Instead of running an extended pregame show before LeBron’s return to Cleveland last night, TNT opted for a rerun of “Bones.” The episode’s description: “A corpse is found hanging from a tree.” You couldn’t have a more striking setup for our first Cavaliers-Heat game of 2010-11, with the possible exception of “20,000 spurned lovers seek revenge on the same guy” or “Bones makes an important decision that goes horribly wrong.”
The Cleveland fans were bitter and had a right to be. It wasn’t that LeBron left, more how he left. Everything he said and didn’t say after going to Miami just made it worse. Fans don’t ask for much. We know it’s an uneven equation. We will buy tickets to see you, wear your jersey, cheer for you, defend you, believe in you, make excuses for you and, in an ideal scenario, make you wealthy. Just stay in shape, give your best and don’t kick us in the teeth. That’s all we ask. Betray us, you will feel our wrath. We knew Cleveland would shower LeBron with venom Thursday night; we knew he deserved it; we couldn’t wait to watch it unfold. We just hoped it didn’t go too far.
I have attended two basketball games (both in Boston) in which the fans truly despised an opponent.
Game 6 of the 1986 Finals: Houston’s Ralph Sampson played in Boston one game after punching our tiny point guard, Jerry Sichting (15 inches smaller than Ralph). I was sitting right off the players’ tunnel that day; when Ralph walked by and those boos nailed him like a bucket of water, you could see the fear in his eyes. He was done. I think he went 1-for-42 in the game.
Game 5 of the 1987 conference finals: Detroit’s Bill Laimbeer clotheslined the Basketball Jesus in Game 4 and nearly broke Bird’s back, leading to a melee and Bird getting ejected. We had a tsunami of haterade ready for him in Game 5, so much of it that I will always believe we willed one of our players (Robert Parish) to punch him. Which he did. In the second quarter. For no real reason.
We didn’t hate Sampson; we were only trying to rattle him. But we loathed Laimbeer. We cheered when Parish punched him in the face. Think about that for a second. From everything I read and heard, it sure seemed as if Cleveland was brewing a similar level of hatred for LeBron James. I thought for sure it would affect him. Imagine being loved and revered for 11 solid years, since you were a ninth-grader in high school then imagine that switch getting flicked and suddenly you’re a villain. How would you feel? How would you react?
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I thought the snarky signs and chants would bother him. I thought he would be freaked out by the security guards ominously flanking the Heat bench, and maybe even by news that they were serving fans beverages in paper cups as a safety precaution. I thought Miami’s lack of cohesion in its first 19 games would doom him over everything else. If you’re going to the mattresses in an opposing arena, you need to be strong. You need to trust each other. You need to know who you are. From what I had seen of the Miami Heat’s first five weeks, it didn’t seem as if they knew yet.
Did I think the Cavaliers would win? Actually, yes. I thought the fans would push them to another level, that it would play out like a sports movie: the overachieving underdog taking down the big bully. When TNT’s Kenny Smith said he had never felt such electricity in an arena before a regular-season game, I was convinced even more. The fans were ready for a war. As LeBron was warming up, an unmistakable “A–hole” chant reverberated through the building. A few seconds later, TNT showed us a fan wearing a “Lyin’ King” T-shirt, another holding a “Quitness” sign, then eight fans standing in a row with T-shirts that spelled out “B-E-T-R-A-Y-E-D.” Instead of the national anthem, I half-expected the Cavs to bring out Alanis Morissette to sing “You Oughta Know.”
When the starting lineups were introduced, the booing for LeBron almost sounded like a beehive. He seemed to enjoy it. Maybe he knew what was waiting for him on the other bench. Journeyman Joey Graham was starting in LeBron’s former place at small forward. Mo Williams was the last Cavalier introduced. It’s one of those teams that makes you say, “Wait, who’s hurt, who are they missing?” Then you realize that nobody is hurt or missing. Yup, that’s the whole team.
Before the opening tap, LeBron settled one of the single dumbest sports radio debates ever (“Should LeBron do his talcum powder throw before the game?”) by whipping the powder defiantly into the air. Why not? They hated him, anyway. LeBron was making it clear: I am not backing down. Just like he made it clear by prancing around during warm-ups, jumping into his teammates during the intros and even successfully executing a few Kobe Bryant-patented “Look, I’m pretending to be gregarious!” fake-laughs. And then with the first-ever Eff You Talcum Powder Throw.
“I really love the looseness of LeBron James,” Reggie Miller said.
I was still thinking of a snarky joke for that comment when the game started. Booooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Boooooooooooooooooooooooo! The teams traded baskets as the fans either booed or yelled out indecipherable chants. At one point, we could clearly hear an “Akron hates you!” chant suggested by a Twitter account of all things. (Manipulating crowd chants on Twitter? That’s totally uncalled for!) Almost on cue, LeBron drew a foul and strode to the free throw line, accompanied by so many yells, boos and chants that it blended into one giant haterade mojito.
Stop it right there: 3:35 mark, first quarter, Cleveland leading by two. As LeBron (two points to that point) was making both free throws, Miller and Steve Kerr had this exchange:
Miller: “There’s no way that you can possibly prepare for something like this, and knowing that all eyes have been on you since you made that decision [you’re] in that stationary position, with time not going off the clock, at that free throw line, everyone’s looking at you. You wonder what’s going on in that 26-year-old’s mind.”
Kerr: “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.”
I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
Was that the tipping point? Those six words? That specific moment? Five months of vitriol cresting with LeBron at the line for the first time — just him and the fans, their first chance to truly let him know how they felt — and LeBron simply shrugging them off? It’s a fascinating 15 seconds to rewatch. As he steps to the line, the noise begins to swell. TNT cuts to the crowd. We see someone booing LeBron and wearing a “VICTIM” T-shirt. We see a close-up of someone with a mustache angrily screaming “BOOOOOOO!” We see a wide shot of fans waiving “BENEDICT ARNOLD” and “MISS IT” signs. There’s a close-up on LeBron, then a wide shot. He makes the first free throw. He turns to his bench and smiles, as if to say, “Wow, this is crazy.”
Then, TNT cuts to the crowd. We see two “QUITNESS” signs, a sign with LeBron and Pat Riley that says “LeQuit and the Cheat,” and a sign with Charles Barkley and the caption, “Punk Move, ‘Bron.” Panning back, we see another sign: “What should you do? BEG FOR MERCY.” Everything bounces off him. Everything. His second free throw doesn’t even touch the rim.
And we were off. On the next two possessions, LeBron scored on a gorgeous reverse layup and a long jumper. Miami by four. Timeout. Wade took a breather, and LeBron took over like he always does when Wade sits: setting up a James Jones 3, swishing a jumper over a double-team, then finding Juwan Howard for an open jumper. Just like that, Miami had ripped off a 16-0 run and grabbed a double-digit lead. The game was never the same. As Kerr pointed out later, it was like watching a March Madness underdog hanging with a 1-seed but being unable to overcome the talent disparity.
LeBron’s confidence surged as the second quarter closed and the crowd settled into “Oh wait, that’s right, God hates Cleveland” mode. He started yapping at his old buddy Boobie Gibson (sitting on Cleveland’s bench), as everyone who grew up in the Rick Mahorn/Charles Oakley era waited for one of the Cavaliers to stand up and punch him in the face, or at least tell him to have sex with himself. Nope. Nothing. For the Cavaliers fans, this probably felt like the bastard brother of their team quitting in those final 90 seconds of Game 6 in Boston this past spring. Show some fight. Show some pride. Show something, for God’s sake. It was a pathetic moment. LeBron punked them out.
It continued in the third quarter, when LeBron exploded for 24 points and made a variety of outrageous shots. No Cavalier knocked him down, bumped him, shoved him, swore at him they just took it on the chin like a wrestling jobber. In retrospect, that was my big mistake with picking a Cleveland upset: thinking the Cavs cared about avenging their honor after their leader basically told them, “You guys suck, I’m leaving.” How sad that the Celtics took LeBron’s decision more personally than his former teammates did.
Still, you can’t blame LeBron for the Cavaliers’ not rising to his challenge. He played some of the best basketball of his career, scoring 36 points in a devastating 27-minute stretch that re-established Miami as a contender. This was the LeBron we had been missing all season: attacking LeBron, larger-than-life LeBron, ball-always-in-his-hands LeBron, force-of-nature LeBron, guy-who-could-absolutely-beat-you-in-a-playoff-series LeBron. For one night, he reinvented the Heat, assumed control and relegated Wade to sidekick status which is how it should have been all along.
Full disclosure: I don’t care about “The Decision” anymore. He handled it wrong. He got bad advice. He can’t take it back. Whatever. Any people who say they handled their mid-20s perfectly are lying. But as a basketball fan, I thought watching his talents get wasted these first five weeks was somewhat tragic. He will never be Magic Johnson; Magic made everyone better and dominated games without necessarily scoring, whereas LeBron’s scoring opens up the game for everyone else. Big difference. And he will never be happy awkwardly trading possessions with Wade like two college dudes sharing the last Corona. So where did that leave us? When Dallas annihilated Miami on Saturday night, LeBron looked so depressed and rattled that I e-mailed a friend, “I don’t know if I can watch LeBron throw away a year of his prime anymore. I can’t take it.”
On Thursday night, LeBron finally looked like LeBron again. Maybe he needed his old court. Maybe he needed to taste the bile of 20,000 Ohioans. But I thought it was one of his greatest nights; instead of folding like a portable stripper’s pole (like in the Boston series), he rose to the occasion and even relished it. Of course, greatness usually has a casualty: in this case, Cleveland. The fans made their point (and then some), never disgraced themselves and were betrayed only by their own players. They deserved better in July; they deserved better Thursday night. Even afterward, LeBron refused to show remorse or acknowledge that the fans affected him. They couldn’t even win that.
Once upon a time, I found myself in a similar place with Roger Clemens after he ditched Red Sox fans and showed a similar lack of remorse. Clemens was wired then like LeBron is now. Coddled his whole career. Surrounded by enablers. Unwilling to admit his foibles. Indifferent to the emotional connection between fans and players. Watching Craig Sager’s postgame questions bounce off LeBron like superballs reminded me of Clemens playing dumb back in the day.
No, the booing didn’t bother me. I had seven great years here. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Are you sure they were booing? Wait, where did we play tonight? I can’t even remember.
The best way to handle those guys? Write them off. But anger isn’t a switch. You can’t turn it on and off. It only fades away in increments, little chunks at a time and Cleveland, you aren’t there yet. The King is gone. You buried him, and then, he buried you. If it’s any consolation, you finally brought the best out of him.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller “The Book of Basketball,” out in paperback on Dec. 7 with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.