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Four years later, sobbing LeBron fan hails homecoming from afar

A picture of devastation four years ago, Sara McNutt is thrilled with LeBron James' return to Cleveland. Photo:

A picture of devastation four years ago, Sara McNutt is thrilled with LeBron James' return to Cleveland.

CLEVELAND -- The Decision brings to mind a few indelible images. The look on LeBron James' face when he said he was "taking his talents to South Beach." His No. 23 jersey set ablaze. The young woman in his jersey weeping at a bar.

Sara McNutt didn’t know the cameras were rolling when she started crying after James announced he was leaving Cleveland for Miami. In the four years since, she hasn't been able to forget the scene.

“It was this huge buildup," McNutt said. "Everyone was waiting and freaking out. It was all anyone talked about for weeks. Once he said it, I just completely lost my s---."

McNutt was bombarded with texts and calls in the hours after James closed the book on his seven-year tenure with the Cavaliers. Her picture was in the New York Daily News. The clip was played constantly as a representation of a city’s response to losing the best player in franchise history.

"I would be in bars later and older men would come up to me and be like, ‘You are an embarrassment to Cleveland. You are a disgrace. I can’t believe you made a fool of us like that,'" McNutt said. "I love LeBron and he did amazing things for this city, but all that negativity really sucked.”

The next day when she arrived at Johnny’s Downtown restaurant on West 6th Street, mischievous co-workers paused every TV on the frame of McNutt with her head in her hands.

The Decision sparked a range of reactions in Cleveland. Many shared McNutt's sadness, while others expressed anger, elation for a new chapter in LeBron's career or hope that he'd someday be back.

"The thing that is so amazing about LeBron is that he really was able to capture the youth of the city," McNutt said. "For me at least, he was the first player to do that. He was young and fearless, and that grabbed everyone’s attention. Everyone I knew loved him. He was magnetic. Even as someone who wasn’t even that interested in sports, I couldn’t help it."

Fast-forward four years and it seems as though everyone has grown up a little bit. The distance (and the two titles) made James' move a success. With every passing year the anger faded a bit more. And this summer when the possibility of a return became a little more real, locals lit up -- even if they were bracing for disappointment.

Cleveland rejoiced last Friday after James revealed his intentions in a first-person essay on SI.com. Signs, painted cars and chalkboards outside downtown bars all read some version of “Welcome Home,” and honking horns were met with chants of “L-B-J” and “Let’s Go Cavs” for hours.

The city was flooded with James jerseys. Whether they had been packed in storage, buried at the bottom of a drawer or (rarely) worn proudly over the past four years, the sea of 23s was striking. You always heard about those few who burned their jerseys. But until Friday you hadn't heard much about those who kept theirs.

McNutt, 21, a fifth-year senior at Kent State, is studying in Spain and interning at the Ibiza Spotlight publication. She saw Facebook messages welcoming James home on Friday but thought they were a joke. She called her friends and parents to confirm the news. McNutt has had a hard time getting Spaniards to understand just how big a deal this is for people at home.

“I was hugging everyone,” McNutt said. “I was like, 'LeBron is back! This is so huge!' All I want to do is celebrate. I’m still running around and buzzing.”

As for The Decision jersey, it’s hanging in her closet at her parents’ house in Ohio. Sara plans to wear it once she gets home.

“That was definitely something I never wanted to get rid of,” McNutt said. “Not just because of the whole clip, but because of what an amazing time that was to live in Cleveland.”

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