For decades Cleveland Cavaliers fans have needed a healthy sense of humor in order to survive. “Everyone hates Cleveland,” we all joked, sometimes more at them than with them. Even God is said to hate Cleveland. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, Cleveland found a way every single time, right up to The Decision (part one). They’re the city that managed to set their own river on fire; nothing was impossible.
Earlier this week there was a lot of buzz about LeBron James, their Prodigal Son, returning home to play for the Cavaliers. We all kind of giggled because the idea was ludicrous after everything that had happened. And because it was Cleveland. In the words of the immortal Liz Lemon, we can’t just run off to the Cleve any time we want. But the louder the buzzing grew, the more those of us outside of Cleveland groaned, “Come on, those people have suffered enough; getting their hopes up like this is beyond cruel.”
And then something happened that melted even my cynical heart: James looked at the city that even God supposedly hates and said, “I love you.” It was shocking, and it was beautiful, to see people who have rarely (if ever) heard those words before. To see them feel what it’s like to be wanted.
Since I read James’ announcement, I’ve been trying to put it in context. I’m an Indianapolis person; the closest I have to something like this was welcoming Peyton Manning home last fall when the Colts hosted the Denver Broncos. But that was our chance to say goodbye, and thank you. The feeling in Cleveland when James is first announced in the starting lineup this fall will be something else entirely. Maybe not unlike when Michael Jordan came back to the Chicago Bulls after his baseball hiatus (and maybe furthering the comparisons between the two). But that’s still not adequate.
I’m not jumping on the Cleveland bandwagon. I’ve been an Indiana Pacers fan for 20 years, and seeing them win a championship after coming so close so many times would be phenomenal. But beyond being a fan, I can appreciate that the entire point of following sports is to experience an emotionally charged story. To feel excitement, anticipation, frustration, heartbreak, rejection and face-melting happiness (hopefully) all as part of the deal.
When I first heard that James was going home, I didn’t think about what it would mean for the Pacers, though maybe I should have. I get what it’s like to be small market fan in flyover country. I get, at least on some level, what it’s like to have your heart broken when a guy you really care about leaves. My first reaction to James’ announcement was shock, because it seemed too good to be true. Something so perfect couldn’t happen in the real world.
My second reaction: I remembered a video called “The Spirit of New Orleans” featuring Wynton Marsalis that ran before the New Orleans Saints won their Super Bowl. Marsalis ends the tribute with, “It’s like waiting forty-three years to hear someone say, ‘I love you’ back… and then they do.” The Cavs could never win another game, but they’d still have this moment. That’s why, even though they’re about to become my team’s rivals, I’m elated for them, just as (despite my Colts’ fandom) I couldn’t help being a little happy for New Orleans when they won that Super Bowl.
When James went to Cleveland the first time, they drafted him. This time, James chose Cleveland, and he did it in the most eloquent way possible. Please let us be happy for you, Cleveland. Please let us live vicariously through you for an afternoon and believe that our players choose to love us, too.