On the Royal Return

Between the 2004 and 2007 NBA seasons, former Cleveland Cavaliers power forward Carlos Boozer was mysteriously ailed by minor maladies right before his team’s visits to Gund Arena. Or, as those with their wits about them realized to be true, Boozer intentionally avoided returning to the city he once scorned.

Boozer’s transgression: in the summer of 2004, Cleveland let the young star become a restricted free agent rather than force him to play under the last year of his contract for a paltry $700,000. According to team sources, Boozer and the Cavs had an unwritten agreement that he would use his new found freedom to accept a six year, $41 million contract. When the Utah Jazz offered Boozer a better deal, he damned the handshake and took the money. Clevelanders were devastated, and the national media collectively decried his actions.

His eventual return to the renamed Quicken Loans Arena was a hostile affair in which fans made no effort to hide their contempt. The game, a 99-94 victory for Cleveland, was dominated by a single player who tallied 40 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, and 3 blocked shots. That, of course, was LeBron James.

In the surrounding years, James showed Clevelanders a level of greatness that they had rarely witnessed among their major sports teams and never witnessed among their individual athletes. Once holders of the league’s longest active playoff drought, the Cavaliers broke the spell in the 2005/2006 season. It was the first of four consecutive playoff appearances, none of which ended earlier than the conference semifinals, and one of which culminated in a trip to the league finals. In the memories of most corporeal Clevelanders, only the MLB Indians of the mid to late 1990’s could compare. On the way, James earned Rookie of the Year honors, six All Star nominations, and two league MVP awards, among others. Here, even Browns great Jim Brown would have a tough time stacking up.

The post mortem was equally as impressive, if only in a grotesque way. James leaving his hometown team was not in of itself dastardly, despite much highfalutin commentary to the contrary. Growing up in Cleveland did not give him the moral imperative to stay with the Cavs. (After all, there is a reason that famous and successful Clevelanders are everywhere: none of them want to actually stick around.) More reprehensible were the actions that, as a whole, led to James in effect being a lame duck superstar, while at the same time constantly telling fans and ownership that this was not the case.

James was complicit in tampering: former Cavs beat writer Brian Windhorst admitted that James spoke to Miami Heat executive Pat Riley in 2008 about heading south in 2010.  This was nothing short of a blatant violation of league rules. It was also conflict of interest manifest. An imposing muse for the Cavs front office, James inspired and signed off on just about every major personnel decision the team made during his tenure. Dedicated to building a core around a player that had little intention of sticking around, Cavaliers General Manager Danny Ferry gave James everything he wanted: sharpshooters, energy players, and expensive veteran role players. All of these assets aided the team while LeBron was there. They are now a burden to a roster saddled with gaudy contracts and devoid of a young foundation. If even tacit acknowledgment of his impending departure had been given to the front office, the organization could have planned accordingly. Alas, it was not, and they now find themselves at least five years away from title contention.

Tomorrow night, Cleveland’s newest nemesis returns to the home he once revitalized. Opposing his star studded Heat will be the leaderless group of role players that LeBron handpicked. While they compete tenaciously, the 2010/2011 Cavaliers are an underwhelming bunch with a gloomy future. Fans of the wine and gold have James to thank for that. Despite calls to the contrary from columnists such as Gregg Doyel, this writer feels they should show LeBron their full appreciation (short of violence or threats).

Hopefully, despite the King’s recent yearning for Pat Riley to assume coaching duties, James will be wishing he had taken a page from Carlos Boozer’s playbook.

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