Back when he was 18, LeBron James didn’t have the options that most high school seniors do. Students going to college follow pretty standard wisdom: Apply to schools that you actually want to go to, and apply to some that you can definitely get into — in other words, your safety schools. LeBron didn’t get to apply to New York, or Los Angeles, or whatever team an emerging star would want to play for. If he had gotten to apply, the kid from Akron probably would have slotted Cleveland as a safety, not a first choice. But that’s not how it worked. Cleveland won the lottery and drafted and signed the future King.
We all know how the story went from there. And now, LeBron has made some strategic mentions of return to Ohio. He can opt out of his contract with the Heat after the 2013-14 season and could return to Cleveland if the Cavs can build a team for him. He’s setting up the possibility, because Cleveland remains his backup choice. It’s a decent option. It could give him a chance at success. Whether either side wants the other is almost beside the point.
Back when I was 18, in my Akron suburb, we did get the normal options. We applied to our dream schools and our safeties. Most of those safety schools were in Ohio, and most tried very hard to get us to stay in the state with scholarships, grants and the like. I got in to my dream school, as did one of my best friends. So together, we took my (questionable) and his (far greater) talents the heck out of northeast Ohio. A lot of others did the same, heading to Boston, New York, Atlanta, Chicago. Leaving the state cost us some money, yes, but it afforded us new opportunities and experiences. We went where we truly wanted to go. And if we failed, Ohio was there to welcome us back.
Around the same time that my friends and I graduated high school, LeBron was in his first NBA championship series. San Antonio swept Cleveland to win the title. Over the next three years, LeBron racked up some serious accolades and the Cavs won a lot of games, but they never made it back to the Finals. In 2010, LeBron finally got to choose. He evaluated his options. Cleveland, of course, came with the most money and the guarantee of adoring fans and continued stardom. Miami was a new opportunity. His best friends were going there, too. He was young and talented, and he wanted out of northeast Ohio. The execution was bad, but the choice was honest.
Miami hasn’t exactly worked out for LeBron, so far. We don’t know how the next two years will unfold. We don’t know if LeBron will be a champion by then, or if he’ll still be struggling to find a ring and his place in history.
What do we know? We know that in the 2009-10 season, average home attendance at a Cavs game was 20,562, 100 percent capacity at Quicken Loans Arena. That number stayed high last season, artificially or not, because most season tickets had been bought before The Decision. So far this year, average attendance is 16,160, or 78.6 percent capacity. Four thousand less seats filled per game probably translates into something like 6,000 fewer beers, 3,000 fewer orders of nachos, 2,500 fewer jerseys, 2,000 fewer visits to sports bars before or after the game, etc. That’s for each game. Multiply that over an already shortened season, and you can see what kind of economic havoc a terrible, LeBron-less Cavs team wreaks. How much of a joke is this video’s 30-second mark?
So Dan Gilbert reneges on his Comic Sans promises and frees up some cap space, starts putting together some pieces and lures LeBron back to the town he never chose. Would that make Gilbert a traitor? Not to the waitresses at those sports bars or to the laid-off concessions workers who would get their jobs back, that’s for sure.
He reneges on his Comic Sans promises and frees up some cap space, starts putting together some pieces and lures LeBron back to the town he has another chance to choose. The Cavs win Cleveland’s first championship since 1964. Does it mean as much as it would have if LeBron had never left? Not to the fans who burned their No. 23 jerseys and took a renewed interest in Indians games.
Some of that ESPN-caused scarring will always remain. But there would be some celebration, too, if LeBron returned and brought wins with him.
Ohio, you are LeBron’s fallback. He left your side to ask the prom queen to dance and if he’s unsuccessful, he’ll cross the floor again and take your hand for the next song. You’re convenient. You’re familiar. You’re not the worst option. And you’ll dance, because the positives outweigh the slight. But the damage has been done. You’ll always know that he didn’t really want you.
In a lot of ways, it doesn’t matter. In a lot of ways, it does.
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