It was called “The Decision,” but most Cavaliers fans probably think “The Betrayal” would have been more accurate.
Two-time reigning league MVP and Akron native LeBron James announced Thursday night on ESPN that he was joining the Miami Heat, leaving the Cavaliers and their fans heartbroken, bewildered and angry.
“I never wanted to leave Cleveland,” James said during the live telecast from Greenwich, Conn. “My heart will always be around that area. But I also felt this was the greatest challenge for me — to move on.”
In joining Miami, which previously agreed to contract terms with free agent stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James not only decided to leave a Cleveland team that won an NBA-best 127 games over the past two regular seasons, but also to play more than 1,000 miles from his hometown.
“I feel awful that I’m leaving,” he said. “I feel even worse I wasn’t able to bring a championship to that city, because I know they’ve been waiting a long time.”
Once so beloved in Northeast Ohio, James will now be seen by many as a pariah who abandoned his home – and an organization that often catered to his every need – to join two other stars in pursuit of an NBA title.
“This is tough,” James said. “It’s very tough. You feel like you’ve let a lot of people down.”
Asked if it would be as sweet to win a title in Miami as it would have been in Cleveland, the small forward said, “Championships are championships. You can’t look at it like if I had done it somewhere else, it would be sweeter.”
As for returning to Cleveland in a Heat uniform next season, James said, “We’re going to have to go back there twice a year. Hopefully the fans will be respectful, but at the same time I don’t expect them to be.”
Clad in a red and white striped shirt, James said he made the decision after talking to his mother, Gloria, who told him to do what was best for him.
“It was the relief I was looking for throughout this whole process,” he said.
That didn’t stop Cleveland fans from burning James’ No. 23 Cavaliers jersey – he’ll switch to No. 6 next season if Miami’s Mario Chalmers relinquishes it – shortly after he announced his decision.
“I can’t get involved in that,” James said. “One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James.”
James said final details of his contract with Miami still have to be worked out, but confirmed he – and Wade and Bosh – will get less than the maximum NBA salary.
“It’s going to give me the best opportunity to win and win for multiple years,” he said. “Not only to win in the regular season and win five games in a row or three games in a row. I want to be able to win championships. I feel like I can win down there.”
The live event raised $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, but it did nothing for the Cavaliers, who now find themselves without their franchise player.
Perhaps even worse, James’ decision broke the hearts of long-suffering Cleveland pro sports fans who thought the 25-year-old was their savior.
“This is a very emotional time for me,” James said. “I know it’s emotional for the fans and the area. If it was a perfect world, I would have loved to stay. … But I feel like it’s time to change.”
James spent the first seven years of his NBA career with the Cavaliers, leading them to unprecedented success but falling short of his goal to bring Cleveland its first major pro sports championship since 1964.
“It’s heartfelt,” James said of how hard it was to leave. “It’s hard to explain, but at the same time, my heart and the seven years I gave to that franchise and that city, it was everything.”
The Cavaliers overachieved and reached the NBA Finals in 2007, but were swept by the vastly superior San Antonio Spurs.
They lost to eventual NBA champion Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals in ’08, but the real disappointment came in the next two postseasons.
In 2008-09, the Cavaliers won a franchise-record 66 games in the regular season, but lost to Orlando in the conference finals.
In 2009-10, the Cavaliers won an NBA-best 61 games in the regular season, but fell to Boston in the conference semifinals.
“I’m going to miss all of them,” James said of his Cleveland teammates. “We had something that was very special and that, at the end of the day, you can’t substitute out.”
The results were mixed, but the Cavaliers did numerous things to try to help James bring them a title, starting with the 2005 signings of Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones.
When that didn’t work, former general manager Danny Ferry swung a trade-deadline deal in
February 2008 for Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith.
The Cavaliers added Mo Williams in the summer of ’08, Shaquille O’Neal in the summer of ’09 and traded for Antawn Jamison this February, but all those moves ended up being a day late, a dollar short or both.
Cleveland appeared to have a chance to get O’Neal in February of ’09, but a deal with Phoenix never came to fruition and Orlando ended up eliminating the Cavaliers from the playoffs.
Having added O’Neal after that, the Cavaliers explored trading for the Suns’ Amar’e Stoudemire in February 2010, but acquired Jamison instead and ended up losing to Boston in the playoffs.
“I respect that franchise and everything they’ve done for my friends and my family and me as an individual,” James said. “I tried to give it back to them every night.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.