There’s been a basketball-related cloud hanging over this entire NBA Finals, and I’m not talking about the fact that we all already know who will win.
It showed up for the first time in full force last night as the series shifted to Cleveland and Quicken Loans Arena filled to the brim with wine-and-gold jerseys. Underneath the glamor and glee projected by the arena and those jamming the streets outside simmered a fear that’s about to boil. The prodigal son, the best basketball player ever — don’t @ me — might leave them again.
With the Warriors almost certainly assured victory, LeBron James’ future is the most pressing question for Clevelanders and NBA fans and will be the feature story for the offseason, the most entertaining part of the NBA calendar. Don’t get it twisted: LeBron might stay. It’s possible. But futility in the Finals, apparent miscommunication with owner Dan Gilbert and consistent upheaval on the court and in the executive suite seem to point to his likely exit.
This leaves Clevelanders in an awkward situation and creates a fascinating dynamic that Quicken Loans Arena showcases every night, because LeBron puts not just the team on his back like Atlas but parts of the city as well.
When LeBron returned in 2014, the city forecasted hundreds of millions of dollars generated long-term because of him. Last year, one Harvard study found that, within a mile of his home court in Cleveland and Miami, the number of restaurants and bars increased by 13.7 percent and all establishments hired 23.5 percent more employees.
The most physical manifestation of his impact pops onto your screen every night the Cavs play at The Q: The season after LeBron left the first time, attendance actually remained relatively flat at about 20,000 per night, but crowds thinned by about 20 percent the following year and stayed that way until he came back.
Fans love sports, in part, because it provides an escape from the pressures of life. Now, those stresses are seeping into the sacred arena. It would be the second time The Land has been unable to hang onto a cultural touchstone, generational artist and major economic driver. The crowd cheers for a hero they know might soon leave them heartbroken while grappling with their role in a potential breakup. Last time, they blamed him. This time, they can only blame the franchise.
Midwesterners have coped with this anxiety by assuming the worst and embracing a project that seems to always need hope. One resident told the Boston Globe during the Eastern Conference Finals that the 0-16 Browns were the talk of the town instead of the heroic efforts of a boy from Akron because LeBron can leave but the Browns can’t. (There was no acknowledgment that the Browns have, in fact, left Cleveland before.)
While the rest of us speculate where will he go, we don’t take into account the stakes are higher for the Ohioans. Every time you see Quicken Loans Arena for the rest of the Finals, it could be the last time you ever see it that way.
Last night, the crowd howled watching LeBron do things people aren’t supposed to be able to. When he threw it off the backboard to alley-oop himself IN THE NBA FINALS, the building nearly combusted. But if you listened close enough through the deafening roar, you could hear it. Their delight was tinged with desperation.
“Ask me to play, I’ll play. Ask me to shoot, I’ll shoot. Ask me to pass, I’ll pass. Ask me to steal, block out, sacrifice, lead, dominate, anything. But it’s not just what you ask of me. It’s what I ask of myself.”