It felt so certain in the weeks leading up to NBA free agency, but there was still a palpable sense of uncertainty on where LeBron James would end up. Well, all the uncertainty is gone. LeBron James is now a Los Angeles Laker after agreeing to a four-year, $154 million deal to take his talents to Hollywood.
It's a bitter pill for Cleveland Cavaliers fans to swallow, even if the writing on the wall had long dried up. LeBron represented something bigger than basketball to the community, and his absence is going to be felt in that region beyond the confines of Quicken Loans Arena.
But like most proper goodbyes, this departure is bereft of the poisonous undertones that marred his first exit out of the Land. There were no made-for-TV specials, no jerseys burning in the streets, and certainly no ill-fated, Comic Sans-typed response by a jilted owner. All it had was a one sentence press release, a three-paragraph statement from a now appreciative owner, and enough cherished memories to last a lifetime.
There were still tears, sure, but those tears weren't a product of anger, resentment, or betrayal. They were tears of losing someone who wanted more out of his life. Even if it stings, it's hard to get mad at that because, at the end of the day, LeBron James earned the right to make this decision.
When he returned to Cleveland four years ago, it came with a promise to finally deliver a championship to his hometown team. It took two years and a Herculean effort to come back from a 3-1 deficit against a Golden State Warriors team that had just an NBA record 73 wins, but through sheer force of will and determination, LeBron came through on his word.
That was the headline that was strewn across the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer's sports page in the July 2nd edition of the newspaper just when news started coming out that LeBron had agreed to sign with the Lakers. No two words better encapsulated his second run with the Cavs. It lasted only four years, but those four years came with four trips to the NBA Finals, and, most importantly, one championship.
It's easy to sit back and look at that picture with a half-glass-empty perspective. Four years and only one title? For someone who’s supposed to be in the conversation as the GOAT? Well, if you know Cleveland's tortured history in sports, you know that one title is all the city—and the whole region—needed to exorcise all those past demons. When LeBron came back, he promised to lead the exorcism. And he did.
Cleveland, this is for you
LeBron James screamed those words at Oracle Arena two years ago when the Cavs completed their improbable comeback to win the title. For a man who's as carefully guarded as James, it was a rare peek inside an unfiltered man who had finally come through and accomplished what so many others before him, including past versions of himself, couldn't do. The joy was real. The relief was real. The tears? They were real, too. That version of LeBron was a version of a man who knew the magnitude of what he and his team accomplished.
Northeast Ohio will always be home
LeBron posted those words to accompany an image of himself in the middle of a championship parade with throngs of people surrounding him. You can take the man out of his home, but you can't take home out of the man. It's just that, sometimes, the man has to leave home to find new challenges.
There's always sadness in that kind of separation. It's human nature for all of us to feel a sense of pang whenever someone or something we've held onto so dearly is taken away from us. Cleveland Cavs fans should feel sad that LeBron is gone. He single-handedly put the team and the community on his shoulders, taking them to heights they had never been to. But now that the ride is over, all that's left are the memories—in this case, a Larry O'Brien trophy—that were earned along the way.
It was unbecoming of LeBron James the way he left back in 2010. He could've been better in how he dealt with it. He should've been better. But now? It would be unbecoming of his fans—Cavs fans, at least—to hold his second departure against him.
LeBron lived up to his end of the deal. The debt was paid. The promise was kept. Now he gets to write the final chapter of his sparking career on his own terms. He deserves as much because after everything he went through and accomplished in the last four years, he has earned the right to make this decision for himself.