A killing blow right to the gut. Through the gut, really. LeBron James eviscerated a city and an area in one all-about-me hour-long show on national TV. He said he was leaving Cleveland for Miami, and he did it on a show generated by him, about him and for him. He toyed with the emotions of people who supported him, who believed because he was one of their own that he might be different.
Try telling anyone in Cleveland he's different now.
It was his right, of course. He could leave if he wanted. But he hardly looked happy, hardly seemed exultant. Maybe that will come in time. Maybe he was torn over leaving his town. He did it anyway. And when he did he tore the heart out of his hometown -- Akron included.
Local TV in Cleveland showed all the usual shots after the announcement. The disappointed faces. The depressed sound bites. The guys in the bar holding their head in their hands. One fan called him "a coward." Another said he "ripped the hearts out of Northeast Ohio."
Cleveland City Councilman Zach Reed called the entire TV production and announcement "a slap in the face."
"Why would you go on national TV and tell millions of people around the world that the city you grew up in, that embraced you, is not good enough to play for," Reed said on WOIO-Channel 19. "A total slap in the face. You don't go on national television to do that."
Folks felt duped, cheated, mislead, betrayed. All his words about team and area and loyalty and home ... all seem hugely hypocritical now. James and his NBA cohorts who pulled this off did it for themselves. And James made no secret of that. He went the I and me route often on his show.
He even used the third person, stating he was doing "what was best for LeBron James" and "what would make LeBron James happy."
Meanwhile, kids in Cleveland who looked up to him cried.
James talked his entire career about being a leader, but he wound up following. Following his friends to South Florida where they can form a self-generated superteam, in an area where it means as much to be seen at the games as it does to see the games. James had the right to choose, of course, and he chose the way that caused the most pain possible in his hometown. More power to the Heat for pulling this off, but that doesn't lessen Cleveland's pain.
Cleveland now is the city that has seen a back-to-back MVP leave town, has seen consecutive American League Cy Young winners traded. Manny Ramirez left. Jim Thome. Albert Belle. And Art Modell left with his football team. Add on the dismay during the games -- The Drive, The Fumble, The Elbow -- and it just seems whack. Impossible to believe it all happened in one city.
James was going to be different. He grew up in Akron. He could drive 20 minutes to work, shop at Target. And he seemed to care, to understand, because he was from the area.
As former NFL player LeCharles Bentley said, his departure "could ruin pro sports in Cleveland" because if Cleveland can't keep one of its own, how can it attract a player from another team?
"I never wanted to leave Cleveland," James said.
Then why leave?
A burned jersey showed up on TV, police cruisers with lights flashing parked outside the "Witness" banner. Shown the burning '23' jersey, James said he couldn't get involved in the feelings in Cleveland, that he had given his all for seven years and the seven years "we had was like no other."
"I'll ultimately be happy with the decision I made and continue to be great," James said.
He said his "real fans" would support him, but he didn't seem to understand that his real fans, the ones who watched him since high school, live near Akron and Lake Erie.
While he continues, in his words, "to be great," Cleveland suffers. And shows more anger than any place should show over a professional sports figure.
But for the fans and people in Cleveland, it feels like unrequited love. Every game James has ever played in Cleveland, going back to his high school days, was a sellout. Fans adored him, and gave him everything they could. Just like his team. The Cavs never gutted their roster to try to save money to keep him, never told him it would hold back on acquiring players until he committed. They tried to win, surrounding him with players they thought he wanted and could win with -- to the point that they did all they could to try to acquire Chris Paul the past few days.
Perhaps that was why Cavs owner Dan Gilbert reacted so angrily. Gilbert is a fighter, and he did not go quietly when James left, releasing a letter calling James "a former King" and his actions a "cowardly betrayal." The Cavs had done everything they humanly could to keep James happy for seven years, and he left.
James seems to forget, too, that he let the people down in the Boston series. He checked out in Game 5 of Cleveland's second-round loss to the Celtics, then after said he had spoiled people in seven years. Gilbert told The Associated Press James quit and that it was "accountability time."
"He quit," Gilbert told the AP. "Not just in Game 5, but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar."
Gilbert also charged James quit in the Cavs Game 6 loss against Orlando in the 2009 playoffs.
"Go back and look at the tape," he said. "How many shots did he take?"
Gilbert also said James never returned a phone message or text since the end of the season, and added people had "covered up for (James) for way too long. Tonight we saw who he really is."
Because James didn't communicate that he wasn't coming back, the Cavs waited for him and now they're in an impossible spot in terms of trying to improve their team after all the key free agents have signed elsewhere.
He held them hostage in free agency the same way he held them hostage the last three years. It was all based on his whims, his desire to have options. He talked team, and played for the team, but had his personal end-goal in mind. The Cavs spent so much money to try to win the past three years that they now have no way to spend to win in the NBA's salary cap structure. James left the team that tried to win, and joined the team that did nothing but manipulate the roster to gain salary cap space.
James left the team that tried to win and joined the team that didn't. Imagine if the Cavs had been the team gutting its roster; what would The King and his "team" have said then.
The Cavs released the obligatory statement from GM Chris Grant, and Grant did not even mention James. Grant took the stiff upper lip, saying he believed in the team's future. Gilbert was more pointed, guaranteeing the Cavs would win a championship before James did.
James' entire free agent process smacks of a charade, one that was orchestrated for months to bring the threesome of James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh together. The interviews, the discussions -- a charade. This was their plan all along. It appears they conceived it, and now they've hatched it. Given it life. And they seemed as interested in their personal "brands" and making each other as much money as possible with their move as they did in basketball. That's the impression they gave, at least.
And to make it work James created a moment on national television when the cameras could show the crushed faces in his hometown.
It even became laughable when James talked about sacrificing by taking less money to sign with Miami. He told a town where unemployment is in double figures how he was "sacrificing" ; when his contract will be worth, at least, $80 million. It's surprising people didn't retch right then and there.
In Cleveland, a weatherman even got in on the act. Channel 5's Mark Johnson said the way James made his announcement "showed no class" and that Cleveland "saw the true character of LeBron James."
"LeBron," he said. "Good riddance and Godspeed." From a weatherman.
James did a lot for Cleveland. There is no question of that. He was a great player and he gave the city many great moments. But the city, too, gave him back everything it could, and he left.
We are all witnesses, reads the giant banner that still hangs in downtown Cleveland.
Witnesses to what, is the question.