LeBron James might be headed back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 if he and ownership can patch things up and the Cavs have enough cap space and if the team is any good and if the Mavs or Lakers or Knicks or whomever can’t make him a better offer and maybe if everything seems fine and Dwyane Wade ages gracefully, then LBJ will just stay kicking it in Miami with its speedboats and glitter and Kardashian-took beaches, where he can shoot more of those “casual superstar” Samsung commercials where he says things like “you guys” and “[unintelligible because of riotous group laughter] man!” while people smile at him as if they have been well-compensated to do so.
I’m not going to pretend not to be titillated or have lots of conflicting emotions about the prospect of LeBron moving back home and trying to win a couple more championships flanked by a core of young players that will hopefully, by the summer of 2014, be emanating some 2009-10 Thunder vibes, but I don’t plan on giving it a lot of thought between now, and, say, April of next year. The Cavs aren’t reliving their 2010-11 season. There’s stuff to pay attention to in the meantime: Tristan Thompson’s rapid offensive development, the Dion Waiters project, Kyrie Irving’s existence, etc.
What I’m more interested in is the way LeBron continues to haunt Cavs fans. Whatever he absconded with when he left for Miami is still absent in Cleveland. When Kyrie Irving admitted last week that he checked out of a lopsided defeat against the Pistons, a smallish group of Cavaliers fans panicked and took it as an indication that he already has one foot out the door. The logic of this is wonky—he lost his focus for an hour on a Friday night in Detroit, how can we ever trust him?—but it’s rooted in abandonment issues that still linger in the wake of LeBron’s departure. Cavs fans are so worried about getting burned again that they are constantly searching for slights as an excuse to indulge their neurotic nightmares of Kyrie Irving playing for the Lakers in a half-decade plus. There’s still love between player and fanbase—it’s impossible not to be exhilarated in the moments when Irving knifes to the hoop like a diving seabird—but it’s all wary affection.
Cleveland might never possess a player like they thought they possessed LeBron, and that’s probably healthy for all parties involved. The claim that we’re all rooting for laundry just because fans and players aren’t devoted to teams in the same way betrays an unwillingness to deal with anything but an ideal world. (And an ideal world for whom, exactly?) As if nearly all goodwill isn’t circumstantial. LeBron reminded Cavs fans that sometimes a fanbase ends up on the wrong side of a difficult decision. Surely, as foolish as The Decision was, the lower-case decision to leave a competitive Cavs team for an unprecedented star-centric project in Miami couldn’t have been easy, even from a pure basketball standpoint. Bron’s Northeast Ohio roots must have only complicated matters. James didn’t show any public vexation over his choice because his persona doesn’t allow him to be anything less than a bronze statue of himself, but it couldn’t have caused him an insignificant amount of pain to leave home. He left a lot behind, and I think he knows that, even if some of that knowledge has only come through after-the-fact introspection. The adoration that he threw back at Cleveland during his Cavs tenure was real, in other words. Even if it was overstated or fleeting or confused and even if the billboard was, in retrospect, a little much.
Which isn’t to say LBJ wasn’t a hypocrite and a jerk on his way out. He played up the whole native son angle for his first six years in Cleveland, then abruptly stopped mentioning it during his contract year. While his agent was booking him a flight to Miami, he lapsed into semantics: he’s from Akron, not Cleveland, and, it turns out, that’s an important distinction that he had literally never made before he signed with the Heat. He was effectively a Clevelander until the moment it was inconvenient to be one. His emotional dishonesty, I think, is what bothered me the most, but then world-devouring brands tend to speak out of both sides of their mouths.
It’s too early in Kyrie Irving’s career to know whether or not he’ll agree to let Nike light him all sexy and posit his game as evidence of a greater power and its love for us, though he probably will, but we can thank whatever deity Adidas is comparing Derrick Rose to this week that Irving is from New Jersey and won’t participate in any ads in which he claims to be an embodiment of the city whose team he plays for. No one will let that happen again. For what it’s worth, I’m happy with where Irving’s persona is at right now—he’s a fun-to-watch youngster with a moderate goofy streak. I’m glad he’s not yet a world-devouring brand, and we haven’t yet listened to him recite aspirational copy over a sepia-tone closeup of his muscles moving in slow-motion as he bursts toward a solitary hoop. Bring on Uncle Drew. Those ads have some whimsy, at least.
So why are some of us searching for reasons to mistrust this pupating superstar? If you can’t watch Irving without thinking, when everything gets quiet, “Am I going to hate this guy one day?” then you took the wrong lessons from the LeBron debacle. What we learned was to not allow an athlete or marketing machine to tell us that any athlete is pure. If you’re a Hawks fan, you probably like Al Horford a lot, but you don’t think of him as pure. Because that’s absurd. For whatever reason, when an athlete reaches a certain phylum of greatness, we start ascribing traits to them that can’t possibly be true. LeBron was held up as a gladiator and a prophet and, it turns out, he is actually just a basketball player. A brilliant one who gave Cavaliers fans hundreds of masterpieces over seven years that were, on the whole, pretty enjoyable.
If you’re afraid Kyrie Irving is going to be LeBron James, Part Two, your fear is misguided because Irving is not LeBron and LeBron, even if he comes back to Cleveland, cannot re-become the machine-deity he and we and a team of marketing executives made him. The LeBron James—on a symbolic level—that almost single-handedly beat the eventual champion Celtics in the 2008 playoffs no longer exists. What he meant is not what he is—like a home can burn down in a fire and be ashes but still a home.
What resides in Cleveland, right now, is one of the very best scorers in the league. He’s 20 years old. He’s working on a beard right now, and I’m really excited to see it come to fruition in a couple of weeks. He’s on every NBA nerd’s must-watch list, and he plays for my favorite team. That picture up top! It’s terrific and makes me smile. I want to watch Irving and this young team grow and not worry about what’s going to happen in half a decade because I know the worst that could happen already has. Plus, I want to fully appreciate this second shot at a watching a superstar mature. I spent too much time holding my breath the first time around. A lot of us did. Have you ever watched a player who perfectly measures reverse lay-ins? Have you ever believed in physics less? Kyrie Irving isn’t a gladiator or a prophet. He never will be. He’s human confetti. He’s a Cavalier, for now. Good enough.