8 years after 'The Decision,' Cavs fans brace for another LeBron exit
J.D. Pooley / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Eight years ago, LeBron James went on national television and announced he was leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers after seven seasons.

Alder Chapman, president of the LeBron James Grandmothers' Fan Club (founded in 2006), watched the ESPN special with 35 other grandmothers at a restaurant in Akron, Ohio that evening. When James told the world he was joining the Miami Heat, Chapman gasped in disbelief. Her reaction was captured by photographers and landed on the front page of the Akron Beacon Journal.

"I can still feel the pain," Chapman told theScore. "It hurt."

Chapman's agony in recollecting "The Decision," one of the most seismic sports moments of the 21st century, is shared by an overwhelming majority of Cavaliers fans who could only watch as James chose to take his talents to South Beach. And with James on the verge of selecting his next NBA home - and Cleveland considered a long shot to retain his services - those fans are bracing for yet another difficult goodbye.

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Sam McNulty, who owns multiple restaurants in Cleveland, spent that day water-skiing with his friends on Lake Erie. As the time of the broadcast drew near, McNulty settled in with some beer and sandwiches at a picnic table by the beach and waited to hear James' decision.

"I remember we all sat there in shocked silence," McNulty said.

If Chapman and McNulty had muted immediate reactions to the announcement, Jason Herron's was much more visceral.

That night, Herron and his friends had gathered at the Harry Buffalo in Lakewood, Ohio to watch the broadcast. After the announcement, Herron went into the restaurant's parking lot and burned one of James' jerseys. A local ABC station captured the footage, and it aired on ESPN.

Incinerating LeBron apparel was only one of many hostile reactions to his departure. Fans eviscerated him on social media. The Associated Press said "The Decision" deserved a place in the "Cleveland sports hall of shame." And in perhaps the most bizarre development of all, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert posted his infamous letter - Comic Sans and all - on the team's website hours after James' announcement.

Gilbert called James narcissistic and self-promotional, and personally guaranteed the Cavaliers would win a championship before James did (they didn't). James and Gilbert eventually reconciled, at least to the point where they could work together again - but Linda Gilbert, another member of the grandmothers' fan club, has some advice for the Cavs owner if James decides to leave again this summer.

"All my kids do is text," Linda said. "I tell them, once you send that text or email out, once you hit send, it's all over. (Dan) tried to apologize and take everything back, but it was too late."

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On Friday, two days before free agency officially opens, James can exercise his player option for next season for $35.6 million. He is expected to forgo the option and become an unrestricted free agent.

Yet, as difficult as it will be for fans to say goodbye a second time, things are different now. After all, he returned to Cleveland in 2014 and brought the city that elusive championship in 2016.

"We will be thankful for him for giving this city 11 years of amazing basketball memories, and a championship parade of a lifetime," Herron said. "His jersey will hang in the rafters. A statue will be built. He will be the biggest sports legend in the history of Cleveland."

Though everyone understands why James might want to leave again, some wonder if he would be better off staying put.

"At this point in his career," McNulty said, "I think he's looking at where he can make the deepest and most enduring impact and leave a legacy. That place is Cleveland."

Herron is in the same camp.

"He has a chance to retire as the NBA's all-time leader in points," he said. "I have a feeling he wants to do that in front of his adoring hometown fans."

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"The last time I changed my mind was probably in my dreams," James told ESPN's Jim Gray eight years ago. "And when I woke up (the morning of the broadcast) I knew it was the right decision."

James' pick doesn't feel like it will be as spontaneous this time around. He reportedly won't hold elaborate meetings with teams the way he did in 2010, when the Cavaliers' pitch apparently included a "Family Guy"-style animated video, and the New York Knicks recruited James Gandolfini and Edie Falco from "The Sopranos" to shoot a video presentation.

It seems as if everyone in Cleveland is trying to read the tea leaves, whether they're scrutinizing where James' kids will attend school or the implications of his purchasing a new mansion.

Dolores Golson, another member of the grandmothers' fan club, just wants James to make the best choice for himself.

"He still has some years left to be a superstar," Golson said. "He'll still be our grandson no matter what. We would like for him to stay. But it's his life. We'll still support him if he leaves. We're just a bunch of old groupie grandmothers who love LeBron James."

Golson has spent time living in Beverly Hills, Calif., and understands the appeal of the West Coast.

"I know all about it," Golson said, laughing. "It's beautiful out there."

She also knows all about the reports that James is considering the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I heard he bought a house out there in California," Golson said. "Twenty-three million dollars. Lined in Spanish marble."

But Golson isn't convinced. She believes James wants his kids to attend St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, and he's got a pretty nice house in the Bath Township of Summit County, Ohio, too.

"I heard he had it remodeled a couple years ago," Golson said.

As for Chapman, she doesn't believe she needs to worry about the local paper catching her in the throes of despair this time around.

"Honestly, I don't think he's going anywhere," she said. "Where would he go to get the kind of love he has here? No one can love him like Akron. No one can love him like Cleveland, Ohio."

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications. Find him on Twitter @steven_lebron.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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8 years after 'The Decision,' Cavs fans brace for another LeBron exit
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