'The Return of the King' reignites hope in Cleveland sports

by Michael Leonard | Sports Editor Published:

Well, it happened.

Four years after the worst nightmare of Cleveland sports fans came true, the unthinkable has happened again.

LeBron James is coming back to Cleveland.

Let me repeat that, because it seems so hard to believe.

LeBron James is coming back to Cleveland!

I honestly thought I'd never write those words.

Four years ago this summer, after the infamous "The Decision" program announced LeBron was divorcing himself from Northeast Ohio, the reaction was visceral.

LeBron jerseys were burned in public.

Pictures of LeBron posted on walls in Northeast Ohio were relocated to floors, dart boards and urinals.

Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert let loose a now-infamous rant that was pilloried in the national media, but encapsulated the mood of the fans perfectly.

To Cleveland fans, this wasn't about a basketball player going from one team to another.

This was about a native son of Northeast Ohio -- one whose impact had raised the collective spirit of the city -- choosing to abandon a place that loved him for a place in the sun.

Cleveland sports fans have long memories, iron chins and big hearts.

You don't go through the calamities Cleveland sports have gone through in the last 30 years without those attributes.

What about Miami fans? Their definition of loyalty is staying past halftime.

The reaction of the two fan bases after each of LeBron's moves speaks volumes.

In 2010, Cleveland almost literally broke out the torches and pitchforks.

In 2014, Miami … looks like it just went right back to South Beach.

The Heat struggled for years to sell out playoff games.

I guarantee Quicken Loans Arena will sell out every single game next season.

Winter in Northeast Ohio just got a bit more bearable.

Yes, the weather in Cleveland in from December to March can drive anyone crazy. But "The Q" just became a destination again and winning tends to warm the hearts of any sports fan.

Make no mistake, everybody in downtown Cleveland from the Horseshoe Casino to the smallest bar owner is ecstatic right now.

Cavaliers games are about to become an economic boost for the city again.

In his self-written letter to SI.com where he announced his decision, James indicated he's aware of his importance to the region.

"I want to give them hope when I can," James wrote. "I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

In many ways, this letter was the antithesis of the "The Decision" and LeBron admitted he'd do things differently. He also noted just how tough the separation had been for him.

James may be a superstar, but anyone who see that much vitriol directed at you has to hurt at least a little.

Will the fans forgive him? A Record Publishing Co. online poll conducted last week asked the question "Do you want LeBron James to return the Cleveland?" The results had 69 percent saying "No."

There are some Cleveland fans who have actually sworn off basketball as result of LeBron's first move.

I understand these sentiments, but feel they exist because many fans put up a psychological wall so as not to get burned if/when LeBron decided not to return this time.

As associate sports editor Frank Aceto would say "You know better than that."

We do know better than that.

But, for once, pain for Northeast Ohio fans has turned to euphoria.

I'm sure there will be some hardcores that don't return to cheering for the Cavs. However, the vast majority of fans will welcome him back -- if for no other reason that LeBron's return makes the Cavs instantly relevant.

From a pure basketball stance, LeBron's arrival turns the Cavaliers from a young team that finished well below .500 the last four years to arguably the best team in the NBA Eastern Conference.

Cavs general manager David Griffin isn't done yet. Rumors are flying that the Cavs are working hard on a trade to bring Kevin Love to Cleveland. LeBron's former Miami running buddies Ray Allen and Mike Miller could be joining the Cavs in the not-too-distant future.

A team that features James, Love and Kyrie Irving -- and possibly No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins if he isn't traded -- looks like a match for any time in the NBA not named the San Antonio Spurs.

For now, however, the basketball impact pales in comparison to the morale boost this move provides.

It's been a pretty good summer for Cleveland.

The Browns got Johnny Manziel, the Cavaliers picked up Wiggins and the city won the right to host the 2016 Republican National Convention.

All of these moves, however, are eclipsed by the boost provided by LeBron James' return to Cleveland.

After all this city has been through, it's nice to see the sports gods smiling, for once, on the Northcoast.

Email: mleonard@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9442

Facebook: MLeonardRPC

Twitter:@MLeonard_RPC

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