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LeBron James' return to Cleveland shows just how much he has grown

LeBron James' return to Cleveland shows just how much he has grown Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In four years, LeBron James went from narcissistic to noble. In 2010, there was The Decision, the celebration-of-me TV debacle, followed by the cocky “Not one, not two, not three …” quote at the smoke-and-laser welcoming extravaganza in Miami. In ‘14, there is the essay, lower case -- a classy piece of writing from James as told to SI’s Lee Jenkins, in which he lays out clear reasoning for his decision to return to Cleveland and, in the process, shows that he has grown into a mature, thoughtful and admirable man.

By choosing to return to his original team and his home area, James proved three important things: He is not the championship ring-chasing carpetbagger he seemed to be; he’s a big enough man to forgive the venom directed his way by owner Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ fan base when he left; and he feels a sense of responsibility to the place where he grew up. There are issues more important to James than his championship total or his place in the “Greatest Ever” debates, and that’s something we didn’t know about him until today.

James’ ability to forgive might be the most impressive aspect of his choice. Gilbert excoriated him when he left, with a letter that was a personal attack on James’ character. Fans famously burned his jersey and at least one bar put pictures of his face in bathroom urinals. It was over-the-top hatred for someone who merely decided to work in another city. It would have been understandable if James had decided never to play for Gilbert or Cavs fans again, but instead, he moved past it.

“It was easy to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again,’” James told SI.com. “But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?” Four years ago, it would have been hard to imagine James showing that kind of humility.

This is not a stacked Cavaliers team he is joining, by any means, and an immediate championship doesn’t seem realistic. (Though their prospects would change dramatically if they can acquire Kevin Love from Minnesota.) The Cavs are a team of promise, but the James we thought we knew was interested only in near-guarantees. He seemed like the guy at the gym who always wanted the three best players on his team when choosing sides for pick-up basketball. That’s why Houston and Phoenix were presumed to be possible landing spots this summer, because they could offer him something similar to the Big Three core of stars that he had with the Heat. But James didn’t go that route. No one can accuse him of dropping Miami solely to search for a more dominant situation.

From a purely basketball standpoint, there were better options for James -- better than playing for an owner who previously ripped him and for a rookie coach (David Blatt) he doesn’t know. There were better situations available than depending on talented but untested teammates such as Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins. But James obviously doesn’t think about basketball exclusively. Nor is he all about business. In the inevitable Michael Jordan comparisons that will dog him the rest of his career, this is one area in which James has the advantage. Where Jordan was single-minded in his pursuit of dominance in basketball and the boardroom, James has proven he has larger concerns.

“This is not about the roster or the organization,” he said. “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. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”

That’s a man of much more substance than the one who took an hour of TV time to say, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”

In a way, James has liberated himself from some of the Jordan comparisons by going back home. He may not match MJ’s championship total, but he will always be remembered for putting his hometown team above his ring count. He realizes that even one championship in Cleveland would mean so much more to Northeast Ohio residents, and therefore to him, than multiple titles in any other city.

In one day, James erased much of the antagonism toward him. Criticism will still be there the next time he passes to a teammate for a last-second look instead of taking the shot, or maybe if the Cavs lose in the second round of the playoffs next season. But those voices will be fewer, and more easily shouted down. There’s no telling how many more championships LeBron James will win, but it’s clear that he has already won a great deal more respect. 

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