As you drive down Ontario Street toward downtown Cleveland, it becomes blindingly clear who the city belongs to. Literally.
There is a 10-story LeBron James billboard mounted across the street from the Quicken Loans Arena that is 110 feet high and 212 feet wide. In 2007, the federal government deemed the sign to be two-and-a-half times too large for its close proximity to highways.
Because the government felt that the billboard posed a dangerous distraction to drivers, they strongly urged the state of Ohio to push city officials and billboard owners to remove it.
Silly feds. They forgot that King James rules the city.
Governor Ted Strickland ordered the State Transportation Department staff to immediately stop in its removal of the sign and said, “There is something spiritual about this presentation.”
Strickland even utilized taxpayer dollars by having state workers and lawyers research the issues for a possible court fight.
He wasn’t alone in his conviction of the deification of James. City council members and County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones all supported retention of the sign and involved the media in their quest.
Today, the sign is still there though the image has changed. No longer does the banner display James midway through a dunk.
The current image, like the former image, still serves as a proud reminder of how “WE ARE ALL WITNESSES” to James’s greatness. The picture captures his pregame ritual of rubbing chalk onto his hands and then throwing the particles into the air. Nike even made a commercial out of the famous custom.
How could King James possibly leave the city that worships the billboard he’s mounted on?
Despite the 10 different rumors that spring up daily about where James is headed and with whom in what package deal, the reality is that he’s probably not leaving Cleveland.
No, I didn’t speculate and guess like every other sportswriter. A source in Cleveland close to James informed me last weekend that the King was staying put.
Logically, the decision makes the most sense. James was born and raised in Akron, less than an hour south of Cleveland. He hung out at Gund Arena (now Quicken Loans), home of the Cavaliers, in his teenage years and familiarized himself with former Cavaliers coach John Lucas.
Lucas was so taken with the youngster that the coach defied NBA rules and invited the 17-year-old to a voluntary workout with the team. The Cavs were fined $150,000 and Lucas was suspended for two games by the Association.
A relationship between the team and James had begun to sprout.
Then came the accusations that the Cavs tanked the 2002-03 season to improve their lottery chances for the opportunity to draft James. Desperate teams do desperate things and this desperate team really wanted James.
Cleveland, the team and the city, did end up winning the lottery. Thus, the hometown hero stayed home.
Currently, the most common supposition has James going to Chicago. Although James grew up a Bulls fan and idolized Michael Jordan, do you really think he wants to play for the same city as the guy who has a statue erected outside of the United Center?
Jordan has already created and left his legacy in Chicago. James’s legacy is with Cleveland, not someone else’s city, and you can believe he knows that as well as anyone.
Cleveland, although not a typical big sports market, is similar to Pittsburgh and St. Louis in that the fans are immensely loyal and dedicated to the professional teams. The Cleveland fans are passionate and fanatic, and they care about James like they care about their own fathers and brothers.
In addition, GM Danny Ferry and majority owner Dan Gilbert have already shown that they are willing to do almost anything to keep James. First on the King’s to-do list was to get rid of coach Mike Brown. Check.
James has publicly called out his former coach multiple times and it is well-known that the two did not see eye to eye. Despite going 314-177 as the winningest coach in Cavaliers history along with a Coach of the Year award in 2009 and playoff appearances in all five years at the helm, Brown was fired, presumably at the request of James.
Let us be clear that the reasoning behind Brown’s firing had nothing to do with his inability to win an NBA title. Even if the Cavs had won the Finals this year, there were whispers that Brown would still have been let go.
If the King can get one of the most successful NBA coaches in the last two years fired, then he can get anything and everything he demands in Cleveland. He owns Cleveland. The amount of leverage and respect he commands in the city from top to bottom is something he won’t see or experience in another city, especially not in Jordan’s city.
Add in the fact that the Cavs can probably pay James more than any other team in the league and you’ve got a multitude of solid reasons as to why King James will stay in the city he was born to rule.
The Cavs can negotiate with James exclusively until July 1. On that date, James becomes a free agent and is available to discuss deals with anyone and everyone. That leaves Cleveland exactly 36 days and counting.
If there is ever any doubt as to what the King means to the city or how much Cleveland is willing to sacrifice to keep him, the 2,700-pound billboard serves as a subtle reminder to the legacy that he has already started.