I’ll admit it. I was one of the biggest haters out there. I enjoyed watching the Heat collapse against the Mavs in the 2011 Finals. I enjoyed every Dirk one-legged fadeaway finding home. I enjoyed watching Bosh disappear. I enjoyed every time old man Kidd found Jet for a wide open 3. But most of all, I enjoyed watching LeBron James melt under the pressure of putting away the underdog Mavs as a heavy favorite, one year after ripping the collective hearts out of the entire state of Ohio. Let’s make one thing clear.
I never disagreed with the actual decision itself. LeBron was not winning a championship with the rosters the Cleveland brass was putting around him and getting himself out of there was the correct choice instead of wasting his prime in a bad situation. Here was a kid, only 25 years of age and already the absolute best at what he does, stuck in a situation where he could not possibly get to where he wanted to be. Leaving Cleveland was necessary and the 4 year stint at Miami was absolutely the right choice for James professionally. The issue with “The Decision” was the way he went about it. Following misguided advice from the wrong people, LeBron turned his exit from Cleveland into a disaster of a spectacle. By stringing along the Cavs faithful until the very last minute before crushing their hopes in a PR disaster of a TV special, James set himself up to be the villain when he ultimately chose to leave for South Beach.
Being spurned sucks. Being overlooked. Dismissed. It’s a shitty feeling. What’s worse than being spurned, is being led on to believe one thing before being told something else, especially on national television in front of millions of people. That’s how the people of Ohio felt after “The Decision” 4 summers ago, and you’d have be completely heartless not to have some sympathy for the fans who thought of LeBron as a prodigal son and the kids who looked up to him as a home grown role model.
Now, with one phrase, LeBron James has a chance to do something that most people never have the chance to do: completely erase the one big mistake he has made in what has otherwise been an incredible career.
“I’m coming home.”
The city of Cleveland needed a hero. Ohio was once the industrial capital of America, but as times changed and the economy wavered, the information age was as harsh on the area as the industrial era was kind. What was once a strong and vibrant city had gradually turned into a beat up cesspool, being known for its expansive slums and crazy tales of foreclosure house pricing rather than anything positive and encouraging.
The city of Cleveland also became known for its sports heartbreaks. There was “The Fumble”, “The Drive”, and “The Move”. There were the ’90s Indians, late ’80s Browns and late ’80s Cavs, 3 very good teams that never won anything. The last time the city of Cleveland got to celebrate a championship was 1964, a remarkable drought for a city with 3 professional sports teams. Sometimes it seems like we, as North Americans, care a little too much about our sports, considering all the other problems and issues that exist in our world. That’s a fair statement, but there is no denying the fact that sports can give people hope in a time where it is difficult to find any. It gives something that brings the people of a city together, a nice little departure from the struggles and realities of the grind that is life. Just look at the impact the Red Wings have had on Detroit, a city with similar struggles economically in their post-industrial malaise.
Cleveland found its hope when the Cavaliers won the draft lottery in 2003, and selected the prodigy, the heir apparent to the recently retired Jordan, from nearby Akron, OH with the first pick of that draft. The story was too good to be true, Ohio’s own wunderkind rushing in to save the day. LeBron was the hero the city needed, and it embraced him right away. In his first 7 year tenure in Ohio, LeBron brought the Cavs to new heights, carried the team to title contention year after year and even an NBA finals appearance in only his 4th NBA season. Unfortunately, the Cavs were never able to put a strong supporting cast around him and the pressure of being a whole region’s savior caught up with James. 4 years ago, in that fateful summer of 2010, LeBron didn’t think he was ready to save Cleveland. And he was right.
“These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go.”
Professionally, going to Miami was the easy choice for James. This was an organization run by a President/GM in Pat Riley who knew how to win, and who had championship rings as a coach over 2 decades apart. It’s own star, Dwyane Wade, was an undisputed alpha dog, one of the best leaders of our generation who had already proved himself on the biggest stage by dragging an undermanned Miami squad to a championship in 2006.
In his 4 years in Miami, James learned what it took to be a champion, how to get to that next level from people who had already been there. This was a lesson he could not have possibly learned had he stayed in Cleveland. More importantly though, from seeing how not just the fans in Cleveland, but the rest of America reacted, he learned how much he meant to the city of Cleveland and the region of North East Ohio, and this definitely stayed on his mind even as he was chasing titles in South Beach.
In 2010, LeBron James was not ready to be the savior of an entire region. In 2014, he is, and he has his time in Miami to thank for that.
The crazy part about this whole story is the Cavaliers really didn’t do anything to deserve having LeBron back. This isn’t the story where the guy gets dumped by the girl for not being good enough, using it as fuel to work hard, hit the gym and better himself before winning her back. No, this is the story where the guy puts on 20 pounds, drinks himself to become a borderline alcoholic, drunkenly buys himself some lottery tickets and then wins the lottery… three times. This is like the idiot at your poker game who flats your 3-bet with 8-3 off suit and cracks your aces by hitting a full house.
The Cavs got Lebron back almost entirely on a few instances of dumb luck combined with some rudimentary cap management this summer to make the numbers work. That puts a whole different perspective on LeBron’s choice, as he is taking a huge leap of faith that the Cavs front office won’t screw things up, which makes his choice in going back look a great deal more admirable.
“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now.”
Those words show just how much James has grown since he left Cleveland the first time. Cleveland did not present the best choice if his first and foremost criteria is winning titles. The roster is full of young, unproven guys who have never even set foot in a playoff series before. They are introducing a new head coach who has never coached in the NBA before. Nobody can ever criticize James for leaving Miami solely to look for a situation in which he had a better chance to win. If that were the case, he would have chosen to go to Phoenix or Houston, where he would join stacked rosters and immediately be leading title contenders, if not favorites. That would have been the easy road, a path that would most likely lead to a fistful of rings and a chance to match the 6 that Jordan got in his illustrious career. If playing with his friends was his highest priority, nobody would have blinked if he had chosen to stay in Miami with Wade and Bosh, as that was the scenario most were expecting not too long ago.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.”
LeBron chose Cleveland because he felt he was ready to take on the challenge of bringing hope and happiness to a region starved of it, a region it became evident he truly and wholeheartedly loved. He knew it would make it harder for him to match Jordan’s rings and legacy, but he also knows he can do something amazing, and write the kind of story neither Jordan nor almost any other athlete has ever had the chance to write. James knew that there was work to be done in Cleveland, that he would have to be the leader and mentor for a young team. The LeBron James of 2010 would not have the strength nor the drive to step up to the plate and accept “harder”, but the 2014 version has shown he has grown enough as a person and as a player to walk down that road. To me, being able to make that decision is something that deserves an enormous amount of respect and really shows the degree in which LeBron has grown as a person.
How many of us, if given a chance, would go back in time and right the biggest wrong in our lives? How many of us would kill for that chance? LeBron James has earned that chance, and he’s shown he is ready to embrace that challenge.
We don’t know how this story will end, but the fact that the beginning of this new chapter has been written is already enough to give an entire region hope. Four years ago, James took the easy way out. Four years later, he’s taking on one of the greatest challenges any athlete has ever chosen to take on. Nobody should ever call him the next Jordan. There will never, ever be another Jordan. But we can say there will also never be another LeBron James. Just a kid from Akron, tasked with writing a storybook ending to one of the greatest stories ever written.