Bulls or LeBron? Easy for Cleveland

CHICAGO -- A very famous bald man once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."

No, not Zydrunas Ilgauskas. It was Gandhi.

Of course, Gandhi wasn't a Cavaliers fan.

There are plenty of strong people in the greater Cleveland area and across its vast diaspora, but you won't find many willing to forgive LeBron James for fleeing their basketball team, their city, on live television last summer.

In that time, the hate for James, now of the Miami Heat, has died down, the natural result of time turning white-hot rage into a more ingrained, more familiar bitterness. Cleveland's sports fans are used to dealing with failure and overcoming their own ennui.

But the overall feeling toward James has remained the same. Cleveland wants to watch him lose and, for once, enjoy it.

So that's why TVs across the Cleveland area were tuned into Sunday night's Eastern Conference finals opener between the Heat and the Chicago Bulls.

The Cleveland DMA had the fourth-best ratings of 56 metered markets, according to TNT, with a 10.3 household rating, trailing only Chicago, Miami and West Palm Beach.

If they're not watching on TV, fans are crowding into bars, like the Winking Lizard Tavern on Coventry Road, which reported a full house Sunday with expectations of the same Wednesday.

The series isn't quite must-see TV, but if the Bulls have the chance to eliminate Miami, they will have psychic support in pockets of Cleveland and Akron.

The Bulls used to be the Cavaliers' bÍte noire, and Michael Jordan's jumper over Craig Ehlo remains embedded into the city's fabric of failure. Along with John Elway's "Drive," Jordan's "Shot" still hurts those who remember the Cavs existed before James got drafted out of an Akron high school.

But if Derrick Rose and the Bulls can outlast James and the Heat, Cleveland fans will celebrate with Chicago. And in this case, they will forgive.

"If they win, I completely absolve them from their beating the Cavs in '89," said Adam Epstein, a 33-year-old Beachwood, Ohio, native who lives in Los Angeles. "As far as I'm concerned 'The Shot,' that's OK. If they beat the Heat, Jordan's shot over Ehlo is OK."

What about Carlos Boozer, I ask? Do you forgive him too?

"No," Epstein said. "Not Boozer."

Forgiveness has its limits, after all.

But Cleveland's most famous sports columnist, Terry Pluto, thinks even Boozer, who famously left the team in 2004 after supposedly agreeing to a deal with former owner Gordon Gund, could be a hero in northeast Ohio. He thinks only one other man, besides James, is unredeemable.

"If it takes Boozer to wipe out the Heat, so be it!" he wrote in an email. "They'd root for anyone but Art Modell in this series!"

The Cleveland Plain-Dealer, where Pluto writes, got worldwide attention last summer with its front page reaction to James' decision. It showed James walking away on a white canvas with the word "Gone" isolated in space and a pointed reminder that the King won no rings in his seven years.

But for this series it's been business as usual, according to sports editor Roy Hewitt. So far, the paper had covered the matchup with no special fanfare.

The columnists didn't go to Game 1, nor did they write about it. The paper, which lost Cavaliers beat writer Brian Windhorst to ESPN.com's Miami Heat Index, is trying to move on.

The Indians are in first place in the AL Central, Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is in hot water, and on Tuesday night, the Cavs made a big splash by winning the NBA draft lottery.

Hewitt wrote in an email that "there is increased interest, but it's not like the city has adopted the Bulls."

I'm not so sure about that. For the next three to six games, many Cleveland fans will support the Bulls with all their passion. Along with Epstein, a friend and a reliable source on all things Cleveland sports, I talked to a couple other guys I trust about their feelings on this series and what it means to them as sports fans.

Most of what my longtime friend Matt Greenberg (no relation, thankfully) told me in text and phone conversations is unprintable due to vulgarity and the sincere malice in his heart toward James.

But Greenberg, a season ticket holder to all three major Cleveland teams and a former basketball coach, said this series is a must-watch for him. It's all they talk about at his work, where he runs the family car dealership in the suburbs.

"The entire dealership, everybody is rooting for Chicago," he said. "Everybody. Nobody wants to see him win a game. Cleveland fans are bitter. We'll love you much as possible when you're here but if you [hurt] us in any way, we'll bury you."

Greenberg was already planning to keep his Cavs season tickets, partly out of loyalty to owner Dan Gilbert. He's on a sports high right now, celebrating the Indians, the Cavs' big draft news and cheering for the Bulls. He actually believes in Gilbert's parting shot to James last summer. He actually thinks the Cavs could win a title before James.

"He might not win one at all," he said, trying out the logic on me. "The Bulls are really good, really deep, and they're younger than Miami."

Matt Hagan, a college classmate who lives in the suburb of Rocky River, wrote me an impassioned response to the question: Are you rooting for the Bulls?

"I am indeed rooting for the Bulls," he replied. "There is some crazy irony with this of course. As a 32-year-old man from Cleveland, many of my formative memories of my sports childhood involve pure HATRED for Chicago and particularly Michael Jordan. Chicago may be the Second City, but the chip on its broad shoulders is nothing compared to the missing collarbone of the Cleveland fan."

Hagan, to his credit, is honest about why fans care so much about hating the Heat. It has to do with Cleveland's ingrained identity as a hard-luck loser and the pain felt when James, the cherished native son, told them they weren't good enough anymore. Everyone felt Cleveland had a chance to celebrate a title for the first time since 1964 last spring, but failure beget disaster.

So Hagan, and all the others, want to see James fail to feel better about their home. It sounds sad and miserly to those who don't understand. But to many of us, it sounds right.

"Essentially all of this speaks to LeBron's magnetism and pre-eminence," Hagan wrote. "He can turn a whole world upside down. This is all about schadenfreude. Go Bulls."

So Cleveland will adopt the Bulls as its own, for this one series anyway.

Fans there will cheer for Joakim Noah, who dissed the city last summer, and for Boozer, who left the team too early, and of course, for Rose.

Cleveland has been waiting decades for a winner to call its own. Another loss for James is good enough for now.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.