The LeBron James we loved

LeBron JamesKent Horner/NBAE/Getty Images

In 2004, feelings about LeBron James were far simpler. What happened?

Writer Scott Raab has made waves lately as a leading voice among those most angry at LeBron James. Wikipedia notes that this lifelong Cleveland sports fan has "a tattoo of Chief Wahoo on his forearm, and a son." Ethan Sherwood Strauss, who writes for Salon, WarriorsWorld, HoopSpeak and others, takes issue with Raab. The result is this e-mail exchange about lost love:

Ethan: Scott, you angered me because LeBron James angered you. I sneered as you tweeted bile towards The King. When the Miami Heat excised your presence from their arena, I even cheered the authoritarian rebuke. I hated you that much. You were expressing honest humanity in the cynical sportswriting world, and I wanted you shunned for it. Sorry.

Then, realizations hit in question form: Why do I hate Scott Raab for hating a stranger? Have I become a crazy person?

As you were filing an anti-LeBron opus at Esquire, I was at Salon.com, wrapping maternal embraces around a superstar who wouldn’t care if I died today. My defense of James grazes pathetic obsession. I thought myself on a righteous journey, defending a young minority athlete from a frothing Puritanical mob. Now I can see clearer: I’m just childishly defending my deity from those who would angrily make him mortal.

I remember: 18 years old, 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds. That was LeBron’s first game and it was better than religion. At the time, the ungodly debut was as shocking as it isn’t in retrospect. I was hooked -- perhaps you were too. James crushed opponents with Venus Flytrap dunks, he threw passes between defenders like his hands were moving time and space. Nothing like him had preceded him, despite the comparison rush.

(Magic? Michael? Oscar? Zeus?)

Hype was trumped en route to more hype.

LeBron was going to save my favorite sport from its mid-2000’s obscurity. His transcendence would rescue pro basketball from the people who couldn’t let go of M.J., from those who derided NBA “thugs” with code words to cloak an unsavory bias. As a child, I was led to believe in the NBA as magic, a league so incredible that it delivered cliche moments of bonding with my distant, troubled father. LeBron James could validate my stupid belief in that sorcery.

Even if he didn’t save the universe, today’s NBA is more popular than anytime since Jordan. And for seven years, I lived vicariously through LBJ like all you Clevelanders did. Those were seven great years, ugly as he ended that Ohio run (saying those who burned his jersey were maybe never real James fans anyway).

You weren’t, I was. Your tribal attachment to Cleveland trumped any to The King. It’s easy for me to write, but I wish you could enjoy him from afar. Irrational as my defensive LeBron love is, it’s got to be better than unbridled antipathy. What’s wrong with simply saying, “Those were good times, let’s move on”? When Cleveland viciously boos James, it’s akin to turning positive memories poisonous.

Sure, he slighted a Rustbelt town with little else to publicly pride in. But LeBron James isn’t at fault for Ohio’s poverty -- he’s just born from it. It seems pointless to forever scorn a 25-year-old for the sins of public policy -- as his gutter footprints dry. Why keep on him, Scott? I implore and dare you: Enjoy LeBron James, the basketball player. Stop hating the person.

Scott: But I am enjoying LeBron James, the basketball player. I’m delighted that he’s shooting poorly and seems to be barely trying on D most nights. I’m thrilled to see the toxic effect of his selfishness on Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra. I’m worried -- which, when it comes to sports, is part of my pleasure -- that the Heat will find a way to put it all together the right way, that the team won’t dump its coach and hand the keys to the franchise to the Whore of Akron.

I guess it’s hard -- maybe impossible -- for me to separate the player and the person, the artist from his art. Woody Allen? Not a problem. Richard Wagner? Not a problem. LeBron? Honking huge problem. And it surely isn’t about blaming him for the economic forces that have battered every Rust Belt city since long before his birth, or about my need for external affirmation due to a dearth of unconditional love in my childhood. You pretty much nailed it: My unbridled antipathy and tribal attachment are not separable. I -- and, if I may, the collective We of the Cavs fanbase -- thought he was a member of the tribe.

The joy you felt when all the hype turned into living history on the court? Imagine our ecstasy. The dreams we had dreamed in every pro sport for two generations seemed ready to come true at last. We had our Moses, our Messiah. Sure, it’s only sports, but you and I need not debate how vital sports are in places like Cleveland. What the Steelers and Penguins have provided to Pittsburgh, or the Pistons and Red Wings to Detroit -- that sense of mattering, the pride and joy of being the best -- goes far beyond the box score. Cleveland hasn’t felt that since 1964. LeBron was one of us, and he also was the Chosen One.

That wasn’t just our projection. He played to that; how could he resist? I don’t blame him for that, but not blaming him for it doesn’t make it any easier to say, “Those were good times; let’s move on.” And blaming Us -- the Cavs fanbase -- for “turning positive memories poisonous” is absurd. Our Moses left us tasting ashes with his play against the Celtics last May, and then he left us as part of an hour-long, nationally televised celebration of his solipsistic lunacy. Then he kept talking, and made it perfectly clear that he never counted himself as one of us -- and went on to issue quotes like the one above. Read it again, and think about it carefully. Ponder what it literally says about him: There is no team in LeBron. No team, no tribe, only Me and those who worship at my throne.

A few fans torched their LeBron jerseys, yeah. Are you honestly going to tell me that what LeBron burned down somehow mattered less? We are not LeBron fans, and never were -- not in the sense of the bum’s quote. We’re Cleveland fans, first and forever. And forever is precisely how long we will hate him.

Ethan: Fair enough, hate can be a hobby. But did you really think he was a member of your tribe? We talked on the phone, and you cited the self-deluding, jilted lover analogy. That splits the bullseye. Can I say -- as an outsider -- that LeBron’s membership actually was your projection? I can.

You wrote, “He played to that (Cleveland membership); how could he resist?” If Bron embraced Cleveland roots, he did so with that Game 5 shoulder droop. I never bought what Dan Gilbert sold.

Remember the Yankee cap incident? Of course you do. In your condemnation of this “traitorous act,” you made the case that LeBron knew. He was aware of the hurt this caused, cognizant of the offense.

To my mind, that’s the warning from a reluctant lover. When I was 19 years old, a girl from Cleveland (of all places!) broke my heart. And it wasn’t really her fault. In the dorm days, I pulled her into exclusivity. She was ambivalent, but that was no match for my need to love her. Or so I thought.

Towards the end, there were signs that only retrospect saw. When she muttered, “I love you too,” if it wasn’t muted, it was non-existent. Over the Summer break -- when she was back in Cleveland -- the phone calls slowed. “She’s busy with old friends,” I told myself. “Can’t wait to see her in the fall!,” my brain shouted on loop.

My love was impervious to observation and altogether not meaningful. She was my narcissistic projection, not a human being whom I listened to. And she swiftly destroyed that ersatz love with her own Decision -- as I collapsed into the dirty carpeting of the room we were supposed to share. The experience left me devastated, angry, searching for reasons to make her evil.

I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s book on infinity, “Everything and More.” The beginning explains how great geniuses suffer because they lack our stabilizing intuition. To make a system-warping discovery, to get to that point, the physicist has to doubt everything, even whether his feet will hit floor when he leaves the bed. These scientific pioneers often melt into complete madness, dissolving after their contributions like beached grunions. Uncertainty is the enemy of happiness.

To be certain of reciprocated love is to be ruined when reality undermines. It’s like rolling out of bed and falling 40 feet as you yawn. What gave you comfort was just an illusion, and it’s gone forever. And if a man recognizes his insane self-deception, then how can he be sure of anything?

So in hindsight, the jilted focuses on the lover’s awful deceit -- instead of the self-delusion. It’s easier to question their actions, instead of your own perception and insecurity. “She loved me, then screwed me over,” feels better than, “I was needy enough to imagine our cohesion.”

Making her out to be unstable and traitorous only carries so far. Clinging to blame, bitterness, and rage can be corrosive like self-doubt -- after awhile. As I said above, sometimes it’s best just to move on.

But back to LeBron. How awful of him to trick Cleveland and let you believe a lie. He didn’t. Your need to be loved back created that false hometown hero. He was just along for the ride, with one foot out the car.

One day, somebody will reverently wax: “Remember LeBron James on the Cavs? Now THOSE are the coolest highlights.” Cleveland Bron might have that ABA Dr. J cachet, and you still have the footage. The embarrassment and pain have long since subsided from my old relationship. Since I was able to move on, I’m fondly detached from those fuzzy memories. They are folded into a lot of early college hilarity. Who knows? Maybe one day, we’ll even be friends. The hate ebbed long ago, and I’m better for it.

Scott: I feel you, brother. That Cleveland girl broke my heart, too. But let’s not get lost in old romance. Let’s not let a metaphor stand for the thing itself. And let’s not pretend that fanhood -- as I define it anyway -- isn’t at its heart romance writ large. Love projected, if you will.

Fanhood for me -- and I’ll presume to speak for Clevelanders en masse -- is about the permanence of one kind of love: love of place. One of the most frustrating things about this week for me has been trying to answer media cretins who have no sense of history, who are not well-traveled or well-read, who are too dumb or disengaged to understand what’s really going on in Cleveland this week. One thing I hate more than LeBron? Smug and lazy journo-punks. And I am NOT talking about you, sir. I’m talking about all the schoolmarms telling Cleveland to behave itself tonight, lest it leave a bad impression on the pundits who have portrayed it as a sewer for 40 years.

Think about the World Cup and the astonishing global fervor that surrounds it. Think about what cricket and rugby mean to hundreds of millions of people in countries across the world -- and not in terms of sport alone; a single game can reflect and often help to shape the culture and politics of a nation. Those citizens aren’t playing the game; they’re projecting. To belittle their passion by comparing it to some long-lost love is to miss the point entirely. Fanhood on the level I’m talking about is a deeper thing than you seem to think. It embodies love, loyalty, passion, and pride on a titanic scale. I know, I know: Love of country has been defiled by red-state rabble-rousers. But that’s the kind of fanhood I’m talking about here.

Whatever plays out on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena is part of the history of the relationship between this city and people whose families have rooted passionately for Cleveland teams since long before the player who left was born -- and spare me the ridiculous notion that Akron and Cleveland aren’t a single entity when it comes to Cleveland sports. That’s nothing but more self-serving, post facto bull from the same guy who thought surrounding himself with small children on the night of The Decision would fool anyone into thinking he cared about anyone but himself. Yes, his place of birth, like mine and yours, was an accident. That still doesn’t make it a projection. Nor does it justify painting Cleveland fans as a collective version of young, hapless Ethan Sherwood Strauss.

As for the Yankees cap, I stand by everything I wrote at the time. I came back as a Cavs fan -- after boycotting the entire 2008 season and half of ‘09 -- not because I felt that the player had changed, but because the team had. I thought that they were good enough to win the NBA title, and I wasn’t going to miss that experience. I thought the same last season, when I started this book in the hope that it would a fairy tale come true.

The fact that the story hasn’t turned out that way isn’t all LeBron’s fault; there’s plenty of blame to go around. But that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for the disgrace and dishonor -- not "embarrassment and pain" -- he heaped upon himself and every Cleveland fan when he quit on the court against the Celtics last May and then spent an hour on national television feeding his insatiable ego at our expense.

How pretty it is to think that he and Cleveland will be friends someday. The truth is elsewhere. The time when we all get over it and reminisce about the good old days with young King James will never come. Here -- in the heart and soul of Cleveland -- he will be loathed forevermore.