CLEVELAND — Derrick Tatum and his business partner Ralph Reynolds have parked their wine-and-gold truck in a lot across the street from Quicken Loans Arena (The Q). They are setting up shop for a game Tuesday night, and their plan is to stick around Cleveland until Friday.
“We’re entrepreneurs,” says Tatum, his head nodding toward Reynolds.
The two men have made their 725-mile trek from Atlanta to peddle merchandise that they are certain will sell well in Cleveland. Tatum and Reynolds are in the anti-LeBron James trade, which puts them on fertile territory for reaping the rewards of a blue-collar city that hates James.
Shuffling in and out of their truck, Tatum and Reynolds unload their goods: T-shirts that say “Le-Quitter” and “Queen James”; black skullcaps with the words “Le-Fraud” stitched on them; and an assortment of anti-LeBron buttons. Still, if any doubt lingers about where the two men stand, they let the signage on their wine truck speak in gold letters: “Queen James #23.”
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Theirs reflects the sentiments of a city — a city whose emotions were shattered into shards when LeBron James, the hometown boy who had become this hard-luck city’s symbol, decided in July that he didn’t want to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers anymore.
So in a public backhand to the city on national television, James told the sports world he was packing his basketball skills in a Tumi suitcase and dragging them and his entourage to South Beach. His actions broke the city’s heart. In doing so, he became the instant Antichrist to Clevelanders, a traitor in the Benedict Arnold mold.
How does a city mend its broken heart? In Cleveland, broken hearts don’t mend.
“He was our beloved son,” says Bob Madden, a lifelong Clevelander who calls himself a diehard Cavs fan. “I mean, we showered the guy with everything he could’ve asked for.”
Talk to psychologists, and they say the flipside of love is indifference. They haven’t talked to Clevelanders, though.
Indifference? It’s not a word they know well. They certainly will not display any indifference Thursday when James and the Miami Heat come to The Q. They will have plenty of emotions to show James; indifference, however, will not be one of them. “I think from beginning to end it’s gonna be intense – intensely critical with boos,” says Larry Durstin, a writer who chronicles sports and politics in the region. “It’s perfectly understandable.”
For the LeBron James story is no longer about heroism or loyalty or altruism here, Durstin says. Instead, it is about duplicity and naked greed. The story is complex, he says; it is a story of a gifted athlete who once carried the hopes of a people on his muscular back and then quit on them.
“That’s the unforgivable thing to do in sports,” Durstin says. “That’s what’s underlying so much of the bitterness: that he didn’t give Cleveland a fair shot.”
So, now, Cleveland gets it chance for revenge.
The return of LeBron James is the sporting event of the decade here, bigger than playoff games and Kobe and the L.A. Lakers coming to town. But his return won’t be greeted with a standing ovation or a military honor guard or the retiring of his No. 23.
Fans like Madden aren’t sure how they will display their bitterness.
Boos? Yeah, everybody says boos will rain from the rafters. What else? No one can be certain. A lot of anger has been pent up in months of waiting for this game. People have talked about it; they have obsessed over it, night after night — in bars, ballparks and on talk radio. Fans had unfinished business that has eaten away at them, unfinished business that has stoked their emotions white hot.
Those embers began to smolder as soon as James announced “The Decision,” which instantly turned love into hate.
Not much points to that torrid love affair these days. Inside The Q itself, the one reminder of James is a wine-and-gold mural in the arena’s lower concourse. The mural fills a wall along the corridor outside the visiting team’s locker room.
Go upstairs and into the Team Shop on the main floor, and nothing remains of the No. 23 merchandise that used to fly off the shelves — trinkets and overprice goods with more sentimental value than anything else. Not even LeBron Bobbleheads or LeBron Fatheads can be found.
“All his stuff is gone,” one Cavs employee said. And not just inside The Q.
The city has stripped itself to the bone of what used to be the omnipresence of the best athlete to wear a Cleveland uniform since Jim Brown in the 1960s.
The gigantic Nike billboard of LeBron on a nearby building – the ad used to lord over The Q like a sentinel — went down as soon as he announced he was casting his lot with the Heat.
“It wasn’t right,” Tatum says.
The decision spawned a cottage industry of sorts. Anti-LeBron T-shirts soon sprouted throughout the region.
Tatum, a transplanted Clevelander, and Reynolds are part of that industry.
Outside their wine-and-gold truck, the two men are seeing big bucks in LeBron’s betrayal. They expect their T-shirts, skullcaps and buttons to fill their pockets with cash over the next couple of days.
Broken hearts often translate into dollars for somebody, right?
“It’s no different than being in a divorce,” Reynolds said. “You love her and then, ‘Bam!’ — it’s over.”