Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Sports on Earth, and Complex, among other publications.
Jason Herron - a longtime Cavaliers season ticket holder - still remembers being in the parking lot of the Harry Buffalo restaurant and bar in Lakewood, Ohio, on the night LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach to join the Miami Heat after seven seasons in Cleveland.
“Everyone was so hurt that night,” Herron told theScore earlier this month. “I remember being in the parking lot and everyone just looked lost. He was one of us. He grew up in Akron, and that’s what hurt so much. We always thought we would have him forever, and we took that for granted, and he left. And we lashed out.”
Herron, who had a local ABC News affiliate following him that night after garnering some attention in the summer of 2010 for his "PLEASE STAY LBJ" campaign, bought some lighter fluid before arriving at the Harry Buffalo and set LeBron’s jersey on fire. The footage went viral, and even made it to ESPN’s broadcast of "The Decision," where Michael Wilbon asked James about it.
Seven years later, the conversation of jersey burning and LeBron leaving Cleveland has once again become a topic heading into the 2017-18 season, the last year of LeBron’s current contract before he can exercise an opt-out and become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Many people around the league already believe he's set to leave the Cavs, again, to join the Lakers in Los Angeles.
If that's the case, Herron has a much different approach this time around. “If this is his last year, I’m going to enjoy every moment of every game,” he said. “If he leaves, that’s his decision, and there’ll be no jersey burning.”
While the man responsible for the most talked-about jersey burning incident in NBA history says he's moved on from the ritual, his actions certainly sparked a trend. When LeBron left Miami and returned to Cleveland in 2014, Heat fans defaced a mural of LeBron and videos of jersey burnings emerged.
When Kevin Durant made his controversial decision to leave Oklahoma City, Thunder fans burned his jersey. Earlier this summer, Utah Jazz fans did the same thing to Gordon Hayward’s uniform after he signed with Boston. Inexplicably, even after Isaiah Thomas was traded to Cleveland, videos surfaced of Celtics fans burning his jersey.
LeBron came to the defence of his new point guard on Twitter, calling the jersey burning ridiculous over a series of tweets in late August.
When James announced his return in 2014, Herron drove back to the Harry Buffalo in Lakewood, and as a symbolic gesture, pulled a LeBron jersey back from the ashes. After Irving was traded, Herron didn’t burn his jersey either, although he promises to respectfully boo the point guard when he returns to Cleveland on opening night this season.
Even though the burning of LeBron’s jersey vaulted him to national fame, Herron wants the trend he started to end. “I don’t know how to do it, but I have no idea how to stop all these fools from burning players' jerseys,” Herron said. “It’s a fad that needs to end.”
Isiah Thomas, the former Hall of Fame point guard of the Detroit Pistons, spoke with his namesake Isaiah after the trade to Cleveland, and believes how fans view player and organizational loyalty has changed a lot since his playing days.
“I think we’re in a different era now, where the psyche of the fan is different than it was in my era,” Thomas told theScore. “Most fans play some form of fantasy sports, and every night they trade or move a player around. They’ve been desensitized to the loyalty factor.”
The matter of loyalty might be tested again next summer, should LeBron leave the Cavs for the second time in his career.
“He’s such a beloved figure in the state of Ohio,” Thomas added. “He’s had a significant impact on the economy and impact on the emotional state and perception of the city of Cleveland. All those things have to be taken into account when he’s talking about leaving or staying. I think he’s old enough now to understand his social and emotional impact.”
Thomas’ words are a reminder of LeBron’s Sports Illustrated letter in 2014, in which he spoke about his return to the Cavs being about more than just basketball. Through the LeBron James Family Foundation, he's made significant contributions off the court that have helped youths in the state of Ohio, and elsewhere.
Those initiatives remained when he left to join the Heat, and will continue even if he's wearing another uniform next season, but if LeBron leaves again, the fan base will hurt just as much, although Heron will understand.
“He brought us a championship, and nobody can hate him for it,” Herron said. "People leave jobs all the time. People move out of cities all the time. I’m sure he’ll do it the right way. He’ll probably put out a full page ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and have a video on social media thanking everybody.”
Delivering a championship to Cleveland with a historic Finals comeback in 2016 might sooth the pain of leaving once again, but regardless of LeBron’s decision next summer, Herron hopes Cavs fans will follow his new approach to fandom and not burn the jersey again. Seven years later, he’s learned a few things about being a sports fan.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)