There was no way LeBron James was going to turn his back on Cleveland a second time.
Four years ago, LeBron James took his basketball destiny into his own hands and came away with two world championships. Signing with the Miami Heat left the city of Cleveland in disbelief and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sounding like anything but the owner of an NBA franchise.
LeBron James returns to Cleveland a better player, a better man and on his own terms.
What raced through the mind of LeBron James as the San Antonio Spurs celebrated their fifth NBA title is anyone’s guess. I thought I knew for certain returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers was out of the question. A bitter season-ending series to the Celtics in six games in the 2010 Playoffs, an unrelenting backlash from “The Decision” and the kick in the rump heading out the door from owner Dan Gilbert all but sealed the Akron native’s fate from entering the Buckeye State as a resident ever again.
Cavaliers fans flooded the streets to either burn James No. 23 jersey, hang images of the star in effigy or both. Flaming shreds of the NBA’s top-selling jersey illuminated the summertime night sky as jilted fans spat brimstone at their once anointed savior. Whatever appeased their appetite in shaming James, Cleveland’s title-starved populace gorged upon it.
Armageddon had settled in Cleveland, Ohio.
Dan Gilbert’s letter to the people of Ohio in response to James’ decision to join the Miami Heat further fanned the flames while giving a vivid illustration of a much darker time. A disturbing correlation between slave master and servant was clearly evident in 21st century sports.
James shunned the frugal management of the Cavaliers for the sudden lure of the Miami Heat. Lavish living and teaming with friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh drowned out the chaos coming from everywhere outside of South Beach. The NBA and the public at-large bought into Gilbert’s pity party as the Cavaliers cashed in on three No. 1 picks in the last four years. Despite winning two NBA titles in four seasons with the Heat, public resentment for James reached levels of absurdity with each late game lapse in judgement, missed free throw or errant pass. Not even leg cramps in Game 1 of The 2014 NBA Finals softened the hearts of fans who took to social media with memes littering timelines at record numbers.
Sandwiched between back to back titles in Miami and two MVP seasons were two bitter losses to the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, respectively. Despite James’ thirst for a title being quenched, it was anything but home cooking.
No matter how bright the lights or the moment became, James never forgot to look back. After winning his second consecutive championship and Finals MVP, he would proclaim, “I’m LeBron James, I’m from Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I’m not even supposed to be here.” James continued. “Every night I walk into an NBA locker room and see a No. 6 jersey with James on the back. So what everyone says about me off the court doesn’t matter. I ain’t got no worries.”
A door that seemed slammed shut was suddenly cracked open.
James speaks on his legacy at the 2:54 mark.
Leading up to their rematch with the San Antonio Spurs, there was no talk from James or the Miami Heat about a probable “Three-Peat”, only talk of making four consecutive runs at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. I would never say the Heat were not as focused but such talk seemed odd with so much hanging in the balance.
The greatest indicator that James was looking someplace else after The Finals was an interview he gave prior to Game 1. When asked about his legacy James responded, “For me, a legacy isn’t just about basketball. I think people get caught up in what you do on the floor, on the gridiron or on the diamond and so on and so on and try to define your legacy on how you play the sport. I think my calling is bigger than just basketball.”
In that subtle moment, James let it be known that his days in Miami were dwindling down.
As James opted out, with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade following, my thoughts were the trio were going to give the Heat a hometown discount to remain formidable for a few more seasons. The cap-crippled Heat were unable to bring in young, talented free agents and had to rely on the draft and fringe veterans. With Bosh seeking a max deal, James torn and Wade just standing idle, unrest in Miami grew with each passing day.
There was nothing the Heat could do to keep James in South Beach.
News of the James returning to Cleveland came as a shock largely because of Gilbert’s words four years prior and James willingness to move past them for the sake of his legacy. Later, I recalled James’ words along with the fact that he was returning older and more mature, it let me know that it wasn’t going to be about Dan Gilbert this time around or ever again.
James is looking to do for Akron and eventually the state of Ohio what former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes did for his native Easton, Pa. Holmes was a seventh grade dropout who drove a dump truck and worked in a quarry until he took up boxing at the age of 19. Holmes studied at the knee of the great Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, eventually becoming world champion himself. Battling racism and scrutiny throughout his seven-year reign, Holmes collected checks and knockout wins as he literally spread his name throughout his beloved Easton.
In two years, the NBA will once again go to the bargaining table to iron out another collective bargaining agreement giving birth to a new television deal which will increase the league’s salary cap. This switches the pressure from James staying in Cleveland to Gilbert keeping him there. Expect James to sign somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million.
In returning to Cleveland, James has said this is the place were he wants to raise his family — which is expecting a new addition — cementing his legacy as a player and a man. Others will continue to view James with a much more intense disdain from four years ago. In the NBA’s Game of Thrones, James is Ned Stark, no matter how much good he does, his head is going to end up on someone’s pole.
The King’s Second Coming seeks to transform a long-suffering sports hamlet into a fledgling Camelot.