In a little more than a week, LeBron James could be a Knick. He could be a Bull. And if he is anything but a Cav, the impact on Cleveland could be staggering. One passionate fan's ultimate nightmare scenario for his hometown.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer has the NBA's best beat writer, Brian Windhorst, covering the Cavs full time, another cagey vet filing daily updates on LeBron's search for meaning, and three columnists taking turns analyzing every nuance of the Akron Hammer's one-man soap opera.
The general consensus among them seems to be that James will sign another three-year contract with Cleveland. It was left to poor Terry Pluto, who has toiled at the Akron Beacon Journal and the Plain Dealer forever — Terry was in the press box when Carl Mays beaned Ray Chapman in 1920 — to put the whole thing in proper, sane perspective. Pluto's argument boils down to this: Losing your job, your health, or your loved one is a far more dire thing than Cleveland losing LeBron.
"If he leaves," Pluto asks, "does much really change in most of our lives?"
Let me begin to answer the question by noting that in 2003, the year before LeBron joined the team, the Cavs finished last in the NBA in attendance. They didn't quite draw 11,500 fans per home game, 1,500 fewer fans per game than the fecking Atlanta Hawks. In the years since, the Cavs have become one of the league leaders in home and road attendance; they now sell out every home game.
Believe it or not, this has nothing to do with Anderson Varejao, Mo Williams, or Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Without the Global Icon, the Cavaliers will suffer a staggering drop in income. The franchise will immediately lose a quarter or more of its value; projected revenue for the casino that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert plans to build near the arena will sink with it; and any hope of snagging a high-profile free agents or a big-name coach will completely vanish.
That's the good news. The bad news is, Gilbert's next-door neighbors, the Cleveland Indians, are in even worse shape at this point, dead last in drawing fans, although they trail the Marlins by only thirty-three fans per home game. The folks that own and run the Tribe have managed to destroy a fan base that not so long ago was every bit as fervent and free-spending as the Cavs', and the future of the franchise, on and off the field, is dim.
The worse news — except that it ain't news — is that we're talking about Cleveland. When I profiled Shaq a couple of months ago, I used a Wikipedia stat that said Cleveland was the nation's 33rd-largest city, only to have a researcher tell me that that was true in 2000; the latest data rank it 41st.
The truth is that the city is barely a city. It is a metropolitan area with a hole in its center, and if LeBron James goes, the chances of that hole collapsing into itself are excellent.
When I was a kid, Cleveland was still in the top ten, folks still had jobs, but the Indians drew so few fans that threats to move the team were annual. That was in the '60s. In the '80s, Ted Stepien — the worst owner in the history of pro sports — said he'd move the Cavs to Toronto. In 1996, of course, Art Modell — may he suffer every agony of old age, then burn in hell — stole the Browns away to Baltimore.
And now? Now the economy is so fragile that supporting three professional sports franchises in perpetuity is a pipe dream. You think Dan Gilbert doesn't know that? You think the idiot Dolan family, who bought the Indians at the peak of the franchise's value and have fumbled most of it away, will find greater fools rather than just dump the team down the river if at all possible? Then you must also think that all those swell, solid blue-collar jobs are coming back, too.
The chances are much better that, five years after LeBron, the Indians will be playing in a new stadium in Brooklyn, Dan Gilbert will buy his home town Pistons and merge them with the Cavs, the Neo-Browns will still stink, and the economic ripple effect, though finally incalculable, will be hundreds of millions of dollars lost.
And if LeBron leaves, no doubt a few of those jobs in the PD's Sports department leave also. And maybe a few — or a few thousand — other service-industry jobs in the Cleveland area will go, too, and a few million people with a passion for Cleveland's pro sports teams will find something else just as meaningless to care about.
That's the odd thing about Terry Pluto's question — how often does a career sportswriter remind fans of how little sports truly matter in a sane person's life?
Excuse me while I slit my wrists.
Is any of this LeBron James's fault? No, not really. He's already put in seven years in Cleveland, and during that stretch, he has contributed to the common good, both material and spiritual, in more significant ways than any other human I can name. It's a business, the NBA, and Bron's a businessman, just like Dan Gilbert and the Dolan clan and Arthur B. Modell — may he suck Satan's swollen cock until the End of Days.
But here's the thing: He knows. LeBron knows exactly what it feels like to grow up in Akron or in Cleveland loving sports with all his heart. He's a Yankees fan, for Christ's sake — and a Cowboys fan — because he couldn't root for losers.
Now — thanks solely to him — countless thousands of kids in Ohio are proud Cavs fans. They worship and adore him. And they don't live in New York or Chicago or L.A. — which is to say that they don't have a wide range of heroes. Born unto a generation of fans who've known naught but utter sports failure and despair, they see LeBron James as their Moses.
All right, so I'm projecting, but not without some basis in fact. What would LeBron say to a boy from the projects in Akron — a boy like the King was not so long ago — about leaving the Cavs now? That it's business and nothing more?
Scott Raab, author of Real Hollywood Stories, is a Cleveland State University graduate and has been an Esquire Writer at Large since 1997
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