UPDATE (Dec. 3): LeBron James returned to Cleveland last night for the first time with his new team, the Miami Heat. The reception was harsh. But how does it compare to the reappearance of other traitorous sports stars to their old teams' home turf? See the gallery below.
James joins a long line of traitorous sports stars whose returns to their old teams' turfs spark ire from formerly adoring fans. When right-fielder J.D. Drew played his first game in Philadelphia in 1999 after leaving the Phillies for the St. Louis Cardinals, fans threw batteries on the field and sported "J.D. has AIDS" tee-shirts. And Cleveland itself has a history of hostile confrontations with returning stars--when Carlos Boozer returned to Cleveland as a member of the Utah Jazz, he was greeted with a chorus of boos and angry signs and shirts that twisted his last name into "Loozer" and "Boobie" (heh).
But it doesn't have to be like this. Some sports stars are welcomed back warmly to their old courts and playing fields. Just last month, Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb got a standing ovation when he played against his old team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Further back in sports history, Michael Jordan also got a standing o in Chicago in 2003 when his new team, the Washington Wizards, played the Bulls, and Wayne Gretzky was similarly received in 1988 when he returned to Edmonton after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings.
So what's the difference between a LeBron and a McNabb? Five major factors go into how a defector is received when he returns to his former turf:
1.) His reasons for leaving A sports star can leave a team with the sympathy of its fans in tact if the circumstances of his departure are right: If his move can be spun as the result of incompetent or greedy owners, rather than the deviousness or avarice of the star himself.
Examples: When when Joe Torre--the beloved Yankee manager who led the team to four World Series championships in five years--most fans blamed the irascible team owner George Steinbrenner, who offered Torre a contract in which his salary would be contingent upon winning the World Series. When he left to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers, fans wished him well--and welcomed him back to New York when he returned for Steinbrenner's funeral this summer.
On the other end of the spectrum, Alex Rodriguez's departure from the Seattle Mariners in 2000 was all about his desire for money. He signed a then-record 10-year $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers--who were in last place at the time. The move enraged Seattle fans, who greeted him with boos and called him "Pay-Rod" when he came back in a Rangers uniform in 2001.
2.) How good the new team is compared with the original It's one thing if a player leaves a last-place team for the Yankees. It's another when he leaves a legendary squad for a perpetually struggling one. Departing to play for an underdog is a good way to keep fans happy.
Example: When Michael Jordan returned to basketball for a second time to play for the Wizards instead of the Bulls in 2001, even die-hard Chicago fans couldn't really be angry at him. The Wizards were perpetual basement-dwellers, and though the Bulls had some dismal seasons in the beginning of the millennium, they at least had the memory of six championships to sustain them through the bad times--the Wizards have had just one in their history, all the way back in 1978. And Jordan never forgot the city where he became a star--he played his final (for real this time) NBA game in Chicago in 2003, and fans sent him off with a four-minute standing ovation.
3.) Whether there's a rivalry between the original team and the new team Even if a player had decent reasons for leaving a team, defecting to a historic rival will demolish any good will the fans might feel toward the star.
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And then sometimes playing for a rival team makes an already bad situation much, much worse. Brett Favre exasperated Green Bay Packers fans with his retirement fakeout in 2008. But his decision to play for the Minnesota Vikings, the regional nemesis of the team where he'd spent the vast majority of his career, was putrid icing on the cake of hate.
4.) How well the defector performs on his new team Leaving a team for a higher salary, or to play for an archrival team, is bad enough. But for a player to then go to that team and play better than he did on his original team--that's simply torturous for the fans of the first team.
Example: Babe Ruth played six seasons for the Boston Red Sox, and for a lot of that time he was used as a pitcher rather than a batter. After his move to the Yankees in 1919, Ruth stopped pitching and came into his own as a batter, setting records in slugging percentage, runs batted in, and, of course, home runs. Boston fans never forgave him for being better as a Yankee than a member of the Red Sox--and for beginning the Curse of the Bambino, which wasn't broken until 2004.
But in the end, nothing is more important than ...
5.) How much fans like the defector A star can leave for more money to join a better, rival team, play like a champ once he gets there, and still be adored by his original fans. How? If he possesses that ephemeral quality that's embodied by Bill Clinton but eludes Al Gore: likeability.
Examples: Jordan, Gretzky, and McNabb have fostered so much good will among the fans of their original teams because people like them. Simple as that.
As James prepares to go back toe Cleveland, of course, is at a disadvantage on each count: LeBron left Cleveland amid the protests of fans and ownership alike; Miami has a better record than Cleveland so far this season; though there's no special rivalry between the Heat and the Cavs, Cleveland has perpetual underconfidence, so anywhere James went would feel like a sting against the city; and his self-importantly arrogant behavior as he left Cleveland pretty much killed his likeability.
While we can't expect Cleveland to offer LeBron a Jordan-style standing ovation, we can ask one thing of Cavs fans: leave the batteries at home.