LeBron James(notes) plays against his former team in Cleveland on Thursday night, and a healthy portion of fans both casual and ardent will be tuning in to TNT to see if something terrible or at the very least inappropriate happens to James. And not because these viewers are cynical or because they are housing a dim view of human nature. No, it's because anyone with at least a passing knowledge of James' treatment of his former team and its fans expects, at the absolute least, several pies to LeBron's face. They feel as if he deserves that, and more, and they wouldn't be wrong in that regard.
No fan should have to go through anything that in any way approximates what LeBron James put Cleveland Cavalier fans through from last May to July. And, though nervous hand-wringing about free agency has long been a sporting staple (look at Texas Rangers fans this year with Cliff Lee; or Detroit Piston fans in 1999-00 with Grant Hill(notes)), no fan should have to deal with the uneasiness that followed James' too-short contract extension in 2006.
To have your favorite player -- or, the best player on your favorite team -- so badly need attention that he flirts with the idea of leaving (or changing numbers, or giving unsolicited tributes and nods to other teams) as James did during several stops during the 2009-10 season must have been hellish.
To watch that same player, clearly and without any sort of caveat or excuse, quit on your team during the playoffs as LeBron James did last spring must have been ... well, it's been over six months, and I still don't have the words for it. I didn't have a particular rooting interest in last year's Cavaliers/Celtics series, and yet I had to take a walk around my yard for 10 minutes following Game 5 in a futile attempt to gather my thoughts. To call James' performance (or lack thereof) astonishing would be a complete and utter understatement.
To then witness that dog and pony show that skulked into Akron, under the noses of Cavalier fans, as teams sent representatives to try and woo LeBron with promises and cash and cartoons? For as much as the Cavaliers let James down with a half-decade long series of terrible transactions and pathetic leadership decisions (all made to hand James a fish, rather than teaching him how to fish), it must have been a maddening experience. Once again, to use an understatement.
And then to have James go on national TV and rub his Decision in Ohio's face? Do we need to bring up the cruelty and distastefulness (all under the cynical guise of charity) again?
Cleveland, and northern Ohio, were wronged. And LeBron James was wrong. In every regard save for wanting to play with more talented teammates.
But that's where it has to end, fans. You were wronged, no doubt about it, but it's not time to sink to James' level, and be wrong.
Cavalier fans have the goodwill of a nation on its side, but that will only sustain with good intentions. The second that any fan turns Thursday night's basketball game into anything more than a basketball game, that goodwill disappears, for good reason, forever. Sure, we'll know why someone did whatever they did, but that doesn't mean it's to be tolerated or explained away. No matter how pathetic, narcissistic, clueless, and uncaring the heel in question is.
No amount of booing will make the hurt and frustration go away for these fans, but then again no amount of anything will make that hurt and frustration go away. Get in three quick pops while Jamario Moon(notes) holds James' hands behind his back, chuck a quarter at him after holding it over a lit lighter, or come up with the nastiest "TNT" acronym you can on a poster board. It won't make it any better.
It won't put James back on the Cavaliers, it won't knock any sense into the senseless child who put Cleveland through this, and it won't make what happened last spring and last summer go away. No amount of reaction will change anything. Not a single thing. The Heat will fly back into the warmth of South Beach to play the Hawks on Saturday, and the Cavs will jet to freezing Minnesota to take on the Timberwolves. The world as we know it, somehow, will continue apace.
What Cavalier fans can do is give us a good show. They can realize that this clueless individual, as all spoiled brats go, will only embolden himself the more that people tell him how wrong he is, and was. They can boo if they want, laugh if they really want to entertain us, and understand that their hometown team has a real fighting chance against a Heat squad that doesn't have a clue about what it's doing right now.
But Cavs fans also have to understand that, following Thursday night, we're moving on. NBAniks are moving on to the next Big Stupid Thing (a trade, a quote, a swoon or a funny Shaq interview), just as sports fans in general are moving on to the next Big Stupid Thing (a scandal, Brett Favre, a contract negotiation gone wrong, or some combination of the three). As much as we in the media have jammed all things LeBron-y down everyone's throats, he's just part of the picture, as is Cleveland's enmity towards him, and both sides need to understand that nothing that happens Thursday night should have any permanence beyond Friday morning's papers.
And if something happens Thursday night, if this sideshow is ruined by one in 20,000, the Cleveland fanbase will become even more detestable than LeBron James as a result. And in a world where we're constantly being let down by things that weren't what we thought they were, this just isn't necessary. You've earned that white horse. Please don't put it down.
You're not going to change or erase anything, Cleveland. So just revel in the fact that we're all on your side. Providing you play Thursday night right.