I was convinced this is a joke. I still am. This all sounds like the handiwork of an elaborate, incredibly realistic, indescribably evil, completely typical prank on Cleveland. Because if sports taught anything to those of us who grew up in Cleveland, it is that Mr. Murphy wrote his law with our humble city in mind.
Please understand the feeling that this is a hallucination, a dream. That the rumors of LeBron James considering coming back to Cleveland felt like a tease, and that the Cavs clearing cap space to accommodate his max salary was only ratcheting up the eventual disappointment, and that when people gathered last night near James' home, like white smoke was about to emerge from the chimney, it was mindless sheep being led to their emotional slaughter.
They stood there for no reason and every reason. After The Fumble and The Drive. After the Indians' 65-year drought and the Cavs' championshipless history. After the Browns moved to Baltimore and LeBron took his talents to South Beach. After every gut punch, every slice of torment, every reason not to believe, they still stood there, still held out hope, still radiated the spirit imbued in every Cleveland fan by those collective miseries.
And that is why LeBron James came home.
He's always had a little god complex in him. The Jesus pose underneath the words declaring everyone a witness. The savior tack now, like he's headed back to finish what he should've done in the first place. The modern sporting machine manufactures individuals into deities, and LeBron isn't merely the king. He is Zeus, god among men, better at what he does than anybody else in sports.
At his altar stands Cleveland, all of it, the jersey burners and the bobblehead smashers and the ones for whom LeBron was a curse word. Sporting loyalty is an exercise in selfishness, and it bends to the whims of what's best. Nobody in the world is more single-handedly capable of bringing Cleveland its first sporting championship since 1964 than LeBron James, and so of course they're welcoming him back. Turning away the Prodigal Son would be wrong.
Because on his jaunt down south, he learned what winning felt like, understood the responsibility of what driving a championship team entailed. He inherits a team with an elite point guard in Kyrie Irving and enough chips to either get Kevin Love or another elite big man to serve as enforcer and protector. On a team stacked with young talent, LeBron – just four years ago a turncoat to the Northeast Ohio area that reared him – comes back the perfect man to nurture it.
Over time, the hate abated. LeBron wasn't a pariah, banished from the area like Art Modell once was. The Decision was a disaster, even if the decision was right. He wanted to win, and Miami presented a far better opportunity than Cleveland. And LeBron James is nothing if not an opportunist. He saw Dwyane Wade's aging body fail in the playoffs. He watched Chris Bosh morph into a stretch 4 instead of the rebounding machine Miami needed. He knew that his time in Miami was up, and if he could inherit an excellent situation in Cleveland, with a brilliant new coach in David Blatt, a remorseful owner in Dan Gilbert and a fan base ready to again embrace him, the time was right.
As the possibility of James' return surfaced, my friends from high school, most of whom still live in Cleveland, started asking if it was real. Maybe. Possibly. Probably not. Nah. The Clevelander in me came out: inherently skeptical and entirely fatalistic about anything good happening to Cleveland sports teams. The heart breaks only so many times before it's unmendable.
LeBron is like a heart replacement, a brand new ticker that infuses Cleveland sports with possibilities. Between him and the Johnny Manziel Circus Currently Playing at a Nightclub Near You, Cleveland sports now has an identity after four wayward years of trying to remember what it once was.
And that's important, because Cleveland truly does derive so much of itself from its sports teams. It's the sort of thing a city never wants to admit about itself – that everything else is so milquetoast sports trumps all – but it's the truth about Cleveland. Cavs games will not be Cavs games; they will be events around which everything else is scheduled, just like the Browns, no matter how woebegone they are.
The economic downturn ravaged Cleveland, stole some of its identity and much of its pride. LeBron came back anyway. And it means so much to the fans glued to Twitter and others who tried to suss out the truth of his destination using mad Pantone skills and more yet who steeled themselves for the ultimate reveal that he would go back to Miami and win a couple more championships there.
Instead, this. Bliss. Elation. Triumph. As bad as The Decision felt, this teems with the sense of right. LeBron James is the right man in the right place at the right time for the right team in the right city.
Earlier in the week, long before LeBron's classy announcement on Sports Illustrated's website even seemed possible, one friend from Detroit email blasted the lone voice of dissent among Clevelanders giddy with the possibility of LeBron 2.0. He wrote: “If LeBron goes back to Cleveland and the fans welcome him back, the city and the fans lose all respect as sports fans and the shame will be passed on for seven generations. I don't care how much losing you've had to endure. He is nothing else but an enemy of Cleveland now. It would be like electing Benedict Arnold to be president.”
To which I, and everyone else from Cleveland, will say: Mr. Arnold, the presidency is yours. You are no longer an enemy. Losing warps the sense of right and wrong. Championships wash away any and all shame. Welcome back, LeBron. We missed you.
Now, this better not be a joke.