LeBron James always hinted he would move back to Cleveland, finish his career with the Cavaliers, continue working with youngsters and the underprivileged, keep trying to help his community.
No one really saw this coming? No one outside LeBron’s inner circle truly believed the game’s greatest player would abandon Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Erik Spoelstra, Micky Arison and, most notably, Heat president and recruiting coordinator Pat Riley – would leave the glamour of South Beach and return to the Rust Belt?
We should have listened more intently. We should have looked more closely.
James always has been the superstar with his own mind and the simplest of tastes. His skills are spectacular, his performances often incandescent, yet for all of his splendor, the essence of his presentation is selfless, fundamental, stripped of excess. There is a meat-and-potatoes, down-home quality to his game – and his personality.
He makes the proper pass, involves his teammates, works harder than anyone in the building. He wins when given a championship-caliber supporting cast. Lest anyone forget, James spent his first seven seasons without an alter ego – a McHale, Pippen, Ginobili/Parker – to ease the burden.
Seven years is a long time. In the NBA, that’s a lifetime. LeBron had every reason to leave four years ago, to buckle to the charms of Hall of Famer Riley, to take his talents to South Beach. His only faux pas was announcing his decision on an hour-long cable show that tortured and alienated fans and prompted an ugly, childish outburst from owner Dan Gilbert, who accused his superstar of “a cowardly betrayal.”
Four years later, all is forgiven.
“We’ve talked it out,” James wrote in his essay for Sports Illustrated. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
In sharp contrast to the over-the-top extravaganza in 2010, James broke the news Friday morning in the carefully scripted essay posted on SI.com.
“Before anyone cared where I would play basketball,” he began, “I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me … I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go.”
Within minutes of the web posting, Friday turned into a free-agent feeding frenzy, with the ripple effect resulting in additional surprises and the potential for several blockbuster trades. Chris Bosh re-signed with the Heat. Jeremy Lin was swapped to the Lakers. Kevin Love expressed interest in facilitating a trade from Minnesota and joining LeBron in Cleveland.
League executives anticipate an unusually busy weekend, the level of activity reminiscent of 1996. During that offseason, several stars changed addresses (Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Dikembe Mutombo) or signed long-term deals with their current teams (Hakeem Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning, John Stockton), and it featured the trade that sent Charlotte Hornets draft pick Kobe Bryant to the Lakers for future Kings icon Vlade Divac.
James’ decision was significant for a number of reasons. Besides the stunning realization that James would leave a franchise that reached four consecutive NBA Finals, it shook the perception that major market franchises have an outsized advantage in luring superstar free agents.
Cleveland not only ranks 19th in television media markets (just ahead of Sacramento), the region hasn’t hosted a championship party since the 1964 Browns won the NFL title. Its impassioned fans have endured a prolonged run of bad luck (Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo), lousy owners, the relocation of the beloved Browns to Baltimore – with James’ departure four years ago only the latest indignity.
But on Friday, the party started. Fans spilled into the streets, crowded bars, overwhelmed the Cavaliers phone lines attempting to buy season tickets. The website for the city’s visitors and convention bureau – with an image of LeBron on the front of the site – crashed early in the day.
Had James left Miami for anywhere but Cleveland, he would have been perceived as a mercenary, his image tarnished perhaps irreparably. But he didn’t. He retraced his steps and returned to his roots, and now he has Love considering Cleveland along with L.A., New York and Boston.
Amazing. Remarkable. Fable-esque. Before he even slips on his new/old Cavs jersey, his rooting section figures to break all NBA records. This is great for LeBron, great for the game.