Commentary

Cleveland holds it together for James

LeBron's loyalty -- as well as his hometown team -- should not be dismissed

Updated: July 1, 2010, 10:40 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Bulls fans think they're nervous waiting to hear LeBron James' decision?

Remember this: You can't miss what you never had.

Cleveland, on the other hand …

[+] EnlargeLeBron James Sign
AP Photo/Mark DuncanPedestrians walk past a mural in downtown Cleveland imploring LeBron James to stay with the Cavaliers.

Well, what about Cleveland? Almost overlooked in the crush of rumors covering everything from what James will decide to where he will decide it and what he will be wearing when he does is that Cavs fans, longtime Clevelanders say, are divided.

There is the "for-the-love-of-God-let's-just-get-this-over-with" contingent; those cursed by an instinctive pessimism that James is a goner; and the true believers who can't imagine that he would turn his back on home, family, his team.

But other than a downtown banner in Cleveland that reads "Born Here. Raised Here. Plays Here. Stays Here" and is stationed opposite and dwarfed by the gargantuan "We Are All Witnesses" Nike sign, there apparently has not been a ton of fanfare.

A moment of silence here for civic restraint.

"I think Cleveland was sort of caught off guard by the volume and magnitude of some of these pitches [by other cities]," said Cleveland Plain Dealer sports writer Mary Schmitt Boyer. "I don't think they envisioned Michael Bloomberg in a video urging LeBron to come to New York."

Did we mention civic restraint?

The C'mon LeBron marketing campaign (yes, it even has a name) by New York City has to be an embarrassment to those residents previously under the impression that the city has a few things going for it whether or not James plays for the Knicks.

"Willis [Reed] on one leg, Clyde [Frazier] with a steal, Dr. J [Julius Erving] soaring from the line," Mayor Bloomberg says dramatically in the video as an inspirational jingle builds momentum in the background. "Come on, LeBron, write the next chapter in NYC basketball history."

With sights of the city as the backdrop, words flash on the screen: "This is the world's greatest stage. … This is where you can have the biggest impact. Don't just make New York City history, make world history."

And then the mayor implores once again: "As the Good Book says, lead us to the promised land. And that's a quote from the King James version."

Yikes.

One can only imagine how much Chicagoans would make fun of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley if he attempted this.

It will be hard for Cavs fans not to take it personally if James ends up with a new team. Although it ultimately looked as if he lacked a supporting cast in the playoffs, no one was saying that at the All-Star break.

Funny how words like "provincial" aren't usually applied to New Yorkers, and yet, what the heck, they're going for it. On Wednesday, a steady stream of TV trucks and print reporters from New York were seen wandering aimlessly from Cleveland to Akron in search of something resembling a … what, I don't know, a news conference?

A traffic snarl in downtown Cleveland on Wednesday morning prompted speculation that it must have something to do with James. Alas, it was only Vice President Joe Biden in town.

It's certainly not as if Cleveland is uninterested. On top of the Plain Dealer's comprehensive coverage of the James watch, Schmitt Boyer began writing "The LeBron rumor mill," a series dedicated to the daily supply of sightings and theories and general nonsense related to James' next contract.

It has become a must-read each morning and has been consistently ranked No. 1 in page views since it began running about six weeks ago.

It will be hard for Cavs fans not to take it personally if James ends up with a new team. Although it ultimately looked as if he lacked a supporting cast in the playoffs, no one was saying that at the All-Star break.

The team has built up its facilities. It got rid of a coach who did not live up to The King's standards.

Those who were there say LeBron leaving Cleveland would not quite measure up to Art Modell taking the Browns to Baltimore. But remember, the Browns were reinstated, while the long-term effect of a LeBron departure, particularly if he goes on to win one or more NBA titles, would be more than painful.

The Plain Dealer calculated that should "The Chosen One" choose to go elsewhere, it would cost downtown businesses $48 million over the length of the season, $150 million including the playoffs.

Using the retirements of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as a guide, the newspaper estimated that attendance at Quicken Loans Arena could shrink to the 14,000 fans per game who came before James arrived in Cleveland. Based on the estimate by the city's convention and visitors bureau that the average fan spends $180 per Cavs game (on tickets, parking, restaurants, bars and hotels), the per-game figure in LeBron's absence came to $1.2 million multiplied by 41 games, or just more than $49 million per season.

The Plain Dealer even quoted an economist from the University of Illinois at Chicago who figured that James could generate about $15 million for greater Cleveland for each home playoff game. John Skorburg, a senior economist for the American Farm Bureau Foundation, told the newspaper that James could mean up to $500 million for Chicago and $1 billion for New York.

If LeBron leaves, the Cavs' value will go down. The state will lose James' considerable income taxes. And then, of course, there would be an immeasurable blow to the city's self-image.

To their advantage, the Cavs can pay James up to $30 million more than any other team over the next six years. Brian Windhorst, who covers the Cavs for the Plain Dealer and is as close to James and his camp as anyone, reported that James should make his decision in the next several days and that as of Wednesday, the Cavs "were still the front-runner."

James has summoned teams to make their pitches on his doorstep, a classic power move. Those who know him said it is a mistake to underestimate his business acumen.

But his sense of loyalty should not be dismissed.

Nor should Cleveland's chances of keeping him.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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