Shades Of Grey #8: LeBron James Return To Cleveland Is The Antithesis Of Bret Hart’s Return To The WWE

I graduated high school the same year as LeBron James, though while I was figuring out where to go to college and what would be next in my life, the Ohio native knew exactly what he was doing. Entering the NBA Draft right out of high school, without going to college, LeBron James didn’t even have to go that far from home when Cleveland drafted him first over all. He became their star player in no time, the face of the Cavaliers organization. Ohio born, Ohio raised, and he gave his all for that team, for that state. It was his home, and he did right by it. He became a hometown hero to an entire state.

Think about it this way, when we think of athletes who can be the face of a team or entire sport, who do we think of? Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, Mr. Yankees, a New Jersey native who has spent his entire Hall of Fame career playing in pin-stripes. Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a Montreal native who was not only the face of the organization when he played, but he actually bought the team after retiring and then came out of retirement to keep playing for them. Kobe Bryant is the first name that comes to mind for people thinking of the Los Angeles Lakers, despite being from Pennsylvania. Ozzie Smith wasn’t born in St. Louis, but Cardinals fans still treat him like the icon he is. Tom Brady might be from California, but try and tell me that he isn’t a hero to New England (and most definitely not to California). Hell, let’s look at wrestling and bring up Ric Flair, famous for….being Ric Flair, but idolized in the Carolinas despite hailing from Tennessee.

So what’s so different about them from LeBron? Well, they became heroes to the cities they played in, despite them all being drafted there (save for Flair, who just chose to work there, wrestling being what it is). LeBron James was a feel good story for an entire state, a kid from Akron who went on to play professional Basketball in Cleveland. The six time NBA All Star was the face of two cities, and an entire state. I can’t think of anyone that compares to that save for the Von Erich family of Texas. A dynasty of wrestlers that were beloved icons in the state of Texas due to their work in World Class Championship Wrestling. Finding a home town hero in a star athlete is just not that easy to do, what with drafts being the way they are. That made LeBron unique amongst other stars, and it only added to his presence, only made him more important. He was the biggest deal in Ohio.

Bret Hart was a Canadian wrestler, a second generation talent working for his father in Calgary in a territory known as Stampede. Scouted by Vince McMahon, brought into the WWF along with brother-in-law Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, and forming one of the most well known tag teams of all time in The Hart Foundation. Bret was a smaller guy, not as flashy looking as most, but he was a wrestler. He was unique in the wasteland that was the early 90’s in the WWF as he went solo, a serious wrestler in the land of characters. Fans adored him, kids loved him, he became the biggest babyface in the company. Even with workers like Hulk Hogan refusing to give the rub to the smaller technician, Bret turned into the face of the organization. The multi-time WWF champion was a rolemodel to the kids watching him, and despite having been brought in from another organization, Bret Hart was the WWF.
But alas, nothing is meant to be, and while LeBron’s story picks back up in 2010, Bret Hart’s changed back in 1997.

See, WWF was at war with WCW, but as a wrestling fan, you know this. You most likely also know that Bret Hart had just signed a giant 20 year deal with the WWF that Vince had actually asked him to opt out of in favor of going to WCW, saying that he couldn’t afford to keep Bret and the company might go under. Bret took the deal with WCW, and his contract was up at the end of 1997. At the Survivor Series, Bret was scheduled to defend his WWF Championship against Shawn Michaels in Montreal, and Bret refused to lose. Not in Canada, that would hurt him too much, he was a hero to these people. You couldn’t make him lose, essentially, at home, on his way out the door. Vince apparently agreed with him, and there was talk about vacating the belt, or dropping it on a non-televised show a few days later. Bret promised he wouldn’t go to WCW with the belt, that he would never screw Vince over like that. He loved Vince, Vince had taken care of him and his family for over a decade. So it must have broken his heart just as much as it fueled his rage for over a decade when Survivor Series 1997 became known as “The Montreal Screw Job”, where Bret was screwed out of the WWF Championship live, on pay per view, in Canada, to insure that he didn’t leave with the belt.

Bret left the WWF that night and swore to never return, never shrinking away from a chance to bury Vince McMahon, Shawn Michaels, or the company as a whole. For a decade. Vince screwed Bret, Bret screwed Bret, it didn’t matter anymore. Bret was the icon, the role model, the hero, and had been buried and forgotten and sent away to work somewhere else.

LeBron James had his contract expire this past summer, but he didn’t immediately resign with the Cleveland Cavaliers. James dragged out his decision as rumors begun to run about his potentially going to the Heat, the Knicks, the Nets, Mavericks, the Clippers, even the Bulls. He was being courted from all sides, and it was more than his right to entertain all of these offers. After all, he never asked to be a local hero. What he did though, what he really did was that he had made up his mind to go to Miami and play for the Heat alongside fellow All Star players Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. What he didn’t do was tell the Cavaliers owners that he was going to do it. What he did do was put on a giant special on ESPN that was all about him deciding which team to go to, made a giant spectacle of it, and then formally announced what most had figured, that he was going to the Heat. He left Cleveland looking like an arrogant jackass, and more or less gave his fans the middle finger, and all because he wanted to win a championship. Now, there’s no shame in that, I don’t think anyone goes out and becomes a star athlete without intending to win a championship, but you also don’t see a ton of superstar athletes that bail on their teams to increase championships elsewhere.

I mean, otherwise how do you explain Chad Ochocinco on the Bengals, or how Steven Jackson has stayed on the Rams for so many years?

Cavaliers fans have taken to burning Lebron James jerseys, the man who they loved, the hometown hero, is arguably the most hated man in Ohio now.

Several years ago Bret Hart was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and last year he was given a chance to return. Brought in initially as a guest host, the storyline around Bret brought him back into conflict with Vince McMahon, and ended up with the two facing off at Wrestlemania. Bret, along with his entire family at ringside, was given revenge over Vince McMahon on the grandest stage in professional wrestling. Fans had called for years for his return, and it was treated with the respect it deserved. Bret became a strong part of WWE TV, and more importantly found himself welcomed back with loving open arms by a fanbase that could never have forgotten the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.

And on the other side of the coin, tonight LeBron James and the Miami Heat have a game against the Cavaliers, at Cleveland. The first meeting between Lebron and his former team since he left over the summer. He’s coming back into town hated and unwelcome. The fans are going to boo, they’re going to curse, and the reaction will not be pretty. The only way to make it worse would be if his new super team finds itself unable to stop his former home, and the Cavaliers come out with a win.

They say you can’t go home again, but that really just depends on how you leave. Bret Hart found an open door waiting for him when he was ready to walk back through it, one that will never close on him. LeBron James on the other hand finds himself returning to a door he set on fire, and finds his former home to be the most hostile place he can go.

Bret Hart’s career is over, and while he will still make scattered appearances, his best days are long behind him. The ability to go back to the WWE, to go out on his own terms, to have that one last little run to say thank you to everyone that supported him, that was an honor to him. That was what a legend of his stature deserved after everything that had happened to him.

LeBron James, as I mentioned, is my age, he’s almost 26. He’s still young, he’s a pro athlete with a high school education and more money than he’ll probably ever know what to do with. He’s made himself an outcast from his own home with his public displays on the path to leaving, he’s made his fans feel abandoned. Now he’s in Miami, but he has also set a precedent, after all, if he’d leave the Cavaliers for not winning him a championship, how long will he last on the Heat if they can’t secure one? How long until history repeats itself? Will he spend his career bouncing from team to team looking for championship glory?

That’s the biggest difference between the two of them, I guess. For Bret it was never about being the top guy, it was about being there, and while yes, he was the top guy, it was never who he was. He was a role model to his fans, and a true legend and hall of famer in the business. He will go down in wrestling history as one of the greatest of all time. LeBron James proved to everyone that to him it’s only about being the top guy, and that he will give up anything to achieve it. The man spat in the face of his fans because he was tired of playing for a team he didn’t deem good enough. While yes, he’s a multi time NBA All Star, and possible hall of famer, he’s hardly the only person in the NBA that can claim that, and former stars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Byrd have all come out and similarly said that to them the game was about beating the other star players, not teaming up with them to win titles.

Only time will tell what legacy the young man leaves behind, but if he continues along this path it might not be a pretty one.

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