CLEVELAND — It’s tempting to issue a referendum on the relationship the fans of Cleveland have with LeBron James.
They stood and cheered Wednesday night so it means ? he’s appreciated? He’s always welcome? He’s ? what?
It was lovely, but it’s still hard to have perspective on James’ journey, one that’s unique among the NBA’s all-time greats.
The Cleveland Cavaliers executed a pitch-perfect video tribute that ended showing James’ lasting impact in the community. It followed a reel of James’ quintessential highlights from Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Unless you came to Quicken Loans Arena with a cold heart, you were going to be on your feet.
But the Cavs are also awful, now 2-14 and headed for the worst record in the league. They are probably going to be a bad team for a while and James’ departure is the central reason. That’s what makes this all so complicated, the balance of what LeBron gives and what he takes. The Cavs’ fans, especially those who were reared in the James era, have had to live through both.
There are plenty of die-hard James fans out there, quite a few came to the arena wearing his jersey in all its myriad forms. But the arena wasn’t totally full at tipoff Wednesday, despite a late start, and the secondary market for tickets was tepid. This was unquestionably the game of the season on the Cavs’ schedule, and there was still a missing edge that James’ return was expected to bring.
There was more excitement in the building when the Cavs tried to hold a fourth-quarter lead — they couldn’t — than when honoring the greatest player in franchise history. They couldn’t help it, it’s human nature.
James had yet another beautiful game — 32 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists — but the fans just wanted their team to win. Back in 2010 when he returned with the Miami Heat, the Cleveland fans just wanted James to lose. They didn’t care who he played. The television ratings proved that. When the Miami Heat played, the nightly ratings report often looked like this: 1. Miami; 2. Whatever team Miami played; 3. Cleveland.
The interest in the Los Angeles Lakers‘ performance by the Cleveland fans is only in passing. They aren’t devoted enough to see how James does. And most of the games are on too late anyway.
It creates this question: Will LeBron James end up being liked by many but loved by few?
Walking away from Wednesday’s emotions, it felt as though that’s where Cleveland is with James right now. It also happens to be where Miami is with him too. He got a nice ovation there earlier on this road trip and he always will. Then he buried the team that hasn’t been anywhere as good since he left and moved on to do it again in Cleveland.
James’ journey to becoming a beloved Laker is going to be a tough one. Nothing against him, it’s that the standard is so high. Maybe he’ll get there, it’s impossible to say right now. Lakers fans already like him clearly as he has made their team both fun to watch and relevant again. Ticket prices and TV ratings have soared.
For James himself, this might be a distinction he doesn’t care about anyway. He has made it clear many times that his priority is creating a wonderful life and generational wealth for his family and friends, and to leave a mark on the community that raised him by reaching out to help disadvantaged children.
His visit to his I Promise School on Wednesday morning superseded basketball — the Lakers canceled shootaround so he could go surprise the kids — and that those lives he has changed matter way more than the perception of any collective fan base.
He spoke of seeing a young girl who was so overwhelmed with emotion that she burst into tears and he couldn’t help but scoop her up into his arms. Honestly, who could argue with that? Will he remember that for longer or the video tribute that he said he didn’t even watch? What will he be thinking about on Thanksgiving: the length and veracity of the ovation or his wife’s red velvet cake that he has been looking forward to?
James seems to be quite settled in establishing his priorities.
The Cavs fans don’t have such clarity. Perhaps they moved closer to that direction Wednesday as this night created a positive memory and not an infamous one. Perhaps everyone will have to wait for the jersey retirement or the statue unveiling.
It’s going to take some more time, though, because confused feelings are a part of James’ legacy too.