LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2010. At the time he was a five-time All Star and had been named to three All NBA first teams. Then he left. There was much hand-wringing in the streets of Cleveland, jerseys were burnt, his name cursed -- a team owner spurned spat vitriol of the highest order. The king was dead, at least in Ohio.
One year later the Carolina Panthers selected Cam Newton with the No.1 overall pick. The selection was chided by some, accepted by others and energized a fan base driven to apathy. We might not refer to him as "King" but the comparisons were there, especially early on. The same qualities Newton possessed were those James used to dominate the league -- size, strength, power. Likewise the criticisms were there too: Too much of a "me first" player, jubilant in victory while petulant in defeat and the ever-present fear he was cultivating his "brand" over establishing a winning culture.
Newton hasn't stepped a foot wrong since beginning his career with the Panthers, but neither had LeBron at this point. The actions on Friday of returning to that first team naturally sparked my imagination to wonder: "How would we cope?"
The NFL and NBA are very dissimilar leagues. By nature of the sport the individual has a much higher impact on basketball. One good player can lift the team around him and while they might not always win, they'll always have a chance. So too it's easier for players to transition from team to team without upsetting things too much. Yes there are plays to learn and a system to be integrated into, but it's not the multi-year process the NFL tends to be. It's for this reason that the NBA owns the best trade deadline of any sport, immediate gratification.
Put those ideas out of your mind and imagine a world where Cam wants a change. A change of scenery, team, location -- a chance to win a Super Bowl immediately. No, I can't tell you where that team would be or which circumstance would allow it, just as the Miami Heat rose from the ashes of a fallen dynasty to reform with its big three.
How would you react? What would you do?
Would you burn your jersey in the streets? Curse Cam Newton's name and hope he never wins? Would such a move prompt you to imagine if the last three years were a ruse; a carefully crafted network of falsehoods to lull us into believing he was "ours." Perhaps you could step away and see a team that got close but couldn't quite get there, separating the emotional from the fiscal and understand the business behind it. I don't know if I could, I'd like to say I would.
Herein lies the life of a small market fan and the one superstar, the first superstar. There were excellent member of the Cavaliers before LeBron, just as there were amazing Panthers pre-Cam -- but never a true superstar. That's what prompts the strong emotions and outpouring of angst when a player leaves. It feels like it's back to square one.
If Newton went away it would feel that way too. I shudder to imagine what would happen if he became "the one that got away." The odds of that happening are next to zero, but I'd be lying if I said the idea hadn't crossed my mind. The idea of Cam leaving, chasing the golden egg. Wondering how I'd react if he went, then my reaction if he did like LeBron James did today and return.
Mostly today I'm happy for Cleveland. A city that has endured more sports bullshit than any city ever should. Woeful mismanagement and terrible leadership that's mired the city in below-mediocrity for decades. They have their star back, I just wonder how we'd all react if we lost ours.