I still vividly remember that July night in 2010, when LeBron James, dressed in that red and white checkered button down told Jim Gray and the rest of the planet that he was South Beach-bound. I remember my friend launching his cell phone across the living room and hearing it shatter after bouncing off the ball. I remember driving home and hearing Dan Gilbert’s letter read aloud on the radio, and the rage-fueled adrenaline that coursed through my body as I drank in every word. I remember the image of that woman in her LeBron James jersey, sobbing at the bar, that ESPN played over and over again. I remember I went to high school with her.
I remember being so angry, but nine years removed now, I think I was mostly just sad. Sad that what everyone said about the place I grew up in had been publicly validated by its most famous occupant, who felt like the only way he could flourish was by leaving Cleveland. Sad that someone I thought would don a Cavs jersey for his entire career would get to be embraced by another fan base. Sad that maybe I’d never get to root for the best player I’d ever seen again. I was young, and clung to the concept of home with a deathgrip despite having left myself, both for college and an internship soon after. I was selfish.
But he came back, and not only did he come back, he won the whole damn thing in Cleveland. Now when I think about LeBron James, I don’t think about 2010 much anymore. I think about The Block. I think about being in downtown Cleveland the night they won, surrounded by every person that was important to me, a thing I’d daydreamed about ad-nauseam actually coming to life like I was living in a movie. I think about that throbbing mass of people that rendered the downtown streets into one sprawling metropolis, where stoplights and traffic laws no longer mattered and you could go anywhere you wanted. I remember being happy.
But on Wednesday night, as LeBron James passed Michael Jordan to move into fourth on the all-time scoring list, I felt that sadness again. As LeBron muscled in a left-handed lay-up while getting fouled, a subtle reminder that even in a season where he’s looked alarmingly human, he can still do whatever he wants, to push him past the previous generation’s GOAT, the moment felt coated in melancholy. The Staples Center audience appeared more concerned with capturing the moment on their phones than actually celebrating it, the brief standing ovation more forced than earned.
One of the first people to congratulate LeBron was Alex Freaking Caruso, who will probably begin every future cocktail party he’s a part of with that exact story from now until the end of time. Even the tribute video played on the jumbotron, a legitimately touching gesture, almost exclusively featured LeBron in a Cavs and Heat jersey, as LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke pointed out. Much like many things in Hollywood, the celebration felt manufactured rather than genuine, as if a director had yelled “ACTION” just before LeBron’s historic bucket.
LeBron scored 23,119 of his now 32,311 points in a Cavaliers uniform, which means that just over 71 percent of his greatness occurred in the place he grew up in and was drafted into. LeBron felt isolated in his celebration in L.A. It would’ve been a massive party had it happened in Cleveland. Teammates he won that title with, like Channing Fyre, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova would’ve been there to celebrate. Maybe J.R. Smith would’ve come, too. That moment would’ve felt like an actual moment, and not a brief distraction from the bleak reality in what’s been a dismal season in Los Angeles.
LeBron is not beholden to any franchise. His plans beyond basketball have manifested themselves in L.A. But his presence on this Lakers team, in the constant shadows of the legends that have come before him, feels as unnatural as that black piping on the side of his jersey. If going to Miami were the college years LeBron never got have, his time thus far as a Laker feels like making the spur of the moment decision to go back to grad school only to find out there’s way more homework to do than you’d been promised.
Celebrating something as historic as elevating his name above MJ’s deserves more than what LeBron got in Los Angeles. Cleveland would’ve given it to him. He got a taste of it when he returned to Quicken Loans Arena for the first time as a Laker, a prolonged standing ovation that he acknowledged with a wave. It’s a shame he wasn’t there for the main course.