Sweet Victory . . . and Sweet Forgiveness

The Cleveland Cavaliers won one for the ages when they came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Championship. In doing so, they became the first major professional team from the city of Cleveland to win a championship since the Browns won in 1964. There are so many great stories out of the basketball series, including the greatness of LeBron James and the epic story of his departure and return to Cleveland. But wrapped up in that story is the fact that Cleveland never would have won this championship were it not for some instances of forgiveness trumping pride.

The Break Up and Reconciliation

There’s no way that I could make up,
For those angry words I said.
Sometimes it gets to hurting,
And the pain goes to my head.

— Iris Dement, “Sweet Forgiveness”

James left the Cavs in free agency for the Miami Heat in 2010. He notoriously announced the departure on an ESPN primetime special, outraging many in Cleveland. James, who grew up in northeast Ohio, had brought so much hope to the championship starved area. But now he was walking away. Of course, James had the right to look after his own career. But Cleveland had a right to be heartbroken too, even if the city held him to an impossible standard.

After James’s “The Decision” special, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert posted a letter to the teams’s website. Gilbert referred to the star’s decision as a “cowardly betrayal” and worse. His letter, while angry, also reflected his dedication to the city of Cleveland. Meanwhile, many in the city burned their LeBron jerseys.

Some people outside the Cleveland area did not understand the animosity. But having lived in Cleveland and experiencing many of the infamous sports heartbreaks there, I understood completely.

But in 2014, James returned to Cleveland because he wanted to bring a championship to the city. This time, he announced his decision in a heartfelt letter to the fans on the Sports Illustrated website.

It would have been hard to blame him if he stayed in Miami or went elsewhere, especially after the way Gilbert and some fans treated him. Of course, there were ways it made sense for him to come back. The return would help seal his legacy if he could bring the city a basketball championship. And, yes, Cleveland benefited from the reunion too.

But in order for him to return, it also took a bit of forgiveness. When there is a breakup, nasty things are said that can make it difficult to reconcile. Even with all of the nastiness and anger, James and Gilbert put that anger aside. And James and the fans somehow found some love and forgiveness. In his Sports Illustrated announcement, he asked, “Who am I to hold a grudge?”

Championships are built on a lot of things like talent, skills, money, sweat, luck, and effort. But this one also was built on forgiveness.

Forgiveness in Song

Sweet forgiveness, dear God above.
I say we all deserve,
A taste of this kind of love.

There are not as many songs about forgiveness as one might expect. The first one that probably comes to mind is Don Henley’s “The Heart of the Matter” because of the way the song repeats the word “forgiveness”: “But I think it’s about forgiveness/ Forgiveness / Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.” The song about a lover forgiving someone who broke his heart and moving on constitutes one of Henley’s greatest songs.

Another excellent song about forgiveness is my favorite song by Daniel Johnston, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances.” If you are not a fan of Johnston’s unusual voice, a cool version of the song by Clem Snide appears on The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered.

Johnston based the lyrics of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” on several Biblical phrases in Ephesians 4. His song is both advice about not going to bed angry and encouragement to “keep that chin up.”

A more appropriate forgiveness song for the occasion is Iris DeMent’s “Sweet Forgiveness.” Like a lot of other forgiveness songs, “Sweet Forgiveness” seems to be about forgiving a lover or former lover. But it mainly is a tribute to the idea of forgiveness.

In the song, the singer is not the person doing the forgiving but the person being forgiven. The singer recognizes she is not deserving of forgiveness: “There’s no way that I could make up,/ For those angry words I said.”

Forgiveness often constitutes a first step toward healing. And it does not necessarily need to be earned to be given. That gift may accomplish a lot for the forgiver and the forgiven, because as DeMent sings, forgiveness is a “kind of love.”

We do not know for sure who first gave forgiveness in Cleveland, whether it was LeBron James, Dan Gilbert, or “the fans.” But forgiveness brought some love and joy. And it was a first step toward a world championship.

Below is a live version of Susan Tedeschi covering Iris DeMent’s “Sweet Forgiveness,” which first appeared on DeMent’s album Infamous Angel (1993).

Photo by Austin Bjornholt via Creative Commons. What is your favorite song of forgiveness? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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