It’s not so much why, or when, LeBron James left Cleveland.
James’ prime time special, “The Decision,” on Thursday night was a misstep of Tiger Woods proportions in the damage it has done to James’ reputation. In a matter of one hour, he went from the face of the NBA and the heir to His Airness to one of the most disliked professional athletes in the world.
Whether his reputation tilts back into James’ favor before the end of his career is a discussion for another time. Win a couple rings — well, make it a few, or better yet, a handful — and the nod to his greatness may become more pronounced, even though this move seems to make him more a follower than a leader, more A-Rod than Jeter.
But with each notable Miami Heat victory, the stake James drove through the hearts of the fans in Northeast Ohio will only sharpen.
Perhaps there will be a silver lining going forward from the disaster that was “The Decision.” But for now, James, a basketball marvel at 6-foot-9 and 275 pounds, came across only as small and childish in his flat-lining interview with Jim Gray on ESPN. The King has been assailed as narcissistic for his emotionless performance, sullying his brand further with each reference to himself in the third person (there were five).
In the briefest of moments, though, before he quickly recovered and composed himself, James revealed a look of shock when video of Cavaliers fans burning his jersey was shown to him.
James managed his way through it, and continued through the show with his mundane, rehearsed answers.
This was not Wayne Gretzky wiping away tears and abruptly ending his remarks at a news conference.
But one can hope after toning the death knell for professional basketball in Cleveland that James might realize the damage he has wrought on the people who cheered him all of his life. It wasn’t so hurtful that he left — Cleveland sports fans have seen that movie before, and while they have reviled Art Modell ever since, they were prepared this time — but the way James chose to say goodbye was akin to dragging his most loyal followers through the mud.
At 25 years old, after seven years with the team that included an NBA Finals appearance, two MVPs and two 60-win seasons, James had made Cavaliers basketball more than relevant, and his “Witnesses” responded with nothing less than adulation. Perhaps tired of having to be spectacular every night just to make a mediocre team appear great, and after a lifetime living in one place, James had cause for wanting out. Cleveland fans could understand that, but a heartfelt thank-you was warranted — from both sides, no matter what the decision.
Instead of a classy exit with measured words backed by emotional oomph, though, James allowed himself a self-aggrandizing Bachelor-esque prime time special that was too much manufactured drama and far too little respect. And so the angry fervor coming out of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio feels warranted as well. To try to cloak the self-absorbing hour under the guise of raising money for charity only signals how ill-advised the entire episode was.
James didn’t have to stay in Cleveland. And he will continue to be adored by many because of his considerable talent. But a large piece of what the world thought LeBron James was lies in tatters at his feet.
That silver lining? It only comes if James and megastars like him — and any pro athlete — come to realize what sports mean to the fans who care the most. The last four days should serve, at the very least, as a blueprint for what not to do.
Growing up in Akron, James knew the torment fans of Cleveland sports have been through. He spoke about it. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. The Move. Jose Mesa.
Instead of respecting that, instead of understanding the role sports play in the lives of people who work dead-end jobs 60 hours a week, instead of taking into account the meaning of the hometown savoir persona he willingly allowed to be built around him, he gave them another harrowing moment.
Cleveland fans, deep down, probably knew before Thursday night that LeBron James was leaving.
Now they’re glad he’s gone.
As is James’ reputation.