In the weeks leading up to LeBron James’ return the Cleveland, the rhetoric on both sides of the Cuyahoga river was ratcheted up to levels epic even for fans in a city that has already been savagely beaten with life’s stick on repeated occasions.
I may make fun of the city of Miami’s vacuousness and lack of anything cool other than an art festival that shares a name with an equally uncool Swiss city, but Cleveland is almost too real: gritty and harsh, like the lighting in gas station rest rooms. The Clevelanders I know are smart and dependable as hell, but the city is actually hell.
Let me put it another way: last time I was there I saw a guy stopped at a traffic light and he was smoking something illicit through a Sprite can. He was also driving a short bus. He looked over at me, grinning, as if to say, “That’s right… a Sprite can. Who cares?”
And so, since virtually the only source of sports pride in the town left it high and dry, and was returning for the first time since abandoning it, NBA front office personnel were understandably concerned that the nationally televised game could get pretty ugly. Their wariness was exacerbated by the news that sports announcing hero Charles Barkley — he who can undo any attempt at bringing order to a chaotic situation merely by saying exactly what’s on his mind — was working the game. Knowing all of this, the league sent in reinforcements.
Best-case scenario was that the fans were going to shout epithets and make James uncomfortable; worst case, they would throw things and try to injure him. (I had suggested that perhaps the team should consider hiring the Hells Angels to provide security for the event, but my idea was rebuffed.)
LeBron tried to put on a brave face in the days leading up to the game, in that monotonous way athletes have of saying, “It’s just another game” even when it isn’t. But deep down he realized the scope of what was to come: an unprecedented hate bath.
Pregame warm-ups were an absolute circus. James is the Cavs fans’ Benedict Arnold, their Brett Favre one team ago. And they didn’t waste a moment to let him know, or an opportunity to mug for the cameras.
Although I’d heard that the Cavs were banning fans from bringing in offensive signage, what I noticed was this: other than signs using the seven words you can never say on television, everything else seemed to be fair game.
Then James, as tone deaf an athlete as I have ever encountered, decided to add insult to injury and rock that stupid thing he does with the chalk.
All I could think as I saw the fans’ pained faces was that, if he’d tried that in New York, even Woody Allen would’ve doused him with beer. It isn’t as if he was offering a tribute to a dead relative, or anything of importance. It was part of a self-congratulatory faux messiah moment. With chalk. And if he took the day off, what would’ve happened? Apparently, the thought was too much for him, or Nike, to bear. It was a pretty ugly, tasteless moment, his way of showing the fans how angry he was that they were hurt. An act of defiance, long after the barn door had been torn off and the horses had escaped.
And yet, as it turned out, for the people venting their spleens in person, that maneuver was actually the high point of their evening. From the opening jump, James was on them like Godzilla on Tokyo. Like he was the angry one, the hurt one, the humiliated one. James spent three quarters paying back every fan for every sound that they’d uttered during the intervening months since he face-spit them on national television.
He taunted the Cavaliers players, mouthed off to their coaches, stomped around every inch of the court, followed by Dwyane Wade and the other guy, and broke the collective will of his former teammates. And they, in turn, appeared to have developed a manner of Stockholm syndrome, laughing and joking with him while they were undressed, publicly. James played remarkably, as if his life depended upon it, for three quarters. Mercifully, he took the fourth off but the damage was done. And done and done and…
It was as if no one told the Cavaliers players how important the game was. They were given a chance to show James that he had made a mistake by leaving, and that the team could win without him. Or even compete with him. But they just stood by and waved him through for another thunderous dunk or cutting pass.
If I were a Cavs fan I would be embarrassed by the players’ effort, by the crazy owner and his doofy typeface, and by the fact that LeBron James, who was clearly sweating his reception, barely broke one during the game.
Tony Gervino is a New York City-based editor and writer obsessed with honing his bio to make him sound quirky. He can also be found here.
Photo by Bob Jagendorf, from Flickr.