CLEVELAND – The clock was lurching toward midnight and LeBron James(notes) lagged in the back of the procession marching through the concrete corridor and out of Quicken Loans Arena, out of what suddenly felt like a long ago and faraway place. Around him, the King had everyone he needed now – his shoe reps and his sidekicks, Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes).
James wore a black ski hat, thick, black eyeglass frames and a black jacket with the words, "Time to Roll" stitched into the back. He had come and gone out of this combustible cauldron, delivered a dazzling 38 points to destroy the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night. Now, the Nike reps nudged him on his way, where they always wanted him to go: for the exit in Cleveland.
Still, voices called out to him now, out of his Cavaliers past, out of a yesterday that came to a crashing end this summer.
[Related: Fans torment LeBron after Cleveland return]
“Hey LeBron,” a middle-aged arena worker offered as James passed her in the hallway. “I’m not mad at you.”
He kept moving, but turned back, called her Sweetie and smiled. He was like a ghost marching back into this building, like an illusion that made everyone stop and ask themselves whether it all truly happened. He laughed and his most trusted Nike associate, Lynn Merritt – wearing a glossy, universal NBA credential – slapped James’ hands, reached his arm around James’ shoulder and whispered something funny into his ear.
Oh the misery that James had inflicted on everyone here: the Cavs, the fans and, maybe most of all, the owner Dan Gilbert.
“You’re still the King!” barked an arena worker as he sidled up to James in the corridor.
Still the King of Northeast Ohio, from Cleveland to Akron and back again.
He had come down off the interview podium, where the Cavaliers had made their one stand of the night: No Miami Heat backdrop for the news conference, one Cleveland official insisted. Thirty minutes earlier, a seething Gilbert had left the building. So many things looked like they troubled the Cavs owner on the night of James’ triumphant return to the Q, so many things that enraged him.
Gilbert had watched James move uncontested to the rim, and watched him mockingly chat with the Cavs’ bench players in the Heat’s 118-90 victory. The night had started with a standing ovation for Gilbert as he walked to his seat, and ended with a chorus of derisive chants which assailed what had been lost here as much as they assailed James, who had taken it all away.
In a lot of ways, the Cleveland fans ought to be more angry with themselves than LeBron James. Yes, he never should’ve done the television show called “The Decision,” and he even suggested that was the case late Thursday on the podium. “Things could’ve been done a little differently this summer,” he said.
He tried to sound empathetic of the scorned Cavaliers fans – “I understand their frustration” – but it was easy to be magnanimous when his talent so trumped their mediocrity. The bewildered, lost gaze of his late May failures against the Boston Celtics had been replaced with something of satisfaction. The Championship of Me in free agency had transformed into the Championship of Northeast Ohio, and LeBron James delivered a resounding performance borne of his MVP past: 38 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
James let the hate wash down over him, let it coat him like a second skin. “Akron hates you,” they screamed over and over, but James’ smirk suggested he didn’t buy it, that he knew they were reaching too far.
They never loved LeBron James here. They loved the idea of him. They made James into the ideal of what they wanted him to be, but never was: the hometown hero, the prodigy who lived to deliver them from their long, suffering sporting demons.
Over time, James had cushioned Cleveland for his departure. People don’t want to believe it, but the signals were always there. The Cavaliers never did prepare fans for the possibility that he would leave, never did tell them James had stopped helping recruit free agents years ago, that he stopped returning the text messages and calls of Gilbert for weeks until that fateful July day. To watch the Cavs introduce Bernie Kosar courtside, to offer fans clips of long ago Browns and Cavs stars and teams that never won a title, was a reminder that James had been moving for the door long before last summer’s free agency.
People made James what they wanted him to be, the hometown savior, the Akron kid who would end the decades of sporting anguish for this hard-luck region. James was a New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys fan, and never did embrace the hometown sporting ghosts. In his mind, they belonged to someone else. To him, he carried no scars, no generational burden. His sporting soul was unsullied and pure, and ultimately it was going to South Beach – free of responsibility, free of conscience.
Nevertheless, there are no easy getaways in sports, and LeBron James has learned that the hard way now. They taunted James and called him nasty names and probably ended up galvanizing these Heat in a way no one else could’ve in the NBA. They would have to sit there and listen to James refer to the “greatness for myself” in a postgame interview.
The indignities never did end, but the Championship of Northeast Ohio finally did, and the King and his Court marched out of Quicken Loans Arena, out of the wreckage that’ll take years for the Cavaliers to sort through. He had his Nike reps, his two sidekicks, and soon everyone had gone to the bus but LeBron James. He stayed in the back of the arena and laughed and smiled. Mostly, he stayed back at the Q to own the night a little longer.
Wade had gone to the bus now. Bosh, too. Everyone waited on James, whose seven seasons with the Cavaliers could be made to feel like such a vapor on a night like this, such a distant time and place. Soon, there were all these old Cavaliers employees standing to the side in the bowels of the arena, watching James walk out of their lives again.
The giant steel doors soon shut and they could no longer see James. The clock on the wall had pushed past midnight – 12:01 a.m. – and that bus would soon roll to the airport, to where all those sneaker reps and handlers and superstar Heat teammates had always wanted to take the NBA’s two-time MVP: up and out of Cleveland.
LeBron James was still the King of Northeast Ohio, from Cleveland to Akron and back again.