On basketball

Fiery owner fueled by Heat

Cavaliers’ Gilbert won’t back down

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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CLEVELAND — Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t regret his harsh criticism of LeBron James upon the free agent’s departure from Cleveland, referring to him as “the player’’ during his session with the media last night at Quicken Loans Arena.

Nearly four months after he ripped James for announcing he was leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat during a one-hour television special, Gilbert said he’s ready to move forward.

Franchises do indeed move on, even from losses such as James. A city that has suffered a lot through its sports teams is once again forced to recover.

“The player’’ not only took his talents to South Beach, he took away the luster from a franchise that did not enjoy much sustained success before his arrival. The Cavaliers are an ordinary organization again, and Gilbert has to figure out how to make them relevant again and keep his promise to win a title before LeBron does.

Gilbert dumped general manager Danny Ferry and coach Mike Brown, acquired guard Ramon Sessions and center Ryan Hollins, and hired coach Byron Scott, who helped resurrect moribund franchises in New Jersey and New Orleans.

“What we’re trying to do is not really focus on the past,’’ Gilbert said before last night’s 95-87 win over the Celtics. “We’re trying to focus our efforts toward the future, and I believe if you do that, good things will happen to you.’’

The city of Cleveland is trying to move forward as well. Three days after James left for Miami, a large mural with his image was torn down outside the arena, and yesterday it was replaced by one with a skyline of the city and the words, “Our home since 1866. Our pride forever.’’

The Cavaliers brass was fully prepared for the LeBron questions entering their first game without the icon in seven years. Making his departure even tougher on the city was that James was born in Ohio, an Akron native who brought attention to a region that had been considered a sports laughingstock for decades. The Browns moved. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. And the Cavaliers were repeatedly outdone by Michael Jordan in the 1980s and ’90s.

So when Gilbert addressed the fans in a letter just an hour after “The Decision,’’ he touched a nerve with those locals who expect bad things to happen.

“I don’t regret it, and I said that over the last couple of days,’’ Gilbert said yesterday. “That letter was to the fans. It wasn’t to the player that left. It wasn’t to the rest of the world. It wasn’t to anybody but the fans. I wanted them to understand not only how I felt but the organization.’’

The promise that the Cavaliers would win a title before LeBron still stands, according to Gilbert, but how to get there is still being decided. The owner easily could have placed the entire roster on the trading block and sought draft picks, bringing the organization back to square one. Cavaliers fans have seen it before, when the 2002-03 team was accused of tanking it in order to increase the chances of drafting James.

Hiring Scott was a strong indication that the Cavaliers do not plan to completely rebuild. Scott spent the first few weeks of training camp patting players on the back and boosting confidence.

By the end of camp, there was a growing sentiment that while this is no longer LeBron’s team, it is still a talented club that could make the playoffs.

“The feeling has changed, it’s a different team,’’ said point guard Mo Williams, who told one reporter he considered retirement after James’s departure. “I think Byron has done a great job of coming in and putting his identity on the ball club and we’re going to play that way each and every night.

“We’re going to be different. We’re going to run. We’re going to play small. We’re going to pick up the pace.’’

The Cavaliers still have the majority of last season’s 61-win roster. Williams was an All-Star two years ago and Antawn Jamison was considered one of the league’s top power forwards while with the Wizards.

In an Eastern Conference that is top-heavy but shaky following the first five teams, the Cavaliers have a legitimate shot at the playoffs — and, who knows, maybe a first-round matchup with the Heat.

“We are going to surprise a lot of people,’’ Williams said. “We are going to win games. And this season, we deserve to win games.’’

While they are still stinging from James’s departure, the Cavaliers have no choice but to move on. They don’t want to go back to the bad old days, and nobody in the NBA is going to show them pity — and the fiery Gilbert doesn’t want any.

“We put more pressure on everybody to say, ‘Hey, let’s deliver as smart and as efficiently as we possibly can,’ ’’ Gilbert said. “And I’m excited about this season. I can’t wait to see what we’ve got.’’

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