Midway through Game 5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers-Boston Celtics series, it occurred to me that if LeBron James leaves the Cavs for another NBA team, the city of Cleveland's self-esteem will be devastated on a scale rarely seen in professional sports.
In fact, you can make an argument that never in the history of professional sports has one man meant so much to a collective city's self-worth.
Why? Because LeBron, currently at the peak of his basketball ability, is cool in a city that is decidedly uncool. Ask anyone what they know about Cleveland, Ohio, and LeBron James is the answer.
After LeBron who is the first person that comes to mind when you think of Cleveland?
Talk about a precipitous fall.
That's why LeBron's flirtations with New York area teams is unique. Great players have left teams before -- we expect this since sports, after all, is a business -- but it rarely happens that those players that define a city leave at the absolute peak of their talents but without having garnered a title. Even rarer still for those athletes to have been born, raised, and nurtured in the collective womb of a region. LeBron isn't just a guy who arrived on a pro team straight from college, he's northern Ohio's jewel, the hard diamond left behind in the wake of the rust belt's collapse.
So pro sports teams have always, and will always, become better and worse with the departure and arrival of new players, but it's not often that a city's icon leaves, the man who carries an element of the region's DNA that transcends mere sports and becomes a reflection of the city, a projection of community self-worth embodied in a single athlete.
As we enter the summer of LeBron's free agency, I thought it made sense to look back over the historical record and try to put the city of Cleveland's situation in context. Has a player ever meant as much to the self-esteem of a city as LeBron means to Cleveland and, if so, what are the most debilitating departures in the history of pro sports?
Dive in for a look at 11 of the greatest pro sports icons who defined a city, before leaving that city behind.
11. Michael Jordan -- Chicago
In our modern era of sports, no figure has become more connected to a city than Michael Jordan to Chicago. Jordan's run with the Bulls helped to brand Chicago as a city on the move, the lone surviving force amidst great upheaval in the Midwest. Indeed, as other large cities in our industrial heartland crumbled -- Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo -- Chicago continued to grow, thriving anew as each year passed.
It's probably a coincidence that Jordan happened to play for the Bulls and those championship trophies being hoisted on the shores of Lake Michigan didn't by themselves forestall economic collapse. For instance, would Jordan have forestalled the collapse of Detroit?
Of course, not.
Somehow, Air Jordan, a vibrant and dynamic player, connected with Chicago just as the City of Broad Shoulders sprouted wings to fly. They were a reflection of each other, athlete and city, city and athlete.
Then came Jordan's retirement and pursuit of baseball.
The city of Chicago was crushed.
How could an athlete depart at the peak of his powers?
So the city of Chicago merely flirted with disaster. But Jordan's impact was so great that his retirement made the mighty city shudder.
10. Joe Montana -- San Francisco
Think of San Franciso and it's almost impossible not to think of Joe Montana, dropping back to pass, scanning the field for a crossing John Taylor or Jerry Rice.
With his four Super Bowl championships, iconic 49er No. 16 jersey, and Bill Walsh calling the plays for his West Coast Offense, Montana played football like San Franciso and its environs remade American commerce -- on a different level than anyone before him. Just as San Francisco and the nearby Silicon Valley began to foster new and innovative ways to bring companies to market, Montana and Walsh found new ways to move the football down the field.
Gone was the plodding factory drive of off-tackle play after off-tackle play. The West Coast Offense with Montana at the helm was the perfect marriage, stamping a city's DNA, an innovator meets an innovator.
There are two reasons Montana's departure doesn't rank higher on this list:
a. Steve Young replaced Montana and went on to win a Super Bowl so the 49er franchise didn't immediately crumble and,
b. By the time Montana left for Kansas City his skills had begun to wane. he was coming off injury, and he was already 37 years old.
Even still, the connection between city and quarterback lingered. When Montana retired from football he traveled back to San Franciso and the announcement, from Justin Herman Plaza downtown, was carried live on television in the city.
9. Johnny Unitas -- Baltimore
After three championships and quarterbacking the Colts in parts of three different decades, Unitas left Baltimore for an ill-fated year in San Diego.
The entire city of Baltimore, which had come to define itself through Unitas' victories, collectively weeped. True, Unitas' best days were past and he would play only one year in San Diego, but seeing him cross the country to finish his football career just felt wrong to citizens of Baltimore.
In a city that always felt a bit overlooked on the Eastern seaboard, wedged between Washington and Philadelphia so tightly, with the suburbs of both larger cities constantly reaching out further both north and south, Baltimore has always had an identity crisis.
But not with Johnny Unitas, the best quarterback in the NFL and the man who made the entire country take note of the Colt logo on the helmet and the buzzcut beneath. Unitas herky-jerky throwing motion, his wide-stanced, artful dodges, they didn't just lead to first downs and championships, they led to something more for Baltimore, an identity that was entirely the city's own.
He branded a city that otherwise might have spent the '50s, '60s and '70s having to explain that they were their own city, not simply a suburb.
8. Barry Bonds -- Pittsburgh
As a swollen, distorted baseball-bashing behemoth in San Franciso, Barry Bonds was a caricature of the steroid era. Before he arrived in California, Bonds was a thin-limbed, fleet-footed outfielder who led the Pittsburgh Pirates to three consecutive NL East titles, their first since 1979, and picked up two MVPs in three seasons.
Bonds was 22 years old when he began stealing bases for the Pirates. In fact, in his first season with the team he had 36 stolen bases, and hadn't yet harnessed his power to all fields. But by 1990, Bonds had matured into an offensive weapon without parallel in the NL, launching 36 home runs, batting over .300, and stealing 52 bases, third-most in the league.
For Pittsburgh Pirate fans, it seemed possible Bonds would spend his entire "Hall-of-Fame" career in their environs and lead them to pennant after pennant. But then, just beginning to entire his playing prime and when it seemed possible that he would stamp his legacy on the city amidst the rivers, Bonds spurned the Pirates for the San Franciso Giants, leaving in the same season that he won his MVP award.
Barry Bonds was just 28 years old.
What did Pirates fans have left to look forward to after he left?
In 2009, the team finished its 17th consecutive losing season, the longest record of futility in any professional sports league.
The Pirates have still not recovered.
7. Shaquille O'Neal -- Orlando
When the Orlando Magic drafted Shaquille O'Neal in 1992, kids my age greedily searched out the Upper Deck rookie cards that could be redeemed for the number one pick in the NBA Draft. Yep, Shaq arrived with such fanfare that before he ever played a game he already had an exclusive marketing agreement with a basketball card company. For those who remember, we had to mail in those cards an outline of a large man dunking on a basketball goal, to receive the actual Shaq card.
The Orlando Magic franchise was just four years old when Shaq came to town, and the city of Orlando's explosive growth mirrored the man-child the team took with the overall No. 1 pick in 1992 out of LSU. It seemed possible that Shaq could do for the city of Orlando what Michael Jordan had done for Chicago, place an indelible stamp on the franchise that would make him second only to Mickey Mouse in terms of Florida icons.
The Magic hadt Shaq for just four complete seasons. In his final two years, Shaq took the team to the NBA Finals, where it would lose to the Houston Rockets, and to the conference finals where the Chicago Bulls behind Michael Jordan's 72 victories, dispatched the Magic.
Now just 24, Shaq had the NBA world clamoring for his services.
Spurning the Magic, Shaq traveled across the country to join the Los Angeles Lakers, where he eventually won three consecutive titles.
He is the only basketball player on this list who is younger than LeBron would be if he left the Cavs.
6. Brett Favre -- Green Bay
It's hard to remember now, but the Atlanta Falcons drafted Brett Favre.
Atlanta, a city that had never had any success in the NFL, had, for a moment at least, the chance to brand itself with a young Southern star. Football success hung tantalizingly close. Instead, the franchise traded him to Green Bay and Favre became the most iconic player to wear the green and yellow.
Favre's ascension to Green Bay superstar in the public arena coincided with the explosive growth of the NFL, primarily through television. The way Favre played, mouth expelling warm air into the cold, open-air stadium, surrounded by thousands of screaming cheeseheads, brought the theater of professional football to the masses.
And for millions of us across the country, fans and media alike, separating Bret Favre from the city of Green Bay became almost impossible.
Indeed, Favre was Green Bay -- gritty, euphoric, friendly, quick to grin, you could almost picture him opening the door to a neighborhood pub and extending a beer in your direction.
In fact, I would argue that no player on this list has ever had a greater connection with their franchise in the public's mind.
When Favre left Green Bay, everyone across the nation claimed to be sick of reading about his soap opera.
Most of us were lying.
Because every time those stories went up online, they were the most read.
The only reason Favre is outside the top five is because by the time he left the Packers he was already 37. But even with the Jets or Vikings is there any doubt that when Bret Favre retires he's going to enter the Hall of Fame as a Packer? Or that his retirement announcement will be carried live on Green Bay television?
Of course not.
5. Pete Rose -- Cincinnati
It's hard to picture Pete Rose in anything other than the red Cincinnati batting helmet that he wore, chugging around first base trying to turn a single into a double. With his lumbering gait, stoic hustle, and eschewing of flash in favor of a steadfast embracing of hard work and the nuances of the game, Charlie Hustle reflected the ideals that the city of Cincinnati held dear, a blue-collar commitment to his craft.
But in 1979, after 15 seasons with the Reds, the Philadelphia Phillies signed Rose to the richest contract in the history of professional sports -- a then-astounding four-year, $3.2 million deal.
While with the Phillies, Rose collected a third World Series ring.
Reds fans were crushed over his departure. But after a six-year absence, during which time Reds' fans attempted to recover from the demise of the Big Red Machine, Rose returned to the Queen City in 1984.
Shortly thereafter he broke Ty Cobb's hits record in front of his home stadium.
By the time he finished his playing and managerial career, no player was more embedded in the DNA of a town, than Pete Rose was in Cincinnati. And he had the rarest of professional sports connections, a second act in the city that loved him.
4. Wayne Rooney -- Everton
Yeah, I'm going international on you, soccer style. Consider this an early preview of the United States' opening round match with England.
Rarely has a sports-obsessed city felt more fortunate than when Wayne Rooney joined the local Everton soccer team at the age of 10. In a country that values soccer above all else, Rooney was a gift from the heavens, an unbelievable talent that was grown and nurtured in the city where he would commence his professional career.
Rooney once scored a goal to reveal a T-shirt underneath his jersey that read, "Once a Blue, always a Blue." In 2002, at 17, he became the then-youngest player to ever score a goal in England's Premier League. It seemed possible that Rooney might lead the long-suffering Everton fans to unparalleled glory.
It wasn't to be.
After three years and 67 games, Rooney was gone for Manchester United.
The boy who claimed he'd always be a blue, bolted for the money at 18.
Everton fans have yet to recover, Wayne Rooney's sojourn with their team turned into a Hollywood marriage.
3. Babe Ruth -- Boston
In 1915, 1916, and 1918 a pitcher by the name of Babe Ruth helped the Boston Red Sox win three World Series. But trouble loomed, after Babe Ruth pitched two shutouts in the 1918 World Series, he demanded a doubling of his salary, to $20,000 a year.
Red Sox ownership balked.
Who was worth this kind of money?
Just 24, Babe Ruth believed he was.
And the New York Yankees agreed.
The Red Sox' payout?
One-hundred, twenty-five thousand dollars cash and three $25,000 notes, a total of $200,000.
It was a deal that left Red Sox ownership boasting, "No other club could afford to give me the amount the Yankees have paid for him, and I don't mind saying I think they are taking a gamble. With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Ruth had remained with us."
Ruth would go on to win World Series with the Yankees in 1923, 1927, 1928, and 1932. These would be the first four of the 26 titles the Yankees would win before the Red Sox finally ended the Curse of the Bambino and won a title in 2004.
Yep, 26 to 2.
Along the way, Ruth became synonymous with the city of New York, tattooing the Yankee Pinstripes across his mythological career and aiding in the creation of Big Apple lore with his prodigious home run distances and totals.
New York offers the biggest and best of everything, and some say that legacy was cemented the moment Babe Ruth began to swing his bat at the Polo Grounds.
2. LeBron James -- Cleveland?
LeBron has never won a title in Cleveland, but he holds the fate of a city in his palm more than any athlete in the past two decades. A regional star whose talent has been nurtured by northern Ohio, if LeBron leaves at the tender age of 25, before his talent has fully blossomed, the city of Cleveland will never recover from the loss.
What's more, it will have no titles to bask in the reflected glory of. LeBron's Cleveland years will come to be known as a prolonged training ground for his future successes ... elsewhere. Eventually, LeBron's Cleveland years will become like Babe Ruth's Boston years, a brief blip on the radar that fans outside of Cleveland can barely recall.
Quicken Loans Arena will become a cavernous expanse of empty seats, and most Cavs fans, abandoning their cursed franchise, will silently root on LeBron in front of their flickering televisions as he leads another city to victory.
While the No. 1 player on this list may have impacted an entire country, it's hard to conceive of a city that is more intimately connected to an athlete than Cleveland is to LeBron James.
Or one that will be more crushed if LeBron decides to leave.
1. Wayne Gretzky -- Edmonton
In 1988, when Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles for, among other things, $15 million in cash, Canada was so upset that some political leaders sought to ban the trade. Gretzky, who had won four Stanley Cups for the Edmonton Oilers, wasn't just abandoning a mid-sized Canadian city for the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles, he was abandoning a hockey obsessed country for a country that was comparatively oblivious to his talent.
What's more, Gretzky had literally been there at the inception for the Edmonton Oilers when they joined the NHL. Just 18 in 1979-80 when the Oilers commenced play in the NHL, Gretzky would amass 49 NHL records in his nine seasons with the team.
The Edmonton Oilers and Gretzky were almost inseparable in the public mind, an indivisible duo.
Then, quite simply, "The Trade" came.
While Gretzky would never win the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles and the Oilers would go on to win one more title in 1990, the pain over Gretzky's loss to a city, and, perhaps most importantly, a country makes Gretzky's departure from Edmonton the greatest athlete departure in professional sports history.