CLEVELAND The city that leads with its chin has jutted it out there one more time. In a sort of, maybe, please-don’t-hit-me-again fashion.
LeBron the Heartbreaker may return home to the Cavaliers (or he may not; it’s difficult to overstate how much hoo-ha has been made of so few facts with this story), and Cleveland can’t help itself. It’s ready to swoon once more.
A closeup of LeBron James’ face dominated half the front page of The Plain Dealer on Thursday morning. The local sports talk show advertises itself as “24/7 LeBron.” Wander up to more or less anyone here and say, “So LeBron …” and words flow.
“Oh God, I don’t know, why not, OK?” says Shawn Brewster, a barkeep with that pained Cleveland sports fan look on his face. “I’m not bitter, I’ll tell you that right now.”
Which means he’s very bitter.
“LeBron is the girl who hangs out with you all night,” Brewster says. “And you buy all the drinks. And at the end of the night, he went home with the jerk.”
But, Brewster wants James to return.
“Just don’t play with us again,” he says.
LeBron James is, after all, the Akron Hero who tossed Cleveland over for South Beach.
On a talk radio station, the announcer refers to James as “the back-stabbing weasel.” Then, the same announcer says he’ll welcome back James with open arms, which is before the announcer offers that if James spurns Cleveland again, “I’ll stomp on him like a snake in the grass.”
That notion of betrayal comes up often.
“Me? I feel like he’s a traitor; he doesn’t deserve us,” says Larry Horton, standing a block from the Cavaliers’ arena. “And if he comes here, he’ll leave us again.”
Horton wore a handsome black leather Miami Heat cap, which would appear to offer a mixed message.
“If the man comes here,” Horton says, “not saying I won’t ever root for him.”
Like most cities, Cleveland lives with its sport contradictions.
James did not help himself with his indulgent “The Decision” spectacle four years ago. In trying to explain his decision to leave his hometown team, he strayed here and there, referring to himself in the third person.
He also was 26 years old at the time, a reasonably thoughtful young man from a single-parent family in a poor precinct of Akron. And he had a co-conspirator. The national sports network, ESPN, hitched itself to LeBron’s free-agent search as surely as a stagecoach driver hitches up his horses.
Then there’s his decision.
It does not take a novelistic stretch of the imagination to figure why a 26-year-old star athlete, accustomed to wind and sleet off Lake Erie in February, might decide there were worse places to spend a few years than South Beach.
At Bobby’C barber shop in downtown Cleveland, Melvin Orr delivers a buzz cut. When he was 20, he says, he joined the military. He saw Europe and the Persian Gulf and came home.
He did not regret that journey and sees no reason James should regret his.
“He got himself two rings, he explored the world. Good for him,” he says. “He’s in a business. If he comes back here, that’s a pretty great story, isn’t it?”
Old, young ... doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to James.
Kyshawn Ford, 15, strolls out of Coit Park with three friends. He’s shirtless, having just played hoops.
A lot of adults, he knows, are angry at James, even though they want him.
“LeBron? I really don’t care if he left,” he says. “I never sat on an ocean beach in my life. To me, he comes back, I’m cheering.”
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