Right Field

‘King James’ Fatigue

Clevelanders who are swooning over the news that LeBron James is returning to the Cavaliers should stop it. In 2010, fans pleaded with him not to leave. They wrote heartfelt letters and made emotional videos, thinking he would be swayed by the depth of their feelings. Here come the valentines again.

At CBS Sports, Gregg Doyel, who identifies himself as an honorary Clevelander, interrupts his welcome-home speech to make this clear-eyed sad observation: “Do you know why Cleveland needed this so badly? Because LeBron’s pretty much all we’ve got.” He isn’t, but that’s not the point. It’s that Clevelanders think he is.

In a certain light, as Kareem Abdul Jabbar observes, James is not so much the prodigal son as “the straying husband who abandoned his longtime partner to chase a younger, hotter, firmer slice,” and now “he’s coming home with a bouquet of roses in one hand and a diamond bracelet in the other, begging forgiveness.” Cleveland’s response? He’s pretty much all they’ve got.

It can be a fine line between passion and desperation. Cuyahoga County officials had plenty of the former to motivate them in their successful bid for the 2016 Republican convention, which dominated the local news last week until the James story broke. Note that their effort to win over decision-makers at the RNC was led by a Democrat, his party’s good servant but Cleveland’s first.

Congratulations to the hungry Clevelanders. In their itchiness to redeem their hometown’s rep, they found a way to beat out the competition in Dallas and elsewhere. Call it creative insecurity — a potent force that can be used for ill, however, as well as for good: It’s also fueling the city’s overreaction to James. Cleveland is taking too big a swing at a pitch that’s not even all that fat. King James, as they call him, is a great ballplayer, obviously, but hardly the great man you would imagine from all the gushing about his coming home again. 

Outside religion, the full-spectrum hero that people feel they need doesn’t exist, so they recruit the most famous face in the room to play the part. It’s not James’s fault that he’s been miscast in a role too big for him. After all, no one who is crowned king ever lives up fully to the ideal he’s supposed to represent, and we should cut some slack especially for those who never sought the honor but had it thrust on them.

The problem with that view in the case of James is that he has often signaled that he thought he deserved the exalted status conferred on him by Clevelanders in search of a king. Maybe David French is right and the poor boy from the mean streets of Akron has matured and found the light. I would like to agree with Rod Dreher and Ian Tuttle that he’s finally discovered the true value of home. But I’m not feeling it. What I’m feeling is LeBron James fatigue. Can’t we just let his inner life remain between him, his family, and God? His return to the Cavaliers makes them a better team, which should be enough. I can’t be the only one who’s had it with the narrative business already.

When James left the clouds of Cleveland for the sands of South Beach four years ago, I marveled like everyone else at the crassness of his exit, of his making a drama out of it by starring in a little show, “The Decision,” that aired in prime time on ESPN, where he announced to the world he would sign with the Miami Heat. Common courtesy, which of course he didn’t observe, would have been to inform Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert privately beforehand.

For his part, Gilbert wasted little time in posting to the team’s official website a diatribe in Comic Sans font, no less, later that evening. Fans joined in by burning LeBron James–themed NBA merchandise. The hatefest was on. What a circus: everyone acting like a jilted schoolgirl, except James, who acted like a [expletive deleted].

At the time, I was working in an office building a few hundred feet east of Quicken Loans Arena on Huron Road in downtown Cleveland. One afternoon during the run-up to the big night when we were scheduled to learn whether James had rejected our fair city or would reaffirm his vows to it instead, a crew from the Plain Dealer approached me across the street from the Q as I was walking to lunch. What did I think? Was I optimistic he would stay? No, I was optimistic he would leave.

He did. The city’s most draining energy vampire eventually fled. We could breathe again.

On my way to work the morning after “The Decision,” I stopped and watched as workmen tore down from Tower City a ten-story-tall billboard of King James shown with arms outstretched, looking like Jesus on the cross. It was a Nike ad captioned “We are all witnesses.” Seldom has the rivalry between organized sports and organized religion been so blatantly advertised.

Twelve years ago, when he was a junior at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School in Akron, James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the headline “The Chosen One,” which, adapted (“1” instead of “one”), appears as a tattoo on his back — or did. Let me be generous and assume that he’s had it removed or, if not, at least regrets that he had it inked in the first place. They say he’s grown up and gotten over himself.

Out of respect for him, his admirers in Cleveland should follow suit.

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