Hearing LeBron James talk about returning to Cleveland brings to mind the time Frasier Crane looked at Cliff Clavin in Cheers and asked: What color is the sky in your world, Cliff?
James brought purple landscapes to sports on Thursday. Not because he answered a question honestly, but because he answered a question he did not need to answer, and by answering he had many folks scratching their noggins and saying, “What?”
James said that he would not mind returning to Cleveland one day, that if he did he hoped the fans would welcome him back and that he could make up with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who took a blowtorch to James’ name and reputation when he left Cleveland.
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James said all this while he is a member of the Miami Heat. This in itself is inexplicable. James just joined the Heat a year ago, forming a personal dream/AAU team of himself, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. They made the NBA Finals before flaming out in epic fashion against Dallas, with Cleveland pulling all the way for the Mavaliers.
But barely into his second season in Miami, one in which the Heat and James are playing exceptionally well, the NBA’s apparent wanderer not only answered a question about leaving Miami, he answered by sounding like he kind of wished it would happen.
Of course Wade, Bosh and all the Heat folks will shrug and say what James said doesn’t matter — surely it does not “affect the family,” which endured plenty of drama a season ago. But it’s easy to imagine them scratching their heads and asking, “He said what?”
Reading James’ words, he sounded like ex-Cleveland Indian Jim Thome, who left for Philadelphia as a free agent and then at his introductory news conference in Philadelphia spent more time saying the word “Cleveland” than Philadelphia.
It’s all way out there on the “out there scale” because James didn’t just leave Cleveland, he went medieval on the city and the fans who adored him. He ripped out its collective heart, jumped up and down on it, then put it on a stake to display on a bridge — enabled all along by folks around him and a national television network that saw fit to broadcast a show that had to be one of the worst in sports television history.
But take a step back, and that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Because before James really thinks about returning, he should recall the way he left, and to do that he need only go back to the last three games he played for the Cavs, especially the next-to-last one.
After playing exceptionally well against Boston in leading the Cavs to a 2-1 playoff series lead, James watched nearly helplessly as Rajon Rondo humiliated the Cavs and James while Boston tied the series. One play comes to mind: Rondo went up for a breakaway layup, saw James behind him, faked like he was going to lay the ball in then whipped a pass behind his back to a teammate for a dunk as James flew by harmlessly.
After the game, James criticized his coach for the way he used Shaquille O’Neal in the fourth quarter. Thursday, James said he could play for any coach. Cleveland folks know this is not true, because in the infamous Game 5 James did not play for his coach. He didn’t play for his city, his team, his teammates or anyone. Because he didn’t play.
James was on the floor, but he was the most disinterested, lifeless player in the 48 continental states and half of Canada. His non-effort bordered on the surreal. James did not make a shot until the third quarter, did not participate in some plays, gave the ball to teammates in the worst positions late in the shot clock and acted like he would rather have been working security at the airport than be in Quicken Loans Arena.
After the game, James actually said he had “spoiled” people with his good games. Their leader went from aggressive to lifeless. Players, coaches, front office — nobody understood. It could have been the worst game played by a superstar in a key moment in NBA history.
In the next game in Boston, James played hard but added nine turnovers to his triple-double. In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, he did things like dribble the ball off his foot and then do the dribble constantly thing before throwing a pass to Anderson Varejao for a 20-foot jumpshot with one second left on the shot clock.
When the game ended and the Cavs lost, James wasn’t even in the locker room before he ripped off his jersey. Then he huddled with his advisers before addressing the media about his future. Soon after he was wearing that gingham shirt and talking about taking his talents to South Beach.
Now he says it’s possible to return, to rebuild the bridge. Maybe it is. Stranger things have happened, and talent speaks loudly. But it’s really not James’ decision, even though he said it is. It’s up to the Cavs, and for James to think the Cavs would not discuss the pros and cons is really short-sighted. The team has started rebuilding around rookie point guard Kyrie Irving, who has exceeded all expectations. Add a few more pieces, and the Cavs would have something going. James is uber-talented, but Gilbert would have to decide if the baggage he brings on and off the court (wanting the ball, wanting the spotlight, the entourage, etc.) would be worth messing with the existing team chemistry.
Sure, he might come back, but it won’t be the way it was his first seven years. The cautionary “fool me once, fool me twice” comes to mind.
The rebuilding job that would have to be done between James and the city kind of brings to mind the Brooklyn Bridge, built in the 19th century by men going underwater into a caisson at the bottom of the East River. There, in a chamber pressurized to keep out water, men dug down from the bottom of the river to bedrock to lay the foundation.
James would face that kind of task to rebuild the bridge between himself and Cleveland, between himself and Gilbert.
Anything is possible — James’ words prove as much.
And the Brooklyn Bridge eventually was completed.
But it sure took a lot of time, effort and suffering to get it done.