CLEVELAND -- Well, that was not what they wanted.
No, Cleveland was hoping its plucky young team would drive hard to the basket, hit its free throws, grab every loose ball and dump LeBron James in a vat of hot wax. It was clear the night wasn't going well for the Cavaliers when the second half started and they asked the refs if they could use a Nerf hoop.
This was all wrong. And yet, it was completely right. This was a Cleveland sports night -- the whole exquisitely miserable experience wrapped up in one cold and unfulfilling evening. It began with an electric, playoff-like atmosphere and ended with the Heat drilling the Cavs. The final was 118-90, but it wasn't even that close. The Cavs scored garbage-time points against Eddie House, Erick Dampier and three of LeBron's accountants. (He got them roster spots because hey, they're his friends!)
The basketball lesson for the day was that 'tis better to have LeBron James than to have loved and lost him. But this night was never really about basketball. It was about Cleveland. It was about Brian Sipe and Earnest Byner and Craig Ehlo. It was about Cavs fan Bart Gruber, who brought his 8-year-old son to the game -- not so much to cheer or boo, but because they are Cavs fans. I asked Gruber what he told his son after "The Decision."
"After he cried for two hours," Gruber said, "I just told him this was life."
Miami will never have a night like this. Never. The Heat may win championships, but their fans will never pack their arena simply to boo. The team will never be ingrained in the city's fabric like every Cleveland team. There are passionate fans in Miami, of course, but not as many. Some of the biggest roars of the night were for former Brown (and Cleveland native) Bernie Kosar, who went to one Pro Bowl. Any town can celebrate championships. Cleveland celebrates heartache.
On some level, James has to realize this now. He played his butt off against Cleveland -- 38 points, eight assists, five rebounds in just 30 minutes. It was an especially impressive performance considering that he seemed self-conscious the whole night. He knew everybody was judging him. He knew it when he listened to his headphones in a crowded locker room before the game, when he did windmill dunks in the layup line and when he did his famous powder-clap before the opening tip.
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And he surely knew it when he went over to the Cavs' bench during the game to joke with some of his former teammates. It was calculated, a way to soften the crowd. See? These guys like me. How bad can I be? And you could tell by the Cavs' faces that they were stuck -- they didn't want to ignore him but didn't want to be seen talking to him, either.
At one point, in a moment caught on video and posted on YouTube, Cavs assistant coach Jamahl Mosley appeared to tell James to shut the bleep up.
Mosley was not alone. In Miami this week, somebody asked LeBron if he would like to see his number retired in Cleveland someday. He was, after all, the best player in franchise history. He said he would love that, and you know what? I think the Cavs would love to hang his jersey from the rafters, as long as he is in it.
Most Cleveland fans say -- and have said since July -- that they aren't mad that LeBron left; they're mad at how he left. Of course, this is easy to say. It allows fans to take the high road and still be mad. But ask yourself this: If LeBron had played for Miami for seven years, then left for Cleveland in the same way, would Miami be nearly as angry as Cleveland is?
Trick question. NBA stars don't leave Miami for Cleveland.
I'm no psychologist, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that a guy who calls himself King James and has his initials and "Vivat Rex" -- Latin for "Long live the king" -- on his custom-made Nike jacket, and has CHOSEN 1 tattooed across his back and WITNESS tattooed on one calf and HISTORY on the other calf might have a big ego. It is an ego borne of insecurity, and this is why he left for Miami in the first place: He wanted things to be easier. He wanted Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh at his side and South Beach a short drive away. That is the fundamental disconnect between James and Cleveland fans. They gave up on easy a long time ago.
So there they sat, at a table, the self-anointed Big Three, from left to right, Wade, James, Bosh. James said he loves Cleveland fans but that a "I'm a Miami ... Heat guy," because when you do something stupid like give your team a singular nickname, this is the silly stuff your stars have to say.
Behind the Heat bench, where fans wore shirts that read LeBUM, and a man and woman hugged and wore matching VICTIM shirts and looked like they had just run over their poodle, it got ugly. James may have ungodly leaping ability and ridiculous hand-eye coordination, but he also has ears, and the fans knew he could hear them. Some of the chants were amusing ("Scottie Pip-pen!) and some were cruel ("Ak-ron hates you!") and many were unprintable. At least one cup flew out of the stands toward the Miami bench. It was a little inappropriate, considering he does have that CHOSEN 1 tattoo and it is Hanukkah.
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Anyway, James seemed unfazed. He joked with Wade and Bosh about a broken bobblehead doll that landed near them. He ignored almost everything the fans screamed.
And then a few guys sitting on the baseline got his attention. They didn't taunt him. They didn't yell. They just said:
Look around. Do you see all the fans? This is Cleveland. This is what you're missing. You'll never have this in Miami.
And LeBron James agreed.
"He said, 'You guys are crazy,'" said one of the fans, named Ryan Napier.
James meant it as a compliment. They are crazy. He has left them for a land where there is no winter, for teammates who were stars before he joined them, for fans who care passionately about their basketball team for every bit of the final two minutes of playoff games. Someday, he'll miss those crazy fans and those winter nights. Someday, he'll miss all those witnesses.