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LeBron James Has Already Left in Cleveland Hearts: Joe Winski

Never mind all the speculation that his Ohio roots or whatever will keep LeBron James in Cleveland. His career with the Cavaliers is over.

I felt that even before the Cavs were humiliated by the Boston Celtics in the National Basketball Association playoffs last week, a stunning outcome that adds “The Collapse” to the bitter lexicon of Cleveland sports history.

I speak as a longtime Cleveland fan and student of that history. This is a city that cannot hold onto its athletic treasures.

A lot of Clevelanders trace it to 1960, when baseball’s Indians traded my hero, the charismatic, home-run-hitting, rifle-armed outfielder Rocky Colavito, to the Detroit Tigers for singles-spraying Harvey Kuenn, who lasted a year in Cleveland.

(Terry Pluto, a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist, made the trade the touchstone for his knowing book capturing this flayed city’s malaise: “The Curse of Rocky Colavito.”)

The Tribe honors the tradition more dutifully than the National Football League’s Browns or the Cavaliers. A year ago the Indians, who last won the World Series when Harry Truman was president, unloaded Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. The year before they dealt away another Cy Young Award winner, C.C. Sabathia, who ended up on the most-despised team in all of sport (also called the New York Yankees).

Lee and Sabathia were the starting pitchers in the first game of last year’s World Series.

Modell’s Move

Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Victor Martinez? All former Indians. So too were Roger Maris, Norm Cash, and the sweetest-fielding shortstop the game has known, Omar Vizquel.

“Every time the Indians find someone who can play, they trade him for three guys who can’t,” Graig Nettles, an Indian himself before being traded to the Yankees, once said.

With the Browns, it’s not so much a matter of sending talent away (though they’ve had their moments, as when they dispatched the splendid wide receiver Paul Warfield to Miami). It’s an uncanny knack for being blind to talent that is theirs for the asking. To cite just one example that grates yet today, in 1999 the team’s brain trust passed on Donovan McNabb as its quarterback of the future and drafted the immortal Tim Couch.

In 1996, Cleveland lost the whole team. That was the year that one Arthur B. Modell rewarded the fans who filled cold, cavernous Municipal Stadium week after week by whisking the Browns off to Baltimore. Five years later the renamed Ravens won the Super Bowl, which the Browns have yet to play in. They last won the NFL championship -- the last title for any Cleveland professional team -- in 1964.

Red Right 88

They have come agonizingly close. In an American Football Conference playoff game in 1981, the Browns trailed the Oakland Raiders 14-12 and were driving with less than a minute left. With the ball at the Raiders’ 13-yard line, they disdained the field goal that could have won it. Brian Sipe threw a pass into the end zone to Ozzie Newsome. It was intercepted. The Raiders went on to win the Super Bowl.

The play is etched in Cleveland’s memory. Say “Red Right 88” to Browns fans of a certain age. They know you mean the play that ended their hopes that cold January day.

Then there were two AFC championship losses in successive years to the Denver Broncos. In 1987, with the Browns up 20-13, John Elway drove the Broncos 98 yards, eating up the last five minutes of the game, to tie the score. Denver won with a field goal in overtime.

In January 1988, with the Broncos leading 38-31 and just over a minute left, Browns running back Earnest Byner appeared headed for a game-tying touchdown. He was stripped of the ball at the 2-yard line.

These too have been memorialized in cruel Cleveland shorthand: The Drive. The Fumble.

The Collapse

For the Cavaliers, there is The Shot. That’s when Michael Jordan’s jumper with three seconds left won the deciding game in the first round of the 1989 playoffs, on Cleveland’s home court.

And now we have The Collapse.

The Cavs, by consensus and record (61-21 in the regular season) the best team in the National Basketball Association, meekly dropped three straight games after taking a 2-1 lead in the series. In the last three losses, the strangely passionless James, who too often chose to dish off to overmatched teammates rather than shoot himself, committed 19 turnovers, at times just as the Cavs were getting back into the game.

To anyone who watched the Cavs beat the Celtics earlier this season, as I did, this is incomprehensible. In the game I saw at Quicken Loans Arena, the Celtics were old men wheezing down the court. James and company toyed with them, then sent them off to bed.

Going Elsewhere

This is the history of hope and despair that haunts Cleveland sports, and that has created the long sad exodus of athletes going elsewhere for victory garlands, and of course for more money.

So the Cavs’ season is gone, and LeBron James soon will be too (to the Chicago Bulls, I’m guessing). His bewildering play against the Celtics notwithstanding, we’ll not see his likes again in Cleveland.

Oh, we will get the occasional rising stars to lift our hopes, yet again. And the gods who make sport of a tormented city will send them away, yet again.

(Joe Winski is a Bloomberg News managing editor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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