July 8, 2010 brought out the worst aspects of sports fandom.
“The Decision” should not have been different from any other superstar player leaving his incumbent team for another in free agency. And for all those pointing to the flagrant arrogance it supposedly takes to announce a career change on national television, remember that you were watching like so many millions of others. LeBron James simply saw an opportunity to build his brand and took advantage; he even raised $2.5 million for the Boys & Girls Club in the process.
Almost five years, two championships, and two MVPs later, the league’s marquee player has yet to fully restore his sterling reputation. He never will. The contempt some feel for James, initially materialized on that fateful night in Greenwich, Connecticut a half decade ago, is only strengthened as he continues racking up the accolades and climbing the historical hierarchy. Not even his storybook return to the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer changed that.
But all those wine-and-gold clad fans who burned his jersey and made him the most despised figure in sports? They’ve forgiven LeBron. Winning, after all, is what his first decision and the subsequent reaction to it was really all about in the first place.
James, though, has gone for a more optimistic approach ever since signing with the Cavaliers last July. And with his undermanned team just two wins away from giving the Northeast Ohio its first championship in 50 years, he still maintains a half-full outlook on his renewed relationship with the thousands who used to hate him.
Via Michael Lee of the Washington Post:
“I think time heals all,” James said Wednesday. “It was a bitter moment when I left the first time, but it’s a sweet moment here now that I’m back. Both sides had an opportunity to kind of miss each other, and they say if it’s worth having and it’s supposed to be there, then it will always come back.”
Time can heal. Absence can make the heart grow fonder. And those emotional tropes probably have at least something to do with Cleveland fans re-embracing James with open arms. Don’t allow the Hollywood-style script of the Cavaliers’ season to fool you, though.
Their fans love LeBron, but they love the success that accompanies the presence of LeBron more than anything else. The same goes for team owner Dan Gilbert, too. It’s James who has unconditional feelings for the region he never stopped calling home.
If Cleveland somehow beats the Golden State Warriors twice more, this incredible story of redemption will be complete. Ohioans will bask in the glory of a professional sports title by deifying James like few before him, and you’ll hear many, many first-person accounts of what his return and subsequent crown means to them. It will prove hard not to be swept up in the second-hand excitement of fandom.
But we’ll try our damndest to do otherwise, simply celebrating the Cavaliers themselves for beating mammoth odds to hoist a Larry O’Brien Trophy. And we’ll take even greater pleasure knowing that LeBron achieved his ultimate goal of bringing Cleveland a championship, despite the ugly reality of what it selfishly means to all those who turned on him with such irrational vitriol just a few short years ago.