LeBron is gone but we will always have Julia Tuttle.
Heat fans, this may not comfort you the first time LeBron James walks into the AmericanAirlines Arena in Cavalier wine and gold. It will certainly not help next June when, for the first time in five years, the Miami Heat will very likely be watching the NBA Finals from home. But historically, the “Mother of Miami” beats the King of Cleveland one-on-one every time.
Miami is considered the only major city to be founded by a woman, Julia Tuttle. Tuttle left Cleveland for Fort Dallas (now Miami) in 1891 and famously enticed Henry Flagler to extend his railroad south. (That involved an orange blossom and a really cold winter and you can listen to that story below.)
Tuttle and James are two ends to the same story, one that shows Miami and Cleveland have more in common than the coverage of the LeBron James saga has led us to believe.
CLE vs. MIA
Since “The Decision,” the difference between Cleveland and Miami has been baked into the DNA of the LeBron James story. Even on Friday, when ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith went on the Dan LeBatard Show to talk about LeBron leaving and the Heat no longer being a championship team, it became about geography:
“I’m mad because I can’t see the Miami Heat competing for a world championship because, where do I want to be in June, fellows? Do I really I have to tell you? Of course it’s South Beach!”
In other words, not Cleveland.
Sure, the Cleveland Orchestra plays a winter residency in Miami. But other than that, it’s tough to find two cities with seemingly less in common. The rust-belt versus an international playground for the rich and famous. The Atlantic Ocean versus Lake Erie. “Winter Is Coming” versus “what even is winter?”
For all the difference, Cleveland and Miami now have at least one huge thing in common: Loving and losing LeBron James.
“The wound is still fresh,” said Heat season-ticket holder Gregg Gelber on Saturday.
“I will never forgive LeBron James,” said Jim Angelo in May 2011.
(Jim is one of my best friends and the most tragically loyal Cleveland sports fans I know. Three words: Tim. Couch. Jersey.)
A Tale of Two Cities Getting Burned
Those two fans were unintentionally perfect bookends to LeBron’s Miami experiment. Days before the first Big Three NBA Finals appearance against the Mavericks in 2011, I checked in with Jim.
“The truth is,” he said, “LeBron will go down as Cleveland’s greatest sports villain. I’ll always be the biggest fan of whatever team he’s playing that night. So go Mavs!”
Fast forward to Friday. LeBron’s SI.com essay announced his return to Cleveland and the first texts I got were from Jim, and I’m more or less quoting here: Boom! This is amazing! Shaking.
“I mean ultimately, it comes from a place of desperation and I’m willing to admit that,” Jim said on Sunday, explaining his drastic change of heart. “But when your entire life as a Cleveland sports fan is defined by heartache and disappointment it’s easy to forgive.”
I met Heat fan Gregg Gelber before the Big Three’s last NBA Finals appearance, this year against the San Antonio Spurs. He admitted the last four years spoiled him.
“The regular season of The Miami Heat is the pre-season,” he told me. Playoffs had become expected.
On Saturday, Gregg was still recovering from Friday’s news. He said he was totally confused and shocked until he read this one line in particular from LeBron’s essay: Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids.
“Okay, I get it,” Gregg said. “We were the sexy girl that he’s been hanging out with for four years and now he’s going to live the family life.”
What LeBron Really Means
This isn’t to say Gregg’s alright with the “college” explanation, just that he understands now. “I feel used and I think this city gave him a lot that, I understand, he appreciates,” he said. “But, you know, what about us?”
And maybe this gets at the deeper-seeded issue of why LeBron leaving stings so badly. South Florida has had to actively fight the so-called “brain drain” phenomenon, to stop talented people from moving away. LeBron James admits this was his college. He learned how to win championships here and now he’s taking his talents away from South Beach.
Jim the Cleveland fan points to a different passage from LeBron’s essay:
I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business.
To Jim, that section means LeBron’s return has a higher purpose than just bringing a trophy to Cleveland.
He’s telling the country, Jim says, “that Ohio is a place that’s worthwhile. And if I’m willing to go back there, you know, you guys should consider that too. And it’s a really poignant message.”
Poignant because, like South Florida, Cleveland has also had a well-documented struggle with brain-drain.
Two cities, two talent retention problems -- but only one King James. Unfortunately the math doesn’t work out for Miami.
But look on the bright side: Miami will always have Cleveland transplant Julia Tuttle. This city was literally founded by stealing Cleveland’s talent.