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Keith Strudler: On Again, Off Again

So a lot of us have had on again, off again romances. It’s highly imperfect and both temporary and strangely permanent at the same time. It’s comfortable but confusing and, more often than not, leaves one party with hurt feelings.

Just ask LeBron James and the city of Cleveland, who for the last 15 years, have been in love, hate, and everything in between. The romance began when the Cleveland Cavaliers drafted Ohio’s favorite basketball playing son with the number one overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft. This was, without a doubt, a storybook first date. And the relationship matured quite well, including James taking a cast of no-names to the NBA Finals in 2007 and winning a couple of MVP awards. But the relationship soured in 2010 when James announced, in one of the worst TV specials of all time not featuring Geraldo Rivera, that he would be leaving for the Miami Heat. That led team owner Dan Gilbert to essentially turn LeBron James into a public enemy, despite the fact that prior to his tenure, Cavs fans looked at people like World B. Free and Hot Rod Williams as career greats. Fans burned jerseys in the street, and a heated romance now turned into a scene from Argo. And so for the next four years, LeBron James and Cleveland were, shall we say, off – especially when James won back-to-back titles for Miami.

That changed again in 2014, when Ohio’s favorite or prodigal son, depending on your mood, came home to the Cavs, and vowed to bring the first pro sports championship to Cleveland since 1964. He did just that, upsetting the Golden State Warriors in 2016 in one of the greatest sports comebacks of all time. They reached three other championships, losing each one to Golden State, but LeBron James firmly established his home town team as the best in the Eastern Conference, almost singlehandedly. The romance was very much back on.

Which brings us to today. When just last week, James has fallen into the arms of yet another, this time on the Left Coast, signing a four year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the league’s historic teams in perhaps it’s sexiest city. And in doing so, it sets LeBron up for his basketball afterlife in entertainment, something harder to achieve in an old factory town. LeBron James and the city of Cleveland have broken up again – and this time, I think it’s for good. James has moved on and found Mrs. Right. At best, Cleveland always felt like Mrs. Right Now.

To the city of Cleveland and team owner Dan Gilbert’s credit, this split was far less acrimonious than the first one. Gilbert’s statement, or goodbye letter if you will, thanked James and his family for their contributions and for bringing the city together. He also looked forward to retiring LeBron’s jersey in the rafters, which is much better than burning it in the streets like last time. The difference an NBA title can make.

Now, in the current state of the NBA, players move around all the time. It’s like being in the Army, only safer. And richer. But those moves are typically motivated, or mandated by more pragmatic reasons. Like salary cap, or playing time, or in some cases, best chance to win a title. With LeBron and Cleveland, it was different. James didn’t go back to Cleveland because it was his best shot at another championship, or because they could pay more than anybody else. And let’s be honest, when it comes to LeBron James, a few million here and there becomes little more than a rounding error. I think we can all appreciate that LeBron went back to Cleveland with the altruistic intention of winning a title for his home town. Which he did. There was also some faint hope that he might retire in a Cleveland uniform, which now seems unlikely. But in the end, James came back to Cleveland for the same reason that you get back together with an old flame. Because it was comfortable, and it seemed like it might work out this time. And after a few years, he realized why they broke up in the first place. So now he’s moving on to something new, the bright lights of Hollywood – just like he did with South Beach last time.  On again, off again. It was comfortable and, I suppose, good while it lasted. Even if the city of Cleveland wishes it could last just a bit longer. Which, I suppose in a relationship like this, is always the case.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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