afford him, after incalculable volumes of hot air had been expelled in anticipation of the moment, LeBron "took his talents to South Beach." The pearl violently plucked itself from the oyster; the Cavs were left a broken shell of a team.
What Barry Sanders did to the Lions felt similar. On the literal eve of training camp, Barry faxed a Dear John letter to his local paper, the Wichita Eagle. Lions fans waking up that morning felt like they woke up into a nightmare. The lynchpin of an entire fandom's hopes and dreams had suddenly been pulled—and the Lions’ wheels fell off. Even so, his mere memory kept our collective hopes alive. Throughout the subsequent years, talk of “Barry coming back” allowed us to pretend that one day soon, the nightmare would be over—and the Lions would be relevant and exciting again.
In the moment, we were hurt, confused, and even angry for a little bit. But then, Barry had come like a ghost, played like a ghost, and left like a ghost. He was a blessing, a force of nature, an Act of God. If Barry came, stayed for a decade, and left without winning a title, well, whose fault was that? If Barry would rather retire than go through two-a-days hustling for a team both uncommitted to, and incapable of, winning a title, who were we to blame him?
LeBron's Decision, though, was different. He wasn't leaving the game because his competitive fire had gone out, quenched by years of management decisions that couldn't hold water. No, he was leaving for another team, another city, to achieve his greatest glory elsewhere. Not only did he leave the honest, hard-working, downtrodden folk of Cleveland, he left them for the flashiest party city in the continental US. Not only did he leave the perennially contending Cavs for the floundering Heat, but joined Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in a move that now seems as though it’d been coordinated for months, if not years. Worse yet, he took a pay cut to do it!
The idea that he would take millions and millions less just to walk away from Cleveland was appalling enough. But he didn’t just walk away, didn’t just fax a letter to the Akron Beacon Journal. He set up a one-hour prime time ESPN special, where his “Decision,” or more accurately the announcement of his long-made decision, would be made. After the parade of suitors had come through Akron, after team after team showered him with affection and pitched him woo, Cavs fans were subjected to twenty-odd minutes of LeBrondi Gras before the King abdicated his throne.
Clevelanders quickly responded:
Yes, Cleveland, LeBron halfheartedly danced with you for months, weeks, days before he pulled the rug out from under you. Yes, his “marketing company” put together a tedious, revolting one-ring narcissistic circus that featured your city as the clown. Yes, your days of perennial title contention are almost certainly over. But uh, your days of perennial title contention? They happened.
Seven years is a long time in the sports world; practically nothing lasts that long. Players, coaches, front office staffs, most have a far shorter life expectancy. James left Cleveland on the heels of four straight playoff appearances, two Eastern Conference Finals, and an NBA Finals. In the last two years, the Cavs had the best record in the NBA, going 127-37 in that stretch.
LeBron was unquestionably the driving force behind that success—and don’t take my word for it, he’s got two league MVPs. The sad fact is that in seven years in Cleveland, the only players LeBron’s had to work with are hundred-year-old Shaq and that dude with the rat tail patch thing haircut. The last two years proved to LeBron that the best he could do by himself in Cleveland wasn’t good enough to win a single title, let alone the many he covets.
As I said above, I was appalled by the way LeBron went about it. It was terrible, it was obnoxious, and it did rub Cleveland’s nose in it. Further, I was deeply disappointed in ESPN for not only agreeing to the stunt, but going all-in on the hype and ridiculousness, bringing in a host and three studio analysts to preview, cover, and break down one sentence for 48 primetime minutes.
But Cleveland, at the end of the day, you got seven years in the sun. You got your home-state superstar at the top of the draft. He had an instant impact, and blossomed into the best player in the game. He singlehandedly carried you to the mountaintop, even if he couldn’t manage to plant your flag there. How many games will the Cavs lose without LeBron? How long will abundant cap space keep you happily daydreaming about the future? I know it hurts, it sucks, and you can’t believe you’ve been played for a fool.
But, not every franchise gets blessed with a player like that—and many franchises never experience success like you experienced. Some day soon, Cleveland, you’ll wish you hadn’t burned that jersey.