When Lebron James first joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, he effectively had no choice. The worst team with the number one pick in the NBA draft gets who it wants and James was the biggest no-brainier pick in the history of the league.
When he left it was a crotch kick, a punch to an unexpected gut of a city that always seems to get an unexpected punch. That same desperate, lost, hurt that was felt when Art Modell pulled the Browns out of Cleveland was its logical antecedent. To literally lose your sporting blood put the city in a football wilderness that took, you guessed it, nearly four years to remedy.
When James bolted the first chance he had he left the team in ruins. That may have been exactly why he left. But he took Cleveland’s heart with him and it spent, yep, four years figuring how it could all begin again.
The reason this feels so different is that this times James had a choice. He could go anywhere he wanted and he decided to come back here. You'd have to go back to Bernie Kosar’s manipulation of the NFL’s supplemental draft in order to land in Cleveland to recall an even remotely similar sense of not just pride but of affirmation for the reason that most of us with a choice nonetheless remain.
No longer is there any concern about his basketball future. He’ll finish his career, hopefully another 10 years from now, as a Cav. All the cringing fans used to do when James would wear a Yankees hat is gone forever. He can follow any baseball or football team he wants. There will be no need to read anything into those kinds of gestures. James chose here not there and it has the absolute feeling of finality, both a prodigal son and favorite son returning, satisfied with his time away and relishing his future on his home turf.
I read James’ decision letter, twice. It was a master stroke, the likes of which are rare in professional sports. Sure it went through the editing process and sure some of it, maybe most of it, was calculated to put a different spin on what James is really about. Yet it felt genuine. It was fully realized and actualized. It contained no false promises. It just laid it out in rather simple terms and in the process seemingly made fools of all of those who, from a very great distance, thought they understood what he really was all about.
Without saying it directly, James nonetheless laid out the case for why he's not the mercenary many of us, me included, thought he was. It certainly helps that the Cavs have some excellent assets to work with, certainly more than the Heat at the moment. But the pull to come home, to raise his sons in a place with less glitz and more sensibilities, seems to have predominated.
His letter in many ways read like the words of Bruce Springsteen in “Long Walk Home” and it's easy think about what James is telling his own kids at the moment and what other dads in Akron and Cleveland are telling theirs:
My father said, “Son, we’re luck in in this town. It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps itself around you, no one crowds you no one goes it alone.”
That is exactly the way this town has always treated James. He lives just a few minutes from me and he's easy to spot when he's in town. Sometimes alone at the movie theater. Sometimes riding his bike on the local streets. Sometimes playing softball at the local high school. No one crowds him but he knows the people around here have his back.
The other striking aspect of this almost surreal moment in Cleveland sports history is how much James has grown as a person in the last four years. He wrote that his four years in Miami felt like college. He went in a know-it-all and came out a humbler man comfortable with not having all the answers. It's exactly the point of going off to college, or the army, or wherever it is that one goes when they have to leave home in order to grow up.
James is absolutely correct when he wrote that there was nothing to be gained in holding a grudge against Dan Gilbert or the fans who cursed his very existence. Indeed he offered up exactly the right perspective without specifically giving Gilbert a pass for the screed Gilbert wrote when James left. James saw himself in the shoes of those he spurned and understood both their anger and their angst.
I also get though why Gilbert didn't publicly renounce his screed in the last several days. It would have looked shallow and opportunistic. Better to have handled it as he did, per James, face to face and man to man.
For all the criticism leveled at Gilbert, and I've leveled plenty at him myself, you have to give him his due. He overcame his own impetuousness and sprinkled with a little luck when it comes to the ping pong balls has put together enough of a franchise now to at least give fans hope that the team isn't just James and 11 other guys. More importantly though he gained his own perspective about the NBA that was learned the hard way, a perspective that when coupled with James’ maturity, will really serve this franchise well as it pursues it's stated goal of bringing this town a championship.
There is enough cynicism in sports and life that it's virtually certain that some, maybe many, will try to find the holes in James’ story, the real motives behind the move. But not on this day. There is no way to spoil a win, nor should there be, for fans who haven't seen enough of it.
I suspect many feel like Gus Sinski at the mound talking to Billy Chapel as he was throwing a perfect game in “For Love of the Game.” Collectively we would be saying “we don't stink right now because of you. We’re the best team in [basketball] because of you, right now, right this minute because of you. We’re not gonna screw it up, we’re gonna be awesome for you. “
Let's hope he remains awesome for us. He’s off to a perfect start.