I'll never forget going to my little brother's fifth grade AAU games one weekend when I was just a grade-schooler myself. This kid named LeBron from just south in Akron had joined up with my brother's club for this particular tournament. No one really knew who he and his friends were, but at an age when coordination and skill seem to be the only differentiators, LeBron blew everyone off the court with his athleticism as he raced up and down the floor. He was not yet significantly bigger than the kids he was playing with and against, but he was on another level and I never forgot his name.
I'll never forget when his name re-surfaced for me a few years later, a heralded freshman at St. Vincent-St. Mary whose body was beginning to match his skill and athleticism. While it never gets the widespread hype of football, Ohio loves its high school hoops and this was quickly becoming a phenomenon and player you had to see. It would of course go on to blow far beyond anyone's imagination, with LeBron becoming more than an elite prospect or McDonald's All-American playing in our backyard -- but instead, the next big thing in the world of basketball, a prodigy on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
I'll never forget sitting alone in my room as the ping-pong balls were announced during the "LeBron Lottery." I was quickly jumping around my room, hollering as I watched Austin Carr try to express his thoughts through blubbering tears.
I'll never forget cutting out of a night seminar in college and racing home to watch that first game in Sacramento, jumping up and down and trolling all my non-Cleveland roommates with each dunk -- telling a house predominantly full of Chicago natives that all this was going to be better than Jordan.
I'll never forget living in DC and running around my house after that first postseason game-winner in Washington against the Wizards. I'll never forget the pure joy I felt after the baseline runner that clinched a crucial Game 5 and swung that first postseason series.
I'll never forget pacing around my apartment in Maryland, living and dying with each possession as LeBron clinched Game 5 in double OT against the Pistons in 2007. It was probably the best performance of my Cleveland sports fan life, and I'll always remember being there by myself and screaming at the top of my lungs, causing the neighbors to come over and inquire about my wellness, and then quickly calling all my friends back home to re-hash it and figure out how they were celebrating.
I'll never forget running laps around a bar in Georgetown with a drink raised over my head each time the ball left Daniel Gibson's hands just two days later. Gibson was suddenly the face of what would become the most triumphant moment of the LeBron James era, and the Cavs were headed to the Finals.
I'll never forget sitting in an ice cold, stone silent arena in 2009 with the Cavaliers about to fall behind 0-2 to the Orlando Magic, and then LeBron James rescuing us yet again with an incredible three-pointer that somehow went in at the buzzer. I went to the game with my entire family, and we all went running to the car amidst total joyful chaos in downtown Cleveland. That series ended in unhappiness, but I'll never forget that night of happiness.
Those are just a few of the nearly seven years of positive "I'll never forgets" that are a product of LeBron's time here. I'd rather have those than nothing and I'm really glad he played for my team.
I became a Cavs fan because I loved Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and Larry Nance and my dad would take me to the Coliseum regularly to watch those great teams in both the regular and postseason. Christmas came early for me when Craig Ehlo drained that three-pointer against the Jazz in 1991. Long before Dan Gilbert's Twitter rants, LeBron, and flaming swords at The Q, I remember being a little kid in awe of the insanity of The Coliseum crowd as the Cavs knocked out the Celtics in Larry Bird's last game.
LeBron of course took this to another level, the best player in the world from our backyard and playing for our team. His playing days in Cleveland ended in ugly fashion, his time in Cleveland ended in even uglier fashion.
But like those 90's teams for slightly older folks, LeBron created a generation of Cavs fans, people who are still here. Like the positive memories, I'm grateful to LeBron for that.
Maybe I'm soft, but for me, there's only one unforgivable sin of LeBron James, and that's Game 5 against Boston in 2010. No one seems to really know what happened, but it likely falls somewhere on the spectrum between quitting and a less than mediocre effort. Even "The Decision", a bad mistake, is forgivable in my eyes. I think LeBron was 25 years old and got caught up. The same thing happened the next night when the Heat orchestrated that garish celebration party. I think James now recognizes the mistakes made in the summer of 2010, and probably would do it differently.
The anger and pain of that separation dissipated and I found myself nearly rooting for LeBron this season. He's simply awesome to watch and there are far more sinister people in the world, and in sports, than LeBron James. He slipped up occasionally during his time in Cleveland. But I think he's probably a pretty good guy who handled the insanity of coming from nothing, with no real parental guidance, to the most public of figures who was suddenly given everything.
Game 6 in Boston this year made me damn nostalgic for the greatness we witnessed so many times. I always found it funny when both Clevelanders and national media alike said he "couldn't close," whitewashing the first seven years of a career full of countless games won in the final minutes. I wish he still played for my team, but I'm proud he's from my area and happy he played here on his way to becoming the best athlete in the world.
For some reason, I turned on sportstalk radio on my way to the airport in Cleveland on Monday morning. The "sports update" guy who was giving his 20-on-20 updates, or whatever they're called, was narrating the details of Miami's Game 3 win Sunday night and refused to call LeBron anything other than "the backstabbing weasel" as he rattled off highlights and stats. The news update guy then kicked it over to the hosts of the show who went into an animated discussion about how the refs were blowing the NBA Finals.
I'm pretty sure the easiest thing to do on the internet was make a bad LeBron joke. Simply start with the prefix "Le" and insert some unoriginal derogatory word after that. Like the sportstalk radio discussion, this was never productive, and never a good look.
When I landed in Washington, DC on Monday, I decided to punish myself further and to sample the sportstalk radio there on my way home from the airport. I came upon Tony Kornheiser talking to his friend Michael Wilbon about the extremely high ratings for the NBA Finals in the Cleveland market. Unexpectedly, I thought Wilbon delivered a little insight on the complex connection:
"He's family, he's theirs. And yes they do hate him, and they do love him. And he's going to wind up back there at some point. It's just going to happen. And, you know, it's a weird, it's a crazy relationship. But he's theirs, he's of them. He's the greatest thing that the city of Cleveland has ever produced, or Northeast Ohio. Who have they produced that's more important to the world of sport than LeBron James?
They produced him. He's theirs. Look, I've been around that, I spent a lot of time in Cleveland over a seven-year period. I know what that relationship is like. It's like a relationship where you see two people in a real relationship, in a marriage who cannot get along. Why don't they just divorce? They can't stand each other, why don't' they just go -- because they can't leave each other alone. Yes, in Cleveland they are just completely obsessed with LeBron James and it is hatred. It is hatred. But at some point, he's going to go back there and they're going to hug him and they're going to hope he wins a championship for them."
Some of this was sports pundit hyperbole -- who knows if he ever comes back here, but I did think Wilbon hit on a couple key points. Even with the win, there's no real turning the page. LeBron will always be an obsessive top story in Cleveland. Of course he's not "ours" -- he's a professional who was a free agent who utilized that power to go elsewhere. But that complex relationship and connection will always persist.
I think Clevelanders sometimes proselytize our sports woe too much. It's reached a point for me where I'm self-conscious and try to avoid talking about a curse or "our cross." We've been through a lot of tough losses -- last night was not one of those.
I take exception to national commentators telling Clevelanders to "get over it." You can deal with what's happened in your own way, even if I disagree with it and even if it means making unproductive and unoriginal jokes on Twitter, or thinking that NBA refs are conspiring.
But LeBron is the best athlete in the world, and through all the jokes and hate, you had to be prepared for the success he would inevitably achieve.
I find the Heat team and organization somewhat unlikable, but definitely not because of LeBron James. I wish he would have reached the pinnacle of his career in a Cavs uniform, but I'm certainly at peace with LBJ and his success.