Greg Cote

Greg Cote: LeBron-Heat saga unfolds, and it’s stranger than first thought

It is three weeks later, and LeBron James’ departure from the Heat and Miami continues to occupy a murky space somewhere in the gray between amicable parting and bitter divorce. There is rancor unspoken, bad blood wrapped in outward civility. Everyone is trying to play nice, maintain the high road, but it feels disingenuous.

The whole thing has been strangely awkward.

It’s as if both sides are keeping secrets, regarding each other with a forced smile but cold eyes.

The public nice-nice might continue. It may even include a token tribute video the first time James is back in the downtown bayside arena, perhaps Christmas Day, when Miami fans’ reaction to LeBron will be as interesting as the game itself. Don’t doubt it: Miami has no bigger rival now than LeBron and Cleveland. There is no opponent more than the Cavaliers that Heat owner Micky Arison and club president Pat Riley want to beat and to finish ahead of in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

It has become apparent over the past three weeks that James and his inner circle had their return to Cleveland decided long before they informed the Heat, and that LeBron’s exclusive “essay” for Sports Illustrated revealing his decision was written and submitted while Miami still waited in suspense, unable to move forward with other free agency plans while dangling on hold.

(That was the essay in which LeBron conspicuously failed to thank Miami fans, the essay so well received by the rest of the country as a heartwarming child-of-Akron-goes-home story but not so well received in South Florida).

It also has become apparent that the initial “shock and disappointment” expressed by Arison and Riley over LeBron’s decision included an underlying bad taste over the way that decision was handled.

Riley admitted on a conference call Wednesday that, between the time James opted out of his Heat contract on June 25 and announced on July 11 that he was leaving, “I sent him a lot of emails and texts. I was communicating a lot with him. No response.”

James had met with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert (the man who had savaged him four years earlier) four days before finally agreeing to a token, last-minute meeting in Las Vegas with Riley, who was made to fly across the country to try to persuade a player whose mind already was made up.

The Heat has fired back subtly, still ostensibly on that high road, by downplaying James’ departure — and by not conceding to the general impression that James instantly makes Cleveland the beast in the East, a feeling reflected by betting odds.

Arison, in an “open letter” to fans, did not even specifically mention James leaving, instead writing, “We are not done; not even close. We are laser-focused on defending our Eastern Conference championship.”

Riley put forth a similar message on Wednesday: “We feel very good. We are going to be as competitive as any team in the Eastern Conference. Is Cleveland going to be as good as everybody thinks they are? Nobody really knows.”

Riley predicted that Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade would be untethered by the constraints of acquiescing to James and enjoy their best seasons since James came here.

The Heat also is floating the idea that it will have extra motivation now, post-LeBron. That it will be “out to prove something to the rest of the league,” as Arison wrote in his open letter.

Bosh echoed that Thursday morning, telling 104.3 The Ticket that “it gives us the opportunity to play with a chip on our shoulder.”

The repercussions of LeBron’s departure have included a dash of comic relief, too.

There has developed a little war over who owes who the most thanks.

Many Heat fans initially inclined to be grateful to LeBron for four great seasons including two NBA titles sort of retracted their thanks when James, in that SI essay, did not thank them. There has since fomented uncertainty over how we, as a community, feel about James.

Capitalizing, ESPN Radio’s Dan Le Batard, based in Miami, of course, has floated the idea of buying full-page ads in the Cleveland and Akron newspapers that picture James’ two Heat championship rings won in Miami with the words, “You’re Welcome, LeBron. Sincerely, Miami Heat Fans” — a jab at the fact he didn’t say thanks.

We had talked about that half-kiddingly on Dan’s Tuesday show (I was in-studio with him that day), and it took on a life of its own. Before long, both Ohio papers were rejecting the non-existent ad being talked about, and media outlets all over the country were reporting that Dan had been rebuffed, thereby giving Le Batard’s show a priceless tsunami of free national publicity without ever having to spend a dime on an ad.

It really is the perfectly fitting ending to the ambiguous story of a superstar who left Miami in a way that left Heat fans unsure how to feel about him.

He never said thanks.

We never said you’re welcome.

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