Lots of sports fans believe there’s a special misery attached to their local teams. Next time you have that bar-room argument, set the bar at Cleveland. I dare you to go lower. Our legacy of futility is not only deep—decades without a major sports title—but also wide, encompassing all three of the city’s professional teams. We get only rare chances to see one of our teams even try to win the big one, and then they always let us down in heartbreaking fashion. Which is why it would make perfect sense if Thursday night’s miserable Game 6 loss to the Boston Celtics marks the last time LeBron James plays in a Cavaliers uniform.
I still remember the phone call from my dad one day in 2000. “The next Michael Jordan is a sophomore at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s,” Dad told me, name-checking the small private school about 40 minutes from our Northeast Ohio hometown. Yeah, right, I thought. By then, we’d already heard the Next Jordan moniker attached to Harold Miner, Grant Hill, Vince Carter, and others. Michael Jordan was not going to be reincarnated. And besides, if he ever did come back, it wouldn’t be anywhere within driving distance of Cleveland. Still, from that point on, LeBron was our guy. I’d moved across the country after college, and Cleveland’s professional teams were losing their grip on me. This kid, though, captured my attention.
LeBron lived up to the hype, leading his high school to three state titles and becoming the no-brainer No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. When it was announced that the Cavs won the draft lottery, I temporarily believed the conspiracy theories that the NBA is fixed. The stars were aligned a little too perfectly. This was the guy who would make everyone forget the The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, and the 1997 World Series, and he grew up just down the highway.
It’s ridiculous, of course, for any city to hoist its hopes and its baggage onto the shoulders of an 18-year-old. But, just as he did in high school, James fulfilled expectations. Rookie of the year. The surprise trip to the 2007 NBA Finals, when it was supposed to be the Pistons’ year. People can debate Kobe vs. LeBron all day, but LeBron really is the true heir to Michael Jordan—he brings the same joie de vivre to the game that Jordan did, and the same swagger.
While we’ve always seen that take-charge attitude from James during the regular season, we haven’t seen it enough during the playoffs the last two seasons. Against the Magic last year, I thought he was often too eager to involve his teammates when he should have taken the game over. In Thursday night’s Game 6, he passed to teammates only to have them blow a layup or dribble the ball off a foot. Maybe it’s fairer to blame Antawn Jamison and Shaquille O’Neal for their inability to catch or shoot. But LeBron, injured elbow and crappy teammates or not, was supposed to be the Chosen One. I guess even gods can’t transcend Cleveland.
This year’s maddening Cavaliers defeat is compounded by the fact that we might lose LeBron himself. Teams have spent the past two years clearing cap room to make a run for 2010’s remarkably deep crop of free agents, and Cleveland’s hero is sought after in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. I’m cautiously optimistic that LeBron will stay in Cleveland. Not only can the Cavs offer him the most money, but he keeps his childhood friends close—both times he’s accepted the MVP trophy, he’s turned the presentation ceremony into a party in his hometown. But he’s always been adamant that the team’s success would determine whether he stayed, and the Cavs hardly look like a dynasty in the making.
If LeBron stays and the Cavs still don’t win, so be it—at least we had a shot. The worst possible outcome for Cleveland sports fans will be if LeBron wins title after title for the Knicks or the Bulls. That will provide the confirmation that we had the perfect guy to end the city’s championship famine. The only problem: When it comes to sports, Cleveland is always the wrong place, and it’s always the wrong time.