The King Has Left the Building

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I’m going to officially sound like an old man when I say, “I remember when superstars wanted to play against one another.”

You know: guys like Jordan and Bird and Magic and Dr. J. Guys that today’s guys claim to look up to.

But on Thursday night, LeBron James dealt Northeast Ohio a devastating blow – agreeing to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, bolting from his hometown franchise to join Pat Riley’s power troika.

What happened from Game 5 against Boston until last night’s decision might remain one of sports’ greatest mysteries, but it’s hard to imagine a bigger fall from grace than that of Akron’s favorite son. It took the two-time MVP exactly five days – and a one-hour spectacle on ESPN – to squander and obscure seven unprecedented years of greatness and goodwill in Cleveland.

Speaking to Jim Grey, a bearded James came across as cool and unfazed by his decision, claiming the seismic shift gave him “the best opportunity to win now and to win in the future.”

LeBron’s decision culminates the heavyweight portion of an exhausting free agency period.

Officially, it lasted just over a week. But unofficially, it’s been building for years. And with a single sentence – “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” – James put to rest an amazing, but ultimately unfulfilling chapter in Cleveland sports history.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert fired back hard within hours in an Open Letter to fans. (And if you’re reading this, you’ve already read that.) Gilbert channeled every angry Clevelander and pulled no punches. The words “cowardly,” “heartless” and “narcissistic” pepper a scathing message that guaranteed a title in Cleveland before LeBron and Co. win on in South Florida.

Just over one week ago, Cavalier fans took to the streets of Northeast Ohio to show their love for the former St. Vincent-St. Mary’s star. And while the Knicks, Bulls and Nets apparently made strong pitches – and eventual moves to woo the “King” – the last-minute surge from Miami, clearing roster space and adding Chris Bosh, was too much for LeBron to pass up.

A few weeks ago, while the free agent process was overshadowing his NBA Finals, Commissioner David Stern beamed over the unprecedented attention that his league was getting. With two NBA cities now forced to pick up the pieces and three of his brightest stars viewed as spoiled villains, I wonder how he feels about the process now.

Before the night was over, Miami was also able to unload first round bust Michael Beasley, creating enough space to add Mike Miller to the fold. Now that Pat Riley has assembled his power triumvirate (plus Miller) the trick will be who he’ll surround them with.

The Heat were just one of the teams that scrambled to gut their roster to accommodate the 2010 pending free agency class. I wonder how the Commissioner feels about that one, too?

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Dan Gilbert spared no expense – refurbishing the arena, constructing a $25 million practice facility and plunging fearlessly into the luxury tax. The teams chasing Cleveland’s superstar intentionally decimated their rosters – at the expense of their hopeful fans – to clear cap space.

After LeBron’s decision, what those teams' ownership will tell their fans on Friday morning doesn’t matter to me. I only know what our ownership is telling us. And in the midst of my anger and disappointment, it was the reaction I needed as a native Clevelander.

LeBron gave hoops fans in Northeast Ohio seven prolific seasons and didn’t do anything that wasn’t his right as an unrestricted free agent. He even cancelled the much-anticipated tour, instead forcing organizations to pitch him and his “team” in Cleveland.

But in the end, like his new teammate Chris Bosh, the lure of South Beach was too much to resist, and the trio’s not-so-subtle flirtation with one another was consummated on Thursday night in Connecticut.

Cavalier fans now have two favorite teams. Their own squad and any team that plays the Miami Heat.

The Cavaliers won 127 regular season games over the past two years, but odds are against them repeating that feat.

They’ll go back to being a “team” and Cleveland will resume its role as the underdog. New head coach Byron Scott took a team that won 26 games the previous season to the NBA Finals in back-to-back years. And two years after winning 18 games, his Hornets won 56.

"As I told Chris and Lance when I first talked to them, we talked about a scenario with LeBron and without," said Scott on Friday afternoon. "And my statement was: without LeBron, this team has more talent than the two teams I took over in New Jersey and New Orleans. That's one of the reasons that I was excited about the opportunity to coach here.

"I have rebuilt teams and I don't think this is a rebuilding team, but this is a situation where we're going to have to do things a little differently. But I think I'm the right man for the job."

And while the roster will obviously be without the game’s greatest player, there’s still a solid mixture of young talent and proven veterans.

But more importantly, the Cavaliers have an owner that is passionate (and pissed-off) and has a persistent, unrelenting commitment to winning. And there should be no doubt that he’ll go to any lengths to compete with his former small forward.

Clevelanders have been knocked down before, and this one might sting a while longer because it came at the hands of one of our own. But Clevelanders don’t stay down.

As a city and as a region, we’ve gotten over higher hurdles than this. And while Pat Riley fills out a roster around LeBron, Bosh and Wade, the Wine and Gold will be building themselves back up to beat them.