For the past four years, while LeBron James chased championships and glory in Miami, Dan Gilbert has been buying buildings in downtown Detroit. This may seem unremarkable, a billionaire gobbling real estate. But this is different, because it is Detroit. The city has struggled for decades to get anybody to invest in it. In Detroit, some of the most beautiful buildings in America are empty, and some very wealthy people who own them refuse to fix them because that would be expensive, or sell them because they won’t fetch much. So what usually happens is nothing. Detroit can seem like a city in financial handcuffs.
Gilbert, a Michigan native and resident, surely knows there are safer bets than Detroit. But his investments there are not just about return on capital. They are about how he sees the world and his role in it.
Gilbert is a Midwest guy, a true believer in the ethos of the area. These days, most owners buy a team just to buy a team, like the financial whizzes from New York who just bought the Bucks, or Seattle’s Steve Ballmer, who is working to buy the Clippers. If the city is great, that’s a bonus. But Gilbert would rather own a team in Cleveland than Miami, Los Angeles or New York. Everyone from economists to college football experts seem to think the Rust Belt peaked in the 20th century, and warmer states in the south and west will thrive. This ticks Gilbert off.
Gilbert does not just want to win; he wants to win in Cleveland. He has decided it is his job to help revitalize downtown Detroit, and it is his job to help rid the city of blight, which is why he is leading the city’s charge to eliminate it.
Gilbert always takes his job seriously, whatever the job is. At Quicken Loans, Gilbert has developed a reputation for giving his employees all the tools they need to succeed, but then, they have to deliver. Otherwise they might be unemployed. And Gilbert expects loyalty to an extreme degree. A betrayal could set him off. He once got into a fracas with his highest-profile former executive, David Hall, at a bar mitzvah, after Hall left Gilbert’s company. There are (at least) two sides to that story, but the point is: When you leave Gilbert, he might not be so happy to see you again.
You could read all of this between the lines of Gilbert’s infamous comic-sans screed when LeBron James left for Miami in 2010. To others, James made a business or basketball decision. But to Gilbert, James did something worse. He violated several of the owner’s firmest convictions.
He abandoned the Midwest for a glamorous city on the beach.
He chose star power over roots.
He did not appreciate what his boss did to help him.
He chose what was easy over what was meaningful.
In the most famous line of that rant, Gilbert guaranteed that the Cavs would win a championship before the Heat. When Miami lost to Dallas in James’s first year with the Heat, Gilbert tweeted: “Old lesson for all: THERE ARE NO SHORT CUTS.”
Maybe not. But some paths are shorter than others, and in the last three years, James proved that leaving for Miami made basketball sense. Critics can crow that Miami “only” won two titles, but does anybody think he would have won more in Cleveland?
Yes, in Miami, James eventually had everything he dreamed he would get when he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach: championship trophies, glorious weather, a superteam (or close to it) with Olympic buddies Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He even earned back the admiration of the public.
It seemed like paradise. But it wasn’t quite paradise. The relationship between James and Miami was like many celebrity marriages: It relied on glitz and excess to make up for the lack of a genuine connection. Miami fans loved LeBron because he was there and helped him win. LeBron loved Miami because it is where he won.
The championships were real and hard-earned, but the glow around them seemed artificial. It is fitting that James’ most famous win in Miami, the Game 6 thriller in 2013, is remembered almost as much for Heat fans leaving early as it is for Ray Allen’s amazing shot. If Cleveland fans caved as easily as those Miami fans, they would have given up sports in 1977.
And so here they are, eyeing each other from afar, and perhaps from up close: Dan Gilbert, the Cavs owner, and LeBron James, the free agent. Gilbert has learned that no matter what he believed on that July 2010 night, talent trumps almost everything in the NBA. James has learned that, no matter what he believed on that July 2010 night, winning after signing a free-agent deal in Miami is not quite the same as winning after building toward it for years in Cleveland.
So now the Cavs want James back, and James may be interested. His friend and agent, Rich Paul, reportedly wants him back in Cleveland, which is no surprise; Paul would have more power with James in Cleveland than he would have with him in Miami. In Miami, Pat Riley runs the show, and Paul is just an agent. In Cleveland, Paul gets to be something more. And if James’s next contract runs for four or five years, it may be the last maximum-salary contract Paul ever negotiates. Paul does not have many clients. He needs to think about life after James retires. He wants to be known as a power broker in the league, not just LeBron James’ friend. If Paul moves James to Cleveland, he helps himself.
There is also no doubt that a lot of James’ friends and family members would like him back in Cleveland, near his hometown of Akron. And you better believe there were nights in the last four years when James would have traded the palm trees and bright lights of South Beach for a gray winter day in Cleveland. Northeast Ohio is part of him in a way Miami never will be.
And yet Paul just has to procure a contract; he doesn’t have to live up to it. James’ friends and family won’t bear the burden of winning Cleveland’s first championship of any kind since 1964. That will fall on James. And if he fails to win a title in his second stint in Cleveland, people will hold it against him for approximately forever.
So now James must ask himself a question that millions of Midwest natives have asked themselves over the years:
I miss home, but do I really want to live there again?
Face it: As a basketball decision, going to Cleveland does not make sense. Sure, James could win a championship there -- he came close before. But he is more likely to win one if he stays in Miami, or if he goes to Houston or Chicago or Phoenix.
Cleveland is in the race because of absurd luck; the Cavs have won the NBA lottery three of the last four years, which may (or may not) make up for shoddy management decisions for the last decade.
If the world will measure you forever by how many championships you won, who would you want running your team? Pat Riley and Mickey Arison, who have won three championships together, or the crew in Cleveland?
Dan Gilbert knows what he would do. He would choose Cleveland, and that’s not just because he owns the team. Gilbert would choose the Midwest. He would choose the beaten-up city with the sports curse. He would choose snow, ice and the hard way, because he believes the hard way is the best way.
Gilbert believes Cleveland will win championships, just as he believes Detroit’s downtown has a future.
LeBron James may want to believe in these things. But does he?