Cleveland Might Not Riot, but Uncertain Future Exists Without LeBron James

CLEVELAND — With rumors of another LeBron James departure from Cleveland swirling—this time to a team out West—it doesn’t take much to conjure memories of the last time James left. But this time around, those fans within the city expect a less chaotic scene if Akron’s own does depart in 2018.

“I don’t think people would be burning jerseys,” said Haz Matthews, a DJ for Cleveland’s R&B station 93.1 FM.

Matthews, who was born and raised in Cleveland, is one of many Cavaliers fans bracing themselves for next summer. Even before the reports, Matthews was getting ready for a city without the King.

“I have to prepare myself for life after LeBron, whenever that comes, because it’s coming,” Matthews said. “Sooner or later, it’s going to come, whether he retires from here or he goes somewhere else.”

When James left in 2010, things were different. The Cavaliers had only been to the NBA Finals once, the team struggled to get past the Boston Celtics in the playoffs and the city of Cleveland was still in the midst of a professional title drought that dated back to 1964.

As a result, frustration boiled over when James announced on live television that he would be leaving the Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. Fans rioted in the streets, shouted profanities and even burned some of James’ jerseys.

“I was embarrassingly mad in retrospect,” said Alex Hooper, who was a student then and is now a reporter and anchor for 92.3 FM, a Cleveland sports talk station. “I had a bunch of Cavs cutouts from newspapers all over my walls in my room, which was painted Cavs colors. I tore down every LeBron picture that was in there.”

Hooper wasn’t alone. While James caught a lot of negative attention for how he handled his decision to leave, the city of Cleveland didn’t do itself any favors. If LeBron leaves again, that night could serve as a cautionary tale for Cleveland residents.

“It was kind of embarrassing for the city the way people reacted,” Hooper said. “I think a lot of people know now to be on the better side of history with that.”

If James left this time around, the consensus is that Cleveland would behave differently. Hooper thinks there would be “more confusion than anger,” as he believes fans might not understand why James would want to leave a team that has made three consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

However, if Cleveland were still yet to win a title, the reaction might be a little different. Shedding the “loser” moniker the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians gave the city has arguably been James’ biggest accomplishment. Without that 2016 championship, The Land would be back in the same place, and the reaction in 2010 might have looked tame in comparison.

“It would arguably be worse,” said Josh Murphy, a moderator on the Cleveland Cavs subreddit. “At that point, I don’t think there would be any coming back for him. If we didn’t win last year and he left again, it would be bad.”

With that title safely in the books, the far bigger concern among Cavaliers fans and Cleveland residents is what happens if James departs. When James returned in 2014, a Time magazine report speculated that James was worth nearly $500 million to the city. Since his return, the area around Quicken Loans Arena is one of many parts of the city experiencing a revival.

While a study hasn’t confirmed a direct connection between the two, those in the city know who to thank.

“When he left, we dropped economically,” said Chet Mason, a Cleveland-born professional basketball player who has been a participant in Cavaliers training camp. “When he came back, what happened? Everything got to booming. It’s solely because of him and the type of star power he brings to the city.”

Aside from the three NBA Finals appearances, Cleveland has hosted the Republican National Convention and the World Series since James returned. The development of the city has continued as several more projects downtown are on the verge of commencing, including a renovation to Quicken Loans Arena that might bring the NBA All-Star Game back to Cleveland. James has given the city a national focus that it lacked previously.

“The city is on fire,” Mason said. “You can’t mention the NBA without mentioning Cleveland.”

For the local bars and restaurants around Quicken Loans Arena, the presence of James drives the business’ economic success when the Browns and Indians aren’t playing. Nick’s Sports Corner, which has been in existence for 20 years, is one of the few bars or restaurants in the area that was there well before James. Its owner, Nick Vroutos, knows what James means to his business.

“It gets you through the winter time,” Vroutos said. “There’s nothing really else going on in the winter time.”

However, a world without James in Cleveland would create a very different environment downtown.

“Now you get people from all over the world just to see LeBron, and every game is exciting,” Vroutos said. “The basketball fans compared to the Browns are a little bit more fair weather, so I don’t think they’ll be selling out every game if he leaves. You won’t have that draw without LeBron.”

Vroutos alludes to a sort of a split fanbase of the LeBron era. There are your diehard fans who root for the Cavaliers the same way they root for the Browns and the Indians, and there are your LeBron fans. The latter are viewed more as bandwagon fans who just want to be part of what’s popular.

“The Cavs are the trendy thing to be now,” Matthews said. “It’s the trendy thing to be a LeBron fan and go to the games. It’s cool.” 

Thus, the bigger question than what the immediate reaction would be if he left again is whether the team and city can maintain their growing fanbase without James. Last time LeBron departed, the team became one of the worst in the NBA, attendance dropped, and many businesses around the arena closed. It showed that the city’s revival was still not yet able to survive without him. Without James again, the fear is that Cleveland will experience a similar fate.

“If the team sucks, they’re not going to come downtown,” Matthews said. “The team has to be LeBron-proof first and foremost. The team has to be able to sustain at least some level of success. We can’t just go from winners to losers like last time.”

Still, there are some who believe that the Cavaliers hysteria is here to stay no matter when or how James leaves the team. Unlike when he left for the first time, the franchise will have a legacy of winning and success. While James brought some fair-weather fans into the fold, he also introduced millions of young fans to the Cavaliers, which has many hopeful for the post-LeBron era.

“LeBron brought excitement to the younger generation,” Hooper said. “Going forward, I think the Cavs have a very strong foundation because of LeBron. I wouldn’t be surprised if they even overtook the Browns.”

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