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Without LeBron, it's the end of an era for the Heat and a fresh start

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LeBron's absence will leave a huge hole in the franchise, but Heat Nation can only learn and grow from the experience.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It's the story I never thought I'd write. Not only because I didn't want to but because I never thought it would be necessary. To put down in words the effect of LeBron James' departure from Miami and his return to Cleveland.

It's an interesting distinction, never thinking there'd be a need for this rather than having any interest in doing so. I always thought he'd rejoin the Cavs but at the end of his career but not now, at its peak. It would have been just one season of mending wounds and rebuilding connections to the city and its fans. The team could have been sold by then and new owners would have made closing the book of James' career a priority. It wouldn't have been about winning or titles, although that would have been a nice touch. James being a contributor, rather than a star, to help Cleveland get its first championship in decades. That would have been humbling, it would have earned our respect and shown incredible loyalty to both of his adopted cities. Now that's a feel-good story.

This doesn't feel that way. I don't want to turn this into bashing James for his decision. Quite the contrary. But there's something wrong about going back to the city that reveled in hating you, that made a hero of a petulant owner that insulted you and that looked forward to your return just to mock you in person. There's a vibe that it gives off that feels a little too much like the abused wife, making excuses for the husband's violence, and coming back for more because they can justify that cycle of abuse by believing it is built on a foundation of love. It's delusional and sad and James, arguably the greatest basketball player of our generation, should have been above that.

It reminds me of the furor caused by Michael Jordan's angry and honest induction speech to the Naismith Hall of Fame. It seems that Jordan's brilliance was fueled by various slights, both real and perceived, and magnifying their impact translated into the greatness of his play. But fans didn't want to see that, the bitter, little man behind the curtain. There's only so much you can accept under the umbrella of honesty. The irony is that this moment was supposed to celebrate the most lasting monument to Jordan and instead only damaged his legacy.

Instead, in James' exclusive with Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, he details how he's come to grips with the vitriol of 2010, with Dan Gilbert's letter, and looks past that. A dedication to the area that raised him and defined him, and need to establish longer-lasting roots and an impact that extends beyond the hardwood floor. It's noble, at least superficially. But that doesn't change the wrongness that I can't help feeling.

Some will read this and think that this is my Ode to Gilbert, an angry testament to sour grapes. But the truth is that, as a writer and someone looking for the best stories in basketball, James' departure is probably beneficial. Teams with glaring weaknesses are infinitely easier to cover, even to root for. There's a simple narrative in being the underdog and long-suffering for relevance. The Heat, barring any miracles from Pat Riley, will surely undergo these trying times, perhaps for years to come.

My one plea to you, the fans of the Miami Heat, is that you relish in this moment and the struggles to come. For as you have been blasted in the media and by peripheral fans of the NBA, now is the time for you to prove your merit by being gracious and dedicated, to the team, to the sport and, perhaps especially to LeBron James.

We can't forget that the past four years have been an amazing experience, on so many levels. From the joy of LeBron's first announcement (feels like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?) nearly four years ago, to the loss at Dallas, to the redemptive victory over Oklahoma City. A fantastic run at history with a 27-game win streak and an iconic game-saving shot by soon-to-be-departed Ray Allen. Even the humbling loss to the Spurs in this year's Finals was something that you can embrace. It gave us the empty hope that there would be next season, another chance to prove Miami's excellence to the rest of the world.

That won't be the case. There's no hope for that, not really. But there is a chance to prove yourself as a fanbase, as a franchise and as a region. Just as James explains that he wants to build Northeast Ohio into a stronger region - a community - this is a chance for South Florida to redefine themselves.

This is probably the wrong time for this, I understand that even as I finish typing this with hands still shaking and the hope that I'll wake up from this improbable nightmare. But this quote from James Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man has served me well over the years and I hope it brings some hope in the coming days, weeks, seasons and years:

"Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race..."

Recreate yourselves anew, be the better person and grow from this experience. It's easy to pretend to be a better person when you're on top of the world, much more difficult to prove it - and mean it - when you will go through the upcoming adversity.

Sadly, and more truthfully than ever, let's go Heat.