CLEVELAND — The city that leads with its chin has jutted it out there one more time. In a sort of, maybe, please-don’t-hit-me-again fashion.
LeBron the Heartbreaker may return home to the Cavaliers (or he may not; it’s difficult to overstate how much hoo-ha has been made of so few facts with this story), and Cleveland can’t help itself. It’s ready to swoon once more.
A close-up of LeBron James’ face dominated half the front page of The Plain Dealer on Thursday morning. A local sports talk show advertises itself as “24/7 LeBron.’’ Wander up to more or less anyone here and say “So LeBron …?’’ and words flow.
“Oh God, I don’t know, why not, OK?’’ I’m talking to Shawn Brewster, a barkeep, and he’s got that pained Cleveland sports fan look on his face. “I’m not bitter, I’ll tell you that right now.’’
Which means he’s very bitter.
“LeBron is the girl who hangs out with you all night,’’ he continues. “And you buy all the drinks. And at the end of the night, she went home with the jerk.’’
So you don’t really want him to return?
He shakes his head. “No, I want him,’’ he replies. “Just don’t play with us again.’’
The rental-car counter man volunteers that he is making a market play and buying a 20-game package. Talk to residents in downtown and the idea of his return is “awesome’’ and “cool.’’
And yet it’s as if this city on Lake Erie has taken a running start and thrown itself on the psychoanalyst’s couch. The anxiety is collective.
James has to make his decision before he flies to Brazil for the World Cup! The police are tossing up security around his suburban Akron mansion! A Houston Rockets forward signed to a Dallas Mavericks offer sheet means that Chris Bosh must decide on his own offer sheet, which means that LeBron must decide now!
Late Thursday, some enterprising somebody set up a live feed of … LeBron’s front gate.
You don’t have to be here more than a few hours before you find yourself playing Dr. Freud.
Through it all, LeBron James remains the Akron native who tossed Cleveland over for South Beach.
Turn on that talk radio station at the top of the hour and the announcer refers to him as “the back-stabbing weasel,’’ no first or surname needed. The same announcer says he’ll welcome back him back with open arms. Then that announcer offers that if James spurns Cleveland again, “I’ll stomp on him like a snake in the grass.’’
“We don’t need to be insecure anymore; this is a great city,’’ another radio yakker proclaimes. He notes that Cleveland has good museums (true), a beautiful lake (true), and not much traffic (true). Also the Republican National Convention is coming here.
“I mean, would you rather live in South Beach or in Cleveland?’’
He is serious.
Dan Gilbert owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, not to mention a mortgage company and a casino. When James left as a free agent four years ago, he released a self-indulgent temper tantrum of a letter, in which he talked of his departed star as akin to a traitorous head of lettuce.
“This shocking act of disloyalty from our homegrown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn,’’ he wrote. “The self-declared former ‘King’ will be taking the ‘curse’ with him down south.’’
Who among us has not gotten angry and said something moronic? Such outbursts are usually followed within a day or two by a chaser of grown-up regret and apology. Not Gilbert. The league fined him $100,000, but he kept the statement posted on the Cavaliers’ website.
Gilbert took his letter down a few days ago, as word circulated that James might return to Cleveland. All class, all the time for the Ohio billionaire.
(Gilbert offered a personal guarantee in 2010 that the Cavaliers would win an NBA championship before James did. That guarantee went unredeemed. The Cavaliers won 19 games the next year, and missed the playoffs this year. LeBron won two championships.)
That notion of betrayal comes up often.
“Me? I feel like he’s a traitor; he doesn’t deserve us,’’ says Larry Horton, standing a block from the Cavaliers’ arena. “And if he comes here, he’ll leave us again.’’
Horton is wearing a handsome black leather Miami Heat cap. I have to ask: “Dude, mixed message?’’
He shrugs. “If the man comes here, not saying I won’t ever root for him.’’
Like most cities, Cleveland lives with its sport contradictions.
James did not help himself with his indulgent “The Decision’’ spectacle four years ago. In trying to explain his decision to leave his hometown team, he strayed here and there into the Rickey Henderson narcissism swamp, referring to himself in the third person.
He also was 26 years old at the time, a reasonably thoughtful young man from a single-parent family in a poor precinct of Akron. And he had a co-conspirator. The national sports network, ESPN, hitched itself to LeBron’s free-agent search as surely as a stagecoach driver hitches up his horses.
Then there’s his decision.
A few weeks ago, in Miami for the NBA finals, I walked South Beach around midnight. The air was soft, the moon full, the frangipani in bloom. The art deco hotels offered a hallucinogenic pastel glow, accentuated by the throbbing of nightclubs. It’s a purely objective journalistic statement to note that the neighborhood was swarming with a startling number of svelte, gorgeous, scantily dressed men and women.
It did not take a novelistic stretch of the imagination to figure why a 26-year-old star athlete, accustomed to wind and sleet off Lake Erie in February, might decide there were worse places to spend a few years.
At Bobby C’s Classic Barber shop in downtown Cleveland, Melvin Orr delivers a buzz cut. When he was 20, he notes, he joined the military. He saw Europe and the Persian Gulf, and came home.
He did not regret that journey, and sees no reason James should regret his.
“He got himself two rings, he explored the world. Good for him,’’ he says. “He’s in a business. If he comes back here, that’s a pretty great story, isn’t it?’’
I wander into east Cleveland, a neighborhood of overgrown lots, vacant deco apartment buildings and elegant homes fallen on hard times. Kyshawn Ford, 15, strolls out of Coit Park with three friends. He’s shirtless, having just finished playing hoops.
A lot of adults, he knows, are angry at LeBron, even though they want him. What’s that about?
“LeBron? I really don’t care if he left,’’ he says. “I never sat on an ocean beach in my life. To me, he comes back, I’m cheering.’’
A man with a reasonable bottom line.