When LeBron James turned his back—nay, stabbed Cleveland in its back—in July 2010, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert published a furious open letter blasting his team’s outgoing star.
Gilbert told fans he’d deliver a championship to the Forest City before James won a single one (for the record, James has two rings; Gilbert still has none). He attacked James for a “cowardly betrayal.” He used Comic Sans. It was really a disaster all around, and the reaction across the country was awful. Even people who were otherwise annoyed at the hubris of “The Decision” and felt bad for Cleveland were disgusted by Gilbert’s note.
I remember feeling differently—and I wasn’t alone. Logging onto Facebook, I saw dozens of my friends from Akron and Cleveland gleefully and approvingly posting the letter. Gilbert may have seemed unhinged to outsiders, but he expressed a widely held sentiment in the area. It wasn’t just that LeBron had left a team; he was leaving the region that had fostered him, the region he was supposed to save. This wasn’t just basketball. He might as well have spat on all of Northeast Ohio.
Today, of course, that anger is mostly forgotten; someone even started selling “FOR6IVEN” shirts, even before James announced he was returning to the Cavs. In retrospect, it's obvious to me that the Gilbert letter was embarrassing and ill-considered. But I think the anger it expressed, incomprehensible to outsiders, is useful for understanding the damaged Cleveland sports psyche, and why I’m nervous about LeBron’s return. Call it Post-Traumatic Sports Disorder.
I should admit upfront that I hardly pay attention to the NBA. I don’t think I could name more than a handful of Cavs players from the last decade. And yet I’m feeling irrationally excited today. This isn’t about one team or one sport. It’s about the whole region. It feels like Ohio is the center of the map and the most famous athlete in America is from Akron, the city where I grew up. My sister texted me to say people were celebrating in the streets there. (The truth is we always had a more nuanced relationship with LeBron; he still lives in the Akron suburbs and is involved in the community. And even when he was winning championships in Miami, he was still an emissary of the city!)
Reading James’s Sports Illustrated article explaining his choice, it’s clear he gets that this is about more than sports. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now,” he writes. “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
And while he’s careful not to promise a championship—we saw how well that worked out for Dan Gilbert—it’s obviously what he wants:
When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.
Cleveland’s sports losing streak is by now legendary. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. The Browns have never won a single Super Bowl, despite the nation’s most rabid and loyal fanbase—a group that remained stalwart even as the cowardly traitor Art Modell ripped their beloved team away from them. (Modell, unlike LeBron, will never be forgiven.) The Cavs have never won an NBA championship.
It’s not just the fact of those losses, though; it’s the way they happened. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. The 1997 World Series, lost in Game 7. And worst of all, though it didn’t happen on the field, the Browns’ departure for Baltimore. The psychic damage of those losses, spread across decades and three different sports, and combined with the struggles of a Rust Belt city in the late 20th century, helps explain some of the anger in the Gilbert letter.
That damage is why I’m nervous, too. Many Cleveland fans (reasonably, I think) refused to get too excited this week. What were the odds that LeBron would really come back? Who comes back to Cleveland? Not LTV Steel. Not TRW. Not Higbee’s. And probably not the King. Why get your hopes up?
Now that he’s back, though, I can’t help but imagine all the horrible ways the triumph could go turn sour. A sudden midcareer slump? A catastrophic injury? Or perhaps more likely, a freakish post-season collapse? Nothing would be more fun that watching Cleveland finally break its sports curse, and yet I can’t help but feel this is the setup for yet another horrifying episode, more grist for a wrenching future 30 for 30 on the haplessness of Cleveland sports. I hope I’m wrong. Long live the King!