Second Honeymoon

July 21, 2014

Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote that what was once thought can never be unthought, and a modern-day Cavaliers fan understands: A LeBron James jersey that was once burned can never be unburned. But a new one can be purchased online at the Cavaliers' team shop. Buy one today and you'll feel like it's 2007 all over again.

Cleveland will welcome back the man it once booed louder than any other, which would be awkward in some corners of society. Imagine trial lawyers screaming "He's a murderer!" one day and "The evidence proves nothing!" the next. But in sports, hatred expires when contracts do. In retrospect, when James left the Cavaliers for the Heat in 2010, he signed for six years of being Cleveland's enemy, with the chance to opt out after four. James decided when he would be disliked in Ohio, and he decided, last week, when he would be loved again.

Cavs fans don't need to explain their flip-flop. Sports fans understand. Yankees fans treat all Red Sox as pure evil, right up until those players hit free agency. Ask Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury. And how many fans in New England screamed that Darrelle Revis was overrated as a Jet but love him now that he's a Patriot?

Before Rick Pitino had a LOUISVILLE tattoo on his back, he had a Kentucky program rolled up in his hand. Naturally, Louisville fans hated him. Then Pitino left Kentucky for the Boston Celtics, failed, and landed with Louisville, where he was hailed, just as naturally, as a hero.

If you are going to stand on principle as a sports fan, you better have steady feet. Baltimore was absolutely disgusted when Indianapolis stole the Colts, but then Baltimore stole the Browns and changed their name, and to quote Ravens fans now: "Never mind."

Sports fans can go from boo to yay in 1.3 seconds, so Cleveland's open embrace of James is easy. There is wonderful history here. James is not just the best player in Cavs history, he also did more for Cleveland sports fans than any athlete since Jim Brown. This is simply a renewal of vows. Clevelanders can look into LeBron's eyes, after first climbing on a step stool, and sweetly apologize for all the times they imagined sticking his head in a blender.

We overreacted. Sorry. We realize now that it wasn't personal. You left because you didn't think Cleveland would win. That just makes you one of us!

So now the King goes home, and if anything, he will be even more beloved than before. When James was a high school junior in Akron, this magazine dubbed him The Chosen One, but this time, he was the Chooser, not the Choosee. It's not just the wind coming off Lake Erie; Cleveland really is blushing.

When he left, James was a disappointment for failing to win a title for Cleveland—though, looking back, it probably would have helped if he'd had teammates. For now, at least, he is a hero just for trying. James can do as much on a basketball court as any player in history, but this season he will be cheered just for stepping onto one.

Contemporary spectator sports are an amusement-park version of life: They are brighter, livelier, less ambiguous and more expensive than reality, and give us the vague sense that we are participating when we are really just along for the ride. We have heartfelt feelings about people we have never met. This makes it easier to accept our enemies as our friends, or to decide our friends are our enemies. We can easily wash our hands of love or hate. Alas, tattoos are harder to remove.

If there is a perk to being a Cleveland sports fan, it is low expectations. This may explain why they cheered for James even before he actually came back; in recent visits Cavs fans were friendly just because he might come back. They wanted him to know that he would be welcome. But he is LeBron James. He would be welcome anywhere. Clevelanders loved James when he was theirs, resented him when he was not and love him now that he is theirs again. The King was dead to them; long live the King.

Sports fans can go from boo to yay in 1.3 seconds, which makes Cleveland's open embrace of James easy to understand.

Where does LeBron's return rank among unlikely homecomings?

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PHOTOCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)