It was never hate. Just disappointment.

 

Return of the King.

“Are you nervous?” I asked our VP.

“I hate him already,” he responded.

I was working at an online video start-up in San Francisco at the time. Our VP was a transplant from Cleveland who considers the name “Art Modell” a profanity. He had suffered through years and years of heartbreak that only Cleveland fans know all too well, but his loyalty to his beloved sports franchises never wavered.

We worked in an open space, with a beautiful view of Union Square downtown. On that day, we all opened up ESPN.com on our laptops and started streaming. Every single one of us. The suspense was palpable, and we had no idea what to expect, except for the fan from Cleveland.

About 15 minutes before Lebron even uttered his infamous words of betrayal to “take his talents to South Beach”, that was when our VP said, “I hate him already,” almost as if he knew the answer before it became official. Almost as if he had done this before. As if he had been used to this kind of sports heartbreak his entire life.

“South Beach.”

And just like that, Lebron James became a pariah and Cleveland’s public enemy number one. 

Art Modell, take a back seat. 

In 2002, I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember my dad telling me about this phenom from Ohio — this kid (a manchild really) that was supposed to be “the next Michael Jordan,” a “can’t miss” prospect, a “once-in-a-lifetime” talent. The cliches were abundant, but there was no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Having played 8-straight years of organized, competitive basketball and closing in on the height of my love for the sport, I was all-too excited to hear the possibility of a new Michael coming on the scene. I was really excited to see what this guy could do. I was in awe watching St. Vincent St. Mary HS games on ESPN. This kid was legit, and I was ready to witness his legacy unfold in the NBA from start to finish.

Yes, he’s most definitely going to be the next MJ, I said to myself.

When it was clear the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to draft him with the first overall pick in 2003, I was giddy. I sure do love a good sports story and to have a hometown kid playing for his hometown team was just precious to me. But this wasn’t just any hometown kid. This was Lebron James. THE HOMETOWN KID. The next great one.

I’ve seen my fair share of once highly-touted prospects turning into busts in the NBA (and all sports, for that matter), but Lebron was actually living up to the hype. In fact, he started to exceed it. He was better than anyone could have expected him to be. He was great.

GREAT. 

I cheered for Cleveland from 2003-2010. Besides the 2006 “We Believe” playoff year, the Warriors were far away from reaching any kind of championship, let alone sniffing the playoffs. I cheered for them because they’re my favorite team, but when the playoffs rolled around, and the Warriors were already in their off-season, I was pulling for the Cavs to win it all…I wanted Lebron to win it all.

I distinctly remember when he hit the 3-pointer to beat Orlando in the 2009 playoffs, I tweeted, “Lebron, you are a god.” At the time, the sports media and fans alike were giving him a hard time wondering if he could hit a buzzer beater in a big game. And he did. And that wasn’t the last time he did. I knew he could do it. I always knew he was capable of it.

When they got swept by San Antonio in their only trip to the finals in 2007, I was disappointed but hopeful. That was the team and Lebron’s first attempt at being a champion, but definitely not last. And I was looking forward to many more trips to the finals for Lebron — with the Cavs, that was.

When he went to Miami, I became a full-blown leader of the Lebron hatewagon. Twitter doesn’t keep track of my tweets prior to 2010, but here is one tweet that shows a little bit of my vitriol.

The only time I’ve ever been a fan of a team from Dallas was when the Mavs met the Heat in the 2010 finals. It was an interesting experience for me. I was in Los Angeles at the time. It wasn’t necessarily that everyone was cheering for the Mavs. It was that everyone was cheering against the Heat. Fans of Northern and Southern California sports teams rarely agree on anything, but that summer, they were united.

After “The Decision,” I guess you can say I had an irrational hatred for Lebron. Superficially, it appeared like I had no real reason to not like the guy. He’s the kind of player I like. He’s unselfish on the basketball court (his passing and court vision are top notch, as I mention in this post).  By all accounts, he’s a great person off the court — family man, helps the community, fun to be around. And going to Miami was what he felt was best for him. He did what was in his best interest. He wanted to win a championship quickly, and he wasn’t going to do it with the supporting cast he had in Cleveland — at least not quickly. Plus, ownership wasn’t proving to him that they could build a championship worthy roster. So he had to find that elsewhere.

But much like everyone else, I didn’t like the way he handled his divorce with the Cavs. “The Decision” ESPN special was an abomination. Everyone knows that. Lebron knows that.

However, I guess where I differ from most people (outside of people in Cleveland) is how I felt. I felt like this affected me personally. I felt like Lebron let ME down when he decided to play Robin to Wade’s Batman (cue the #overdramatic hashtag here). I watched Lebron grow up, like all of Ohio. I had all these grandiose ideas of him being better than Bird, better than Magic, better than Kobe…hell, even better than Michael. And even if he didn’t end up better than those four, I wanted him to share what they all had in common: they all won championships playing for the same team their entire careers. They let the organization build around them, and because they were so great, they made the supporting cast even better.

I didn’t like that Lebron felt he had to team up with another superstar (two superstars)  in order to win a championship. I was convinced he was great on his own. I was convinced he could do it all on his own because I was such a big Lebron fan. Way bigger than anyone could ever possibly imagine. I was convinced he didn’t need another superstar. Lebron James was great. Only he could win a championship with Mo Williams, Delonte West, and Anderson Varajao. Only him.

I guess you can say I didn’t hate him as much as I was just disappointed in him. The way you sometimes feel disappointed in your child because you know they’re capable of more. You know they have so much potential, and you want to see them reach it.

I felt he was capable of more than chasing some rings with a stacked roster, and I was disappointed that he was tarnishing his own legacy. As a basketball fan, it bothered me that he felt inadequate, like he couldn’t do it on his own.

But reading his essay made my feelings change. He knows he made a mistake. Not in leaving to go to Miami, but in the way he did it. I respect the hell out of someone who can admit when they’re wrong. But he also has a lot of integrity. He stood by his decision to leave. Zach Lowe, a writer for Grantland, said it perfectly, “James didn’t want to leave Cleveland. He wanted to win, and he correctly concluded that joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami would give him the best chance to do that.

Maybe it was my fault for putting so much pressure on him to be great on his own — to be better than His Airness. Maybe it was my fault for thinking he didn’t need help because he does, everyone does. Bird had McHale. Magic had Kareem. Kobe had Shaq. MJ had Scottie. Even superstars need help.

Reading that essay and understanding why he’s returning home made me teary eyed. It was heartfelt, and the most he could possibly do to alleviate the damage caused by what happened 4 years ago.

I watched “The Decision” with a Cleveland fan, and my heart ached for the entire fan base. I became empathetic to the point of absurdity.

I read the essay on my own, and my heart fluttered with absolute joy for the entire city of Cleveland. Not only did you win back Cleveland, Lebron, but you also won a fan back in me.

Welcome back, King James. I’m excited to see the rest of your legacy unfold.

 

 

 

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