Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Is this the long goodbye for LeBron and Heat?

Say it ain’t so, LeBron!

I mean that literally, not figuratively.

Say it isn’t so that you will be heading back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, or we can start the clock now on about 16 months of ever-increasing rumors and speculation gradually morphing into assumption.

Say it isn’t so or Miami and Heat fans might as well commence The Long Goodbye, because that is what this already has begun to feel a little like.

LeBron won’t say it isn’t so, though. He could, but he doesn’t want to lie.

The Heat happened to play host to Cleveland on Sunday, and I think it will be fair to wonder whose uniform LeBron will be wearing closest to his heart. Which uniform will feel most like home to him.

Be afraid of the answer, Miami.

Hey, I didn’t start this fire, folks although I guess I need to plead guilty to spraying a bit of gas on it here.

James himself opened the door to this topic one year ago while back in Cleveland for a game, when asked about possibly returning to the Cavaliers some day. He said, “I think it would be great. It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I don’t know what the future holds, but I don’t want to take that [option] out.”

A day later he offered an addendum, the last three words of which had to imbed themselves under Heat fans’ skin like a painful sliver: “The fans of Miami shouldn’t be worried about anything at this point.”

Well, we are now a year closer to the point at which worry might be justified.

In the interim James has helped Miami win an NBA championship, which can only ease his possibly leaving. See, no matter what happens this season or next, the title makes his Miami years a success to at least some degree, and another ring this season or next would erase any arguing that.

Also in the past year, Cleveland drafted point guard Kyrie Irving, a superstar in the making, and James during the recent All-Star Weekend in Houston gushed about Irving in a way that only reintroduced the return-to-Cleveland speculation.

“It was awesome to play with Kyrie,” James said. “He’s going to be unbelievable.”

James could elect to play with Irving full-time by opting out of his Heat contract after next season, and — although LeBron now deflects questions about his future — many within the NBA believe that is his intention or at least his leaning. It would be a closure/full-circle thing for the Akron, Ohio, native and mean reconciliation after the ugliness of his ham-handed departure in the summer of 2010.

At the time he might opt out James would be approaching his 30th birthday and 12th NBA season. It would be a time he might be pondering where as much as when his career should end. It might be a time when he valued proving you can go home again.

Miami’s only advantage is it could offer him a five-year deal to re-sign here, while other teams like Cleveland could offer only four years. That’s a $20-million-plus inside track for the Heat. But would that be enough? I doubt it. I would sooner bet James would see Irving as the teammate necessary to finally deliver an NBA championship to Clevelanders, which he did not do in his earlier seven-year run there. Accomplishing that would complete his career by erasing its one aching failure.

For me the most intriguing questions to be answered would be whether Cleveland would welcome James back, and how Heat fans would regard him in terms of his legacy here if he left at his earliest opportunity.

Take Cleveland first.

Three summers ago, it was hard to envision Ohioans would ever welcome him back after “The Decision” prompted Cavs fans to burn their LeBron jerseys in effigy and led club owner Dan Gilbert to write such a scathing open letter it brought a $100,000 fine from the league.

Gilbert accused James of leaving “in a shameful display of selfishness and betrayal” that he called “a shocking act of disloyalty.” Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston made a cottage industry of LeBron-bashing, calling him “despicable” and saying he had done the franchise “incalculable damage.”

So. Would Cleveland have him back?

Only in a heartbeat.

Gilbert would swallow his pride if he saw a championship or two in James’ return. Fans might be hesitant only until James finished that first alley-oop pass from Irving with a monster dunk, then all would be forgiven. Just this week, symbolizing Cleveland’s changing attitude toward LeBron, Livingston penned a conciliatory column, writing, “I think Miami’s championship was the beginning of the healing process for many Cleveland fans.”

Now on to us.

How would Miami feel if James opted out and left in ’14? How should we? Would it matter if the Heat collected another title or two this season or next, or would the feelings either way be the same?

I would imagine many fans and likely most would thank James for the thrill ride and the parade(s), understand his desire to return to Cleveland, and wish him well.

I would also imagine many others would be angry and see him as turning his back on the city that embraced him when everyone else hated him. The city where he enjoyed his greatest success.

There would be plenty in either camp whether James left with one championship ring, two or even three, and it’s tough to say where sentiment would mainly fall.

What I mostly think is that I hope we never find out. James is such an extraordinary talent I have no trouble blurring the line between journalist and fan in this case and hoping Miami finds a way to re-sign him. Selfishly, I would love for James to end his career here. I only wish I believed he would.

Sunday will be interesting because both his teams will be on the court when the Cavs visit the Heat: The one renting his services, and the one that still owns his heart.

It feels like it has already begun.

The Long Goodbye.

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