Wednesday May 12th, 2010

LeBron James may yet rescue the Cavaliers and the city of Cleveland, in that order. He may score his team's final 25 points in Game 6 Thursday night, as he once did in a crucial playoff game, and lead the Cavs to a win in Boston to keep their season alive. He may win a championship and re-sign with the Cavaliers. Someday we may see a 30-foot statue in downtown Cleveland of LeBron wearing all eight of his Cavaliers' championship rings.

Yeah, that might all happen in Cleveland ... except that, well, good sports things never happen in Cleveland. This city could turn Frank Capra into Stephen King.

Imagine what it is like now, to be a rabid sports fan in the most tortured sports city in America. If the Cavs lose to Boston in Game 6 -- and the Celtics have been the better team in this series, without a doubt -- Cleveland fans might just give up on the following, in order: the Cavs, all of sports, eating and the possibility of a benevolent God. There is a time and a place for perspective in sports. Cleveland, right now, is not the place.

The Indians are unwatchable; I watched one of their games on TV this weekend and there were so many empty seats that I thought it was Free Tickets To Something Else night. The new incarnation of the Browns has specialized in punts and interceptions.

LeBron James is supposed to save this part of the world.

The last Cleveland team to win a championship was the 1964 Browns. That means you have to be at least 50 years old to remember watching a Cleveland team win a title, and at least 55 to have appreciated it. Since then, being a Cleveland sports fan has been decades of getting punched in the groin.

Most sports fans remember most of the punches: the Brian Sipe playoff-game-killing interception, Earnest Byner's Fumble and John Elway's Drive (capital letters required), Michael Jordan's shot over Craig Ehlo, Edgar Renteria's World Series-winning single against the Indians. But I don't think most fans realize this: Those were the high points. Those were the moments when Cleveland teams had a chance. The rest was just plain old losing.

That's what it has meant to be a Cleveland sports fan: long periods of suffering broken up by brief periods of feeling hopeful, followed immediately by worse suffering. And of course, there was the worst indignity of all: Art Modell yanking the Browns out of Cleveland, changing their name, then winning a championship in Baltimore.

If James leaves Cleveland -- for New York or anywhere else -- it will be an even darker moment than when the Browns left. At least then, Cleveland got another version of the Browns. How the heck is it going to get another version of LeBron James?

This would be the most painful free-agent departure in American sports history. Whatever is second is a distant second. Here you have the league MVP, probably the premier player of his generation, who grew up in nearby Akron, with a chance to rescue the most tortured sports city in America ... and he bolts? Unthinkable.

Nobody knows what James really wants to do. It is one of the great stories of the last decade, because the hype has not added a shred of insight. We know he loves New York and has people in his ear who want him to go to New York. We also know that it's hard to leave a 60-plus-win team in your hometown for a rebuilding team somewhere else. He wants to be a mogul but he wants to win; he wants the fame but he wants to be loved. Nobody seems to know how this will go.

But if you're from Cleveland, you are conditioned to expect the worst and then wonder if you're being too optimistic. If LeBron bolts, Clevelanders might blame all sorts of culprits: LeBron, his business guys, New York, New Yorkers, the media, the Steelers -- the list is long.

But if the Celtics finish off the Cavs and end the James era in Cleveland, I hope Cavs fans blame their basketball franchise.

The team deserves it.

Seven years have passed since the Cavs lucked and sucked their way into the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. That was the best year to have the No. 1 pick since 1997, when Tim Duncan was available. Everybody knew LeBron James would be the first pick. Everybody knew he would be not just a star, but probably a league MVP.

By his second year, James was in the discussion for best player in the world -- he averaged 27.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists and shot 47 percent from the field. He was still a subpar defensive player, but that was his only real weakness.

So the Cavs have played six seasons with LeBron in full superstar mode. They have had six years to build a championship team around the easiest player in the league to build around.

And what have they done with it?

They declined an option on Carlos Boozer, thinking they had an under-the-table handshake agreement, and Boozer bolted for more money in Utah. They gave $70 million to Larry Hughes, or roughly $4.50 for each bad shot. They overpaid Drew Gooden. They took Mo Williams' contract off Milwaukee's hands. They took Ben Wallace's contract off Chicago's hands. They took Shaq's contract off Phoenix's hands. They took Antawn Jamison's contract off of Washington's hands. They have acquired one overvalued asset after another -- chances are good that if you walked away from your house after the real estate market collapsed, the Cavs now own it.

Plenty of talent has flowed into the league in the last five years, but not enough of it has flowed to Cleveland.

It's been 98 percent madness and two percent method. The Cavs have never seemed to have a real plan. They have just spent money on the biggest name they could find at any given moment. The conventional wisdom in NBA front offices is that the way you win a title is with one superstar and one near-superstar, then fit the pieces around them. Cleveland never got that near-superstar, and worse, the Cavs never really tried. They never saved cap space so they could target a specific free agent to complement the most gifted player in the world.

Owner Daniel Gilbert will spend whatever it takes. But it takes more than spending, and Gilbert's general manager, Danny Ferry, has not shown the patience or acumen of the best general managers. It has been hard to tell if the Cavs are more concerned with winning or trying to convince LeBron that they are trying to win. Now it looks like the Cavaliers won't win. And if they don't, they'll have to do the convincing job of a lifetime.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.