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Fran Blinebury

Cleveland may never get over "The Defection"


Posted Jul 9 2010 12:08PM

Turn out the lights, the party's over.

Say goodbye to Bingo Smith, Nate Thurmond and Austin Carr. Wave farewell to Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price.

Those retired jerseys maybe still hang from the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena, but they'll likely never again flutter in the excited breeze of hot playoff drama.

No more Miracle of Richfield. No more zoo at the Q.

You only thought Craig Ehlo's face was the picture of anguish as he sank to his knees after Michael Jordan nailed that jumper on May 7, 1989.

Real agony is in the gut shot of LeBron James simply walking out the door to party with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on South Beach.

Cleveland Rocks! That's the bumper sticker.

Cleveland Rocked! That's the harsh reality.

Red Right 88, The Drive, The Catch, Renteria's Single, The Fumble, The Move and The Shot were nothing compared to this.

The Defection.

This is more than another sorrowful single game loss, a deflating defeat in a playoff series, the angst-ridden finish to another empty season in a city that has suffered through 46 years without a championship.

This was a guy who calls himself King abdicating the throne that had been set on a raised platform in his own backyard.

"In a perfect world, I would have loved to have stayed," LeBron said.

Of course, in a perfect world, a team, a city, a region doesn't have its emotions played with like they were on the end of a yo-yo string and its heart ripped out of its chest.

As the Nike ads once proclaimed: "We are all witness!"

We are that, alright. Witness to a jarring collision at the intersection of opportunity and self-indulgence that leaves Cleveland sports fans broken again and waiting for an ambulance that may never come.

It is one thing to be given the bum's rush by just another professional mercenary off in pursuit of the big bucks and the baubles of championship jewelry. But it is something else entirely to be snubbed by family, which is what James always said he was, emphasizing his northeastern Ohio roots as a son of Akron.

This isn't Amar'e Stoudemire leaving the hot desert of Phoenix for the hot lights of New York or Carlos Boozer fleeing the mountains of Utah for the broad shoulders and big city atmosphere of Chicago.

This is so much bigger, so much more devastating to the Cavaliers franchise and to the entire Cleveland community.

James' departure has been compared to a young Shaquille O'Neal bolting on the Orlando Magic just 13 months after they had played in the 1995 NBA Finals. But it is a much bigger loss, a gaping hole like the one ripped by the iceberg into the hull of the Titanic.

Though they went 12 years without winning a playoff series after Shaq's departure, the Magic still had another young star in Penny Hardaway and came back the very next season to win 45 games.

Without James, the Cavaliers are as unpalatable as the toxic mixture that once caused the Cuyahoga River to catch fire. With him leading the way, they have won 66 and 61 games -- the most in the NBA -- in the last two regular seasons. Without him, they'll be lucky to win 60 games total over the next three seasons.

The Cavaliers had not won more than 30 games in any one season during the five years before LeBron's arrival. In 2002-03 they were an NBA-worst 17-65 before striking lottery gold, winning the rights to the hometown hero and embarking on the electric and emotional rise.

With James gone, the Cavs will have Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison as their top two offensive weapons, a pair of guns who couldn't hit the target enough merely in supporting roles to James. Anderson Varejao is a wonderful complementary hustle guy, but now as a complement to what? With LeBron on the lam, the Cavs will not have many options to pick themselves back up off the floor and get back into the game. They have $11 million worth of space under the salary cap, but nothing or no one to spend it on to make up for the loss of James. What exactly could they get in return by trading the likes of Delonte West and Anthony Parker, who are in the last year of their respective contracts?

Head coach Mike Brown and general manager Danny Ferry (technically, he resigned) were already sacrificed as scapegoats for the failure of the Cavs to live up to the expectations in the playoffs over the past two seasons. Now it will be left in the lap of newly-hired coach Byron Scott, an accomplished veteran, who guided the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back appearances in the Finals in 2002 and 2003 and also coaxed 56 wins out of the New Orleans Hornets in 2008. His task at hand might as well be turning water into wine.

However, the effect on the court will be minuscule compared to the damage this does to Cleveland's already-bruised-and-battered psyche, not to mention the long-term viability of the Cavaliers' franchise. Team owner Dan Gilbert paid $375 million to purchase the club in 2005 and spared no expense to the payroll and in adding all of the extra bells and whistles to chase the elusive championship. If LeBron had re-signed with the Cavs, it is believed the value of the franchise could have risen as high at $600 million, even in the down economic climate.

Now financial experts within the league think he might have a hard time getting his money back. In fact, there are some that say the end of the LeBron Era could even lead to the end of the NBA in Cleveland. It is a cold weather, depressed, Rust Belt city that is losing jobs, losing population and now losing another bit of its vitality. While Orlando at least had sunny Florida as an enticement to lure players back to the Magic, no high profile free agent stars are looking to play in Cleveland. Point of fact: Chris Bosh didn't even want to play there with LeBron, if he had stayed.

Decades ago the NBA had franchises in Ft. Wayne and Syracuse, too, and it's conceivable that Cleveland could follow those outposts onto mere pages in the history books.

The Drive, The Catch, The Fumble and The Shot only hurt like hell.

This one could be fatal:

The Defection.

Last one out of the Q, remember to turn out the lights.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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