We felt rejected and dejected. We felt sorrow and shock. We felt disappointment and loss. We felt appreciation and anger. There was no right way for Heat fans to feel, no easy consensus when LeBron James announced Miami was just a temporary stop on his way back home.
More than a week later, there is still little agreement on what regard South Florida has or should have for LeBron. Some would throw him a parade. Others would throw him under a bus.
Do you feel fortunate for what you had? Or is the feeling closer to betrayal?
James’ departure, amicable on the surface, not so much underneath, was neither simple nor neat.
Is the man who famously took his talents to South Beach now welcome back in the arena he helped light up for four seasons? That will be the Litmus test, won’t it? His welcome back, or lack thereof. The NBA’s 2014-15 regular-season schedule will be released this week, and you’ll circle in red the first time LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers come to town. But are you sure what emotions you will bring?
Will you stand and cheer James for the two championships he helped deliver among four consecutive NBA Finals appearances? That would seem to be the logical, reasonable and fair response by my view.
I recall writing, after then-Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga outraged South Florida by dismantling the 1997 World Series champions, that it was better to be a champion followed by a cost-gutting fire sale than to never have been a champion.
Seventeen years later, isn’t it better to have had LeBron for four seasons, followed by a too-soon, less-than-smooth parting, than to never have had him at all?
Plenty of you might agree but still be inclined to boo James upon his return because you think he quit on the Heat — quit on you — or because the way he left didn’t sit right. LeBron returning to his roots might be a feel-good story for Cleveland and the NBA, but it leaves a bad taste to a lot of Miami.
It will be as a hard to both cheer and boo James as it is to do neither. We have to decide.
For now, Miami hasn’t stopped being a team worth watching just because LeBron left.
Part of the reason why is because he left.
Now we get to see the role Miami fans will cast for LeBron.
Will he be the Returning Hero who made us the epicenter of American sports and starred in two parades down Biscayne Boulevard?
Or will he be the Villain who blindsided Pat Riley and didn’t even bother to thank Miami fans in his announcement-essay in Sports Illustrated?
We will decide as a community. There will be a consensus reached.
The void in James’ wake creates its own sort of intrigue for the team he left, and for a franchise bloodied but proud, and lifting itself up off the canvas and carrying on.
For four years, James made Miami a championship contender by default. There was the boredom of excellence, the taking for granted. There was a predictability, the sense nothing began to matter until the Eastern Conference finals. We were spoiled.
That changes now. Everything is work again.
Suddenly, woebegone Cleveland is a 3-1 betting favorite for the NBA title, and dethroned Miami is a 25-1 long-shot. Cavaliers season tickets sold out within eight hours of James’ return (I wonder how many were bought by fans who’d burned his jersey in effigy four years earlier), while ESPN quietly demoted its daily “Heat Index” feature from the NBA page on its website.
Now, post-LeBron, we’ll see how Riley, working without his safety net, has fared in taking the punch and reacting. Will the new additions led by Luol Deng keep the Heat a contender in the East? Losing James was a stunner to Riley. Absorbing that blow and keeping Miami among the best in the East would feather his legacy.
Now, too, we will see how Erik Spoelstra adapts, maybe see what kind of a coach he really is.
And we will see Miami fans tested, challenged to keep the home-sellout streak alive in the absence of the biggest attraction in basketball.
Mostly, perhaps, now we will see what we have moving forward in the doubted two-thirds of what’s left of the Big 3: Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Re-signing Bosh, who seemed headed for Houston in free agency, was big for Riley. It offset the loss of LeBron somewhat. But is Bosh, at 30, worth the maximum five-year, $118 million deal he got? After four years as the quiet third of the Big 3, is Bosh ready to lead and be the No. 1 option on the floor? Can he carry a team?
Wade, of course, turns 33 in the middle of the season and deals with chronic knee issues that require babying and caused him to miss one-third of the last regular season. He is at that awkward age as “Still Elite” and “Past His Prime” stage a tug of war for his immediate future.
Wade did the Heat a huge favor (again) by accepting a two-year, $31 million deal to re-sign — far less than the existing two-year, $42 million he opted out of.
Wade’s sacrifices have become the stuff of Heat legend. In 2010, he took less than maximum money and convinced LeBron and Bosh to do the same. Entering the 2011-12 season, he set aside his ego and sacrificed his leadership role on the court so James could flourish. Now, his latest financial sacrifice is what helped Miami retain Bosh, sign Deng and also position itself to have spending money in 2016 free agency.
Recently, Wade spoke of his legacy. James hadn’t left yet.
“Right now, so much is viewed on LeBron’s legacy. Obviously, mine doesn’t get talked about or seen as much, and rightfully so,” he said. “I understand. But when all the smoke clears, it’s something you can talk about in terms of what I’ve been able to accomplish and how I’ve accomplished it. I’m just continuing to add to what I am, my so-called legacy.”
That legacy is more than so-called. It might be unparalleled in South Florida sports history. I doubt Wade has yet supplanted Dan Marino by popular reckoning as our all-time favorite or biggest sports star, but it might be time to decide that time has come.
The day he re-upped with Miami last week (there was no doubt he would), Wade said on his Twitter account, “Home is where the heart is. My home. My city. My house. #HeatLifer.” He posted an accompanying photo of himself with the three Heat championship banners high in the background.
This franchise would have none of those three without him.
A new hashtag — #LoyaltyoverRoyalty — bloomed on Twitter. It was in praise of Wade’s loyalty in accepting a shorter deal for less money for the good of the team. But it also was an unsubtle shot at how the royalty, King James, had abruptly taken his crown and gone home.
We know as a community and fandom how we feel about Wade.
We’re not entirely sure how we feel about the one he brought here, the one who left too soon.