It’s been more than 72 hours since Cleveland received a slap in the face — a description most would probably call mild. There are few who haven’t heard about, or reacted to, LeBron James’s decision to “take (his) talents” from Cleveland to Miami. Equally shocking, though, and the focus of my observations over the past three days and this post, is Cleveland’s reaction.
I feel led to start this out with a disclaimer. I’m not a sports writer. I’m not even a sports fan. With the exception of ice skating, which for some reason has always fascinated me, I could care less (no offense). Because of my deplorable lack of any type of athletic skill, paired with the fact that there never seem to be enough hours in the day, I’ve never seen any reason to spend time learning about, following (and especially playing) sports. Because I also don’t live under a rock, as a rule, I have heard and do understand the bare bones of this whole LeBron situation. However, you’ve been warned. This post is my reaction to the situation as a human being and as a journalist. Any sports facts I get wrong are beyond my control.
That said, I might as well begin with a fairly harmless topic — Twitter. I don’t actually know when James started his Twitter account, but I do know that he had close to 100,000 followers before he ever tweeted a word. When he did start sharing his thoughts with the world, his following skyrocketed. However, the night James announced he was leaving Cleveland, more than 100,000 people took the time to log onto their computers (or their iPhones for those really high-tech people) and “unfollow” James’s account. The decision affected them enough that they decided to take that step in a rather blatant display of reneged support. These numbers are, again, an estimation, and I could be short. But, regardless, a whole lot of people unfollowed “the King” that night.
Speaking of Twitter, ESPN’s response to James’s Twitter account — and every other second of his life — is another indication that this one man’s story sparked an unprecedented reaction. Just one example: When James joined Twitter and actually penned (metaphorically speaking) his first tweet, the event made the top of ESPN’s headlines. The coverage culminated in a hyped-up, hour-long special dubbed “The Decision,” which, apparently, has never been done for another free agent. A friend of mine posted a stellar writeup detailing just how ESPN was lacking. This was online less than an hour after James announced his decision — like I said and will keep saying, Cleveland was reactionary that night.
Response number three belongs to Dan Gilbert, the majority owner of the Cavs (did you know you could own a sports team? I didn’t). Gilbert released an open letter to Cleveland residents and Cavs fans that included some not-so-nice words and accusations, an offensive font and an overall feel of unprofessionalism — driven by betrayal, to be sure, but unprofessionalism all the same. Just a few tidbits:
As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier. This was announced with a several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up… You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal. … this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own…
Interestingly, Plain Dealer Cavs reporter Brian Windhorst, who tweets under the handle @PDCavsInsider, wrote soon after, “… from (someone) who’s dealt with Gilbert, I can only imagine what the first draft looked like. This was probably PR team’s compromise.” On a side (and admittedly snide) note, that PR team didn’t do a very good job copyediting. There are a couple of doozies. That aside, though, Gilbert’s very public attack on someone I’m sure he had a pretty good relationship with the week before is significant, especially given his promise to Cleveland in the letter that the Cavs will win a championship before James does. What happens if James gets that ring he wants so badly the next time around? Gilbert won’t look very good when his words are pulled up again (caps and bold not my own):
“I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”
You can take it to the bank.
Finally, the reaction by the city and the fans (many of them former fans), was irrefutably extreme. People called in to random radio stations to vent over a city-wide loudspeaker. I was at work when James officially made his announcement, so I didn’t hear about it until 10:15 when I was listening to the radio in the car. A woman had called and was telling the host how she really felt. There were more bleeps than there were actual words. People cried. They burned their jerseys. A mild reaction, I guess, given any number of alternatives, but still pretty aggressive.
One of the biggest indicators for me, though, was something that happened in downtown Cleveland that evening. Less than an hour after James made his big announcement, Windhorst informed the people using him as a source that night that multiple police cars were needed to protect the infamous “We are all witnesses” billboard prominently featured in downtown Cleveland — if you haven’t seen it, you aren’t really a Clevelander.
But yeah, you heard me right. Multiple police cars. Protecting a billboard. It seems to me that on a Thursday night in downtown Cleveland, that’s a waste of manpower. And I’m not saying the police were wrong; I’m saying the people of Cleveland shouldn’t have put them in that position.
It’s a lot to take in, and I have no doubt I’ve only written about the tip of the iceberg as far as Cleveland’s reaction goes. Now, I’m not going to pretend I understand. I’m not one of the people who have followed James’s career with breathless anticipation for the last seven-plus years. Another friend recently published a poignant and eye-opening post about the effect all of this had on him, and after reading it, I was a little closer to understanding. Still, I can’t relate to the sense of betrayal Cleveland fans are feeling except in a sidelines kind of way. For the people who really are upset, I don’t want to downplay their reaction or be insensitive. And on the other side of things, I don’t want to condone the actions of James, who didn’t seem all that apologetic on the clip I watched of his announcement and, regardless of his decision, certainly could have handled it in a much more tactful and mature way.
I’m not an expert. I’m sure there are points I’ve missed, headlines I’ve failed to include and any number of nuances from the past seven years I haven’t picked up on. However, the intensity of Cleveland’s reaction seems a little wrong to me. All emotion aside, let’s look at the facts. James didn’t break any rules. His decision wasn’t anything that Cleveland couldn’t have predicted. He isn’t a president, or an airplane pilot with hundreds of people’s lives in his hands, or a surgeon about to cut a person open. He’s a 25-year-old mortal who screws up every day, just like the rest of us, who ultimately made a decision about his life Thursday night.
Sure, it can be expected that the sports fans who have been following and supporting him for close to a decade would react. The reason they call (called?) him “King James” probably had to do with his athletic ability, which, from what I understand, is pretty significant. But that’s not all there is to this guy. For some inexplicable reason, he was able to bring a city of more than 400,000 people — and that’s not even counting the surrounding area and the thousands of fans who live elsewhere — together in an extremely violent reaction. There are plenty of Clevelanders who could care less, but the response was widespread and shared by many.
Is this what it takes to bring a city together? An athlete switching teams — something which, from what I understand (don’t forget my disclaimer), isn’t that uncommon?
Is this what it takes to make journalists sit up and take notice? A basketball player writing a tweet?
Why isn’t there a similarly widespread public outcry every time a rape is reported or a child abuser goes free? Why aren’t journalists delving more deeply, more often, into the city’s spending and seeing what funds might be better put aside to support Cleveland’s thousands of homeless people?
Pretty soon, I’m going to go to sleep in my safe house with a full stomach. So will Dan Gilbert. And so will LeBron James. But there are plenty of people who won’t. And maybe, someday, the people of Cleveland will get more upset about that than the decision of one man.