CLEVELAND - Humiliated and heartbroken, the fans in Cleveland turned their backs on LeBron James as suddenly as he had abandoned them for the Miami Heat on national television. They tore his once-beloved No. 23 jersey off their backs and set them on fire. They threw rocks at a 10-story-tall billboard that features James with his head tossed back, arms pointing skyward. The billboard has come to define this city and its all-consuming reverence for the man they called The King: "We Are All Witnesses," it says.
Not anymore. Across the street from Quicken Loans Arena, men gathered around the bar at Harry Buffalo's buried their heads in their hands. When they looked up, their eyes were wet with tears.
"Turn it off," someone yelled.
Some fans tried to console Earl Mauldin, who was slumped over the bar hiding his face.
"I think it was a slap in the face to this city, who had supported him and been behind him since he was in high school," said Mauldin, who looked disgusted. "To go on national TV and spit in our face like that is very, very, very wrong."
James has given people here something to root for, a modicum of proof that Cleveland can rise above the mess it's found itself in during a very lousy decade. The foreclosure crisis. The economic collapse. The dying auto industry. Through it all, this city has had one thing nobody else could touch: LeBron James, homegrown hero, global superstar. Now that's all over with. And the thing fans can't seem to reconcile is the very public way in which they were unceremoniously dumped.
"He kept us in the dark all the way up till the end," said Gary Hunter, who came to watch the announcement at Harry Buffalo's. "What do we look like, begging somebody to stay for us? If you're gonna be here, you're gonna be here. But if you're not, then just be gone. But you could've given us the decency of letting us know before you let the national media know. And the world."
At a shopping area in suburban Westlake, a loud "No" was heard the moment after James said on ESPN that he was going to South Beach. Hundreds of people who had clamored to see the announcement turned their backs and headed home in droves.
"I'm really stunned, I never thought he'd leave," said 15-year-old Tom Sheehan of Westlake, who like many Clevelanders wore a James jersey as he watched the announcement. "It's like we just lost a championship on the final shot at the buzzer."
James' rejection was all the more stinging after weeks in which Clevelanders pulled out all the stops to try and keep him here. They penned songs about The King and danced in shopping malls in his honor. When he met with the teams trying to woo him last week, faithful fans stood outside holding signs bearing one simple word: "Home." Now they're wondering: Was it all in vain? Was his mind made up weeks ago? In a scathing open letter to fans sent late Thursday, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert seemed to think so.
"You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal," Gilbert told fans. "You have given so much and deserve so much more."
Bars teeming with exuberant crowds emptied out quickly. Owners watched anxiously, wondering what the future might hold now that James is gone. His presence has helped them keep going during Cleveland's bitterly cold winter months.
"I hope Mr. Gilbert has a good plan set up," said Frank Borally, owner of the Purple Shamrock bar, which had promised to pick up patrons' food tabs if James had chosen to stay with the Cavs. "But we need a miracle." In Berea, at a bar about a half mile from the Cleveland Browns' training camp, fans in Browns jerseys were asked if what James did is worse than Art Modell, who took his Browns franchise to Baltimore in 1995.
"No way. LeBron did us a favor," said Fred Sczerpak of Berea. "He's a loser. He turned his back on us and good riddance."
At Harry Buffalo's, fans had painted "STAY LBJ" in white lettering on the second-floor windows, and the sidewalk was adorned with cardboard cutouts of James dunking. Fans had scrawled pleas on the sidewalk in chalk: "We will always love LBJ, but we'll love you more if you stay." What remains to be seen is how badly his departure will hurt the city's economy. Each home game during the regular season nets about $3.7 million, including ticket sales, souvenirs, food and hotel bookings, said Tamera Brown, vice president of marketing for Positively Cleveland, a convention and visitors bureau that promotes city tourism. Multiplied by 41 home games, that's more than $150 million.
Obviously, much of that will stay in town even if James leaves. How much depends largely on how well the Cavaliers perform, but James has his own special fan base because of his two-time MVP status and his roots in nearby Akron. But it's too soon to think about next season. For the moment, people who grew up adoring James are trying to come to grips with the loss of their star.
"If you decided that you wanted to go to play in Miami," Mauldin said, shaking his head, "you could've did it in private."