CLEVELAND – From the old wooden bar at Flannery’s Pub you can look out the big front window, across Prospect Street and the East 4th parking lot, and see Quicken Loans Arena, former home office of LeBron Raymone James.
Late Sunday night, a crowd of Clevelanders gathered here to watch their onetime hero turned all-time traitor, and with each disinterested LeBron offensive possession, each failed LeBron chase down of Jason Terry(notes), each embarrassing LeBron crunch-time turnover, the prevailing emotion was simple.
LeBron James had a response for fans who rooted against him and the Heat: "At the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today."
They weren’t hating LeBron here. They were laughing at him.
LeBron started it, of course, laughing at Cleveland nearly a year ago when he took himself to a Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut of all places to announce on national television that he was taking his talents to South Beach. That South Beach has about a million nightclubs and technically no basketball arena said it all.
So on Sunday, Cleveland laughed right back.
All over Flannery’s and places like it across Ohio, they cracked oft-told jokes. (“I asked LeBron for a dollar, he gave me 75 cents back. He doesn’t have a fourth quarter.”) They showed pictures on their cell phones mocking LeBron as a quitter. Bartenders rang bells and shouted things like, “Last call for LeBron.”
They mostly reveled in the beauty of a night right out of their wildest dreams, LeBron coming up small on the biggest of stages, standing around as lesser talents on the Dallas Mavericks blocked his shortcut to a NBA title, winning the game 105-95, the series 4-2.
This was the girlfriend that dumped you getting dumped herself – only live in HD while an entire city toasted her comeuppance.
“He can’t blame the supporting cast,” Cavs fan Keith Clapacs said. “He can’t blame Mike Brown. There’s no excuses. Ball’s in your hand and you didn’t do it. It’s your elimination game, and Jason Kidd(notes) is diving on the floor for loose balls? You’re losing the hustle plays, committing turnovers?
“It’s the whole too-cool-to-care thing. He was too cool to care.”
From Miami, LeBron would later send his message to them, to the folks enjoying his failure.
“At the end of the day, all the people that was rooting on me to fail – at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today,” James said. “They have the same personal problems they had today …
“They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal, but they have to get back to the real world at some point.”
A sentiment to which Ryan Smith, an insulation installer from Mentor, Ohio, with a Jameson on the rocks in front of him, offered this simple response:
“[Expletive] LeBron James(notes).”
Perhaps there’s no greater example of the life of a Cleveland sports fan than watching a series not involving your team so you can root for someone to lose.
No city has lost like this one, not a single major professional sports championship since 1964, when the Browns won a pre-Super Bowl NFL title. You’d have to be in your mid-50s to remember it. Cleveland’s modern sports memories are defined in short terms, as if elaborating is just too painful: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move and, of course, The Decision.
You want collapses? The 1997 World Series is as bad as anything the Cubs or Red Sox ever dealt with. It’s just this city doesn’t have the media poets to chronicle it like Chicago or Boston. You want the true gut punch? Their beloved Browns moved to Baltimore only to finally get their act together and win a Super Bowl.
And then there was this, LeBron James, the local kid from Akron, the one who claimed he understood your heartache, the one you defended for years, the one that was finally going to deliver sporting glory. He bails for some fair-weather sports town and an arena full of white-covered chairs with pretty people who can’t even be bothered to watch the game while it’s going on.
So, yeah, when LeBron James’ dream gets delayed, you bet you’re going to get regional schadenfreude like nothing we’ve ever seen.
Yet LeBron’s take, the same one that too often has been bandied about nationally, doesn’t begin to understand the emotions in Cleveland.
It’s too trite and small to view Cleveland as some bottomed-out, post-industrial postcard to the past. These aren’t all people trapped in awful times or terrible circumstances or living small lives in jealousy of LeBron’s big one.
There’s money here. There is success in Cleveland. There is contentment. As sure as there are poor in Miami, as sure as the VIP area of the Mansion Nightclub isn’t the full reality of South Florida, neither is some boarded-up East Cleveland warehouse the story here.
There are doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs and financial planners and artists and teachers and dreamers and, yes, insulation installers. (“In the column can you mention the company, Pure Seal Inc.?”)
There are happy families and neighborhoods and the American Dream in full view. There are plenty of people who don’t have any personal problems who are quite content to keep their talents in Cleveland, a place they love just the way it is.
“We get a bad rep,” said Pawel Wencel, who happily moved back from Washington, D.C., and watched the game at Flannery’s. “It’s not New York. It’s not L.A. And we don’t want it to be.”
Why New York or L.A. can never seem to get that is anyone’s guess.
The distaste for James didn’t come solely from the desperate and the depressed, and to suggest as much is to miss the entire point, to insult the entire region all over again.
The “bitter” storyline has been told so many times that fans here are as sick of it as they are LeBron. There’s been an overcorrection of late, a trend to say they are over LeBron, that they are better than to bother with him.
That’s not honest either, though. This mattered. No one should have to apologize for it.
It’s not just how LeBron left but how he operated when he was still here. He talked such a big game. He promised to end the title drought. He gave them all those endless playoff runs, all those spring nights of entertainment. He was good to them. Then he wasn’t, bailing before the proper Hollywood ending.
And for what? To stand around and watch J.J. Barea(notes) drive the lane?
Nothing angers fans like getting stood up by someone who had promised the moon. When college football coach Lane Kiffin bolted Tennessee for USC, there was a movement to name a local sewer treatment plant after him.
It’s human nature.
With LeBron, a championship felt inevitable.
That was the destination. What was also lost was the journey.
The Cavs drew people together, city and suburb, white and black, rich and poor. They also connected family and friends. They gave reason to send a text message to someone you had drifted away from. They provided a reason to share an experience with your parents or your children or both. They offered an excuse to catch a game with a high school buddy.
And it gave all those ex-Clevelanders who had to chase their professional and personal dreams elsewhere feel that pull to these old neighborhoods, those old sunsets over the lake, those old memories of days and people back home.
At its best, that’s what professional sports can do for a place. It makes a city come together in the shared pursuit of something simple and tangible, even if, in the end, it’s not all that important. It just feels that way in the moment.
And that’s what many here feel James stole when he left. In one swift Decision, it was gone.
Downtown was marked by desolate streets, empty parking garages and half-filled bars on Sunday. The place should’ve been popping. That game in Miami should’ve been that game right here at the Q. Those fans screaming in Florida should’ve been right here in Ohio.
LeBron left, and that’s what he took with him to South Beach. And maybe that’s too much of a burden to put on guy who simply chose to take a job in another town, but that’s what comes with all the millions, with all the commercials, with all the chutzpah of calling yourself “King.”
So watching his little plan blow up, watching him have to answer for the same failures he produced across the street, watching him find out that maybe it’s him, not them, yeah, that’s a good night here.
It just is.
LeBron James had the right to leave. And Cleveland has the right to laugh.