Zydrunas Ilgauskas wrote a letter to Cleveland fans, which was published in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer on Sunday. (Here’s a link to the letter for those of you who haven’t seen it.)
It’s exactly the kind of thing Z would do. It’s classy, it’s understated, it’s honest, it’s from the heart, and it was written directly for Cleveland fans. Again, exactly what you’d expect from Big Z. If there was any doubt that Ilgauskas’ number will someday be retired before, there shouldn’t be now.
This leads me to an idea I’ve had for a while, and one I thought about writing about it in response to Cam’s post on Friday — the letter just makes the idea a little bit more obvious.
Nobody is quite sure what’s going to happen when LeBron comes back to Cleveland. Cities have hated athletes before, but it’s usually there are some understood ground rules, an acknowledgement that this is all kind of a dress-up game. However vehemently Ohio State fans have booed great Michigan players, or Red Sox fans have booed great Yankee players, or whatever, there’s always been a tacit understanding that they were really just saying “You’re a very talented player who may or may not have some personal flaws, and you’re wearing the wrong laundry.”
Most fans would never admit it, but booing a player is often a sign of respect. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Cavs fans and LeBron James. It’s one thing to boo a player for his on-court performance or off-court shenanigans — this is about hating LeBron James based on a major choice he made and the way he chose to act while doing it. Driving 98 yards in 5 minutes was John Elway’s job. “The Decision” was LeBron’s choice.
That’s a much different kind of hate — honestly, the best comparable I can think of to this is when Carlos Boozer returned to Cleveland, and that blow was softened by the Cavs’ rise and Boozer’s up-and-down stint with the Jazz. Football and baseball teams have had players leave under dubious circumstances before, but those fans are a lot further away from the players than basketball fans are.
One could also consider what happens to top college athletes that string along one school and commit to another at the 11th hour — remember when Eric Gordon decided to attend Indiana?
In any case, I’m not really looking forward to LeBron’s return to the Q. Sports are a lot of good things, but they can also be an excuse for fans to indulge their instincts to join a tribe and act like animals towards anybody outside of their chosen tribe. I fear that’s what may happen when LeBron returns to Cleveland.
It’s fine to boo LeBron James. It’s fine to hate LeBron James. What I’m concerned about is Cleveland becoming a franchise that defines itself by its hatred of LeBron James. It’s something I’ve seen other fanbases do to varying extents in the past, and it was never pleasant to look at. The fact that LeBron acted foolishly in the weeks and days leading to his decision to play for a different team didn’t change my mind about that.
So here we are. Cleveland fans (and the owner of the Cavaliers) clearly feel that they were wronged by LeBron James in a major way, and most feel a very deep antipathy for him now. Fighting against this current with a “Thanks for the seven years of service and all you did for the franchise, LeBron” night upon his return would be foolish.
On the other hand, “Screw You, LeBron night” (orchestrated chants, video segments to incite the crowd, 2-3 play stoppages because somebody threw something at LeBron, et cetera) also wouldn’t be my cup of tea. I completely understand why such a thing would happen, and acknowledge that it likely will. That said, this is a beautiful game played by a lot of good people, and losing sight of that makes for bad sports fandom. Also, going overboard with that stuff could lose Cleveland fans a lot of the good will they’ve gained since the LeBacle.
So what should be done when LeBron returns? This is just one man’s opinion, but I think they should make the first Heat-Cavaliers game at the Q next season “Zydrunas Ilgauskas Night.” Give out Z bobbleheads or facemasks at the door. Have halftime be a “Thank You, Z” show, with a montage for him, a speaker or two, and an opportunity for Z to speak. There should be one heck of an ovation.
Don’t go overboard with it and make the “screw you, LeBron” theme overt — everything said and done for Z should be about Z, and done because he deserves it. (Because the “screw you, LeBron” theme will be implicit, the Cavs should NOT retire Z’s number until his Heat days are forgotten and LeBron isn’t on everyone’s minds the way he will be for the next 2-3 years. Z deserves for that night to be all about him.)
LeBron James has been given a lot of things in his life. He’s won a lot of things, and he’ll win a lot more things in the years to come.
However, there are somethings that can’t be given. There are even some things that can’t be won. Some things must be earned, and the appreciation Cleveland has for Zydrunas Ilgauskas is one of those things. When LeBron comes back, it may be prudent to give him a glance of one thing he’ll never get.