LAS VEGAS -- There it is. Four years after The Decision, after his jersey was burned on national TV, after his owner called him a coward, after the city, the state, the region declared him a public enemy, LeBron James is headed back to where it all started, to Cleveland, to be the savior of the franchise he left in ruins when he moved to Miami.
If you think that sounds crazy, understand that you are not alone. Despite all the rumblings of a return, despite persistent chatter that James felt the tug of his hometown, few in the NBA believed this was possible. There was too much history. No way could James play again for Dan Gilbert, the man who shredded him in a hastily written open letter, who mocked James on Twitter after the Heat fell short of a title in 2011. No way James could return to the scene of one of the NBA’s most public crimes, to the team that was reduced to a pile of Alonzo Gee-like rubble in the four years that he's has been gone.
But he did, and what are we to make of that? We now know the bond between LeBron and Cleveland -- or nearby Akron, more specifically -- is stronger than anyone truly believed. “I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” James told SI.com’s Lee Jenkins. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. 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.”
That’s not lip service; people close to James are emphatic that he truly means it.
We know that he has buried the hatchet with Gilbert, the man many believed torched any possibility of a future relationship. Yahoo! Sports reported that James and Gilbert met for four hours earlier this month, ironing out their differences. For all of the personal animosity between James and Gilbert, LeBron understands this: Gilbert wants to win. There were some missteps during LeBron’s first run in Cleveland (just put J.J. Hickson into the deal for Amar’e Stoudemire, damnit!) but Gilbert never shied away from spending money, never feared exploding the payroll. Head coach David Blatt and G.M. David Griffin may be something of unknowns, but in Gilbert, good and bad, James knows what he is going to get.
He knows what he is getting with the team, too. The Cavaliers are talented. They have a franchise point guard in Kyrie Irving -- the caliber of player James never played with during his first run there -- who they recently locked up with a long-term, max contract. They have solid pieces in Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and, most notably, No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins to build around. Barring a deal for Kevin Love -- and Minnesota prefers to wait and see what the post-LeBron landscape looks like before seriously considering a Love deal, a rival executive says -- this team will experience growing pains. A lot of them. James gets that.
“We’re not ready right now,” James told Jenkins. “No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.”
But this is also a team with potential. Great potential. Ten months ago Wiggins went to Kansas with lofty expectations. He was occasionally inconsistent and often overshadowed by fast rising teammate Joel Embiid, but Wiggins still is a dynamic two-guard prospect. The Cavaliers roster is loaded with lottery talents that will be enhanced by James’ superior talents. It may not be next season, as LeBron points out, but with the addition of the kind of veteran role player or two, the kind that seem to be drawn to James like magnets, it may not be much longer before Cleveland is a true conference contender
Fans in Miami have the right to be disappointed, but not insulted. As bungled as the first Decision was, this one was handled flawlessly. Sure, there was some misinformation out there (The letter is holding this up!) and someday soon the world would like to hear what Dwyane Wade and James spent the last few days in Las Vegas talking about. But LeBron never made any public statements. Members of his team didn’t, either. Gossip will always fill an information vacuum. You can’t blame James for that. He made a decision that was both practical and deeply personal, one he was fully entitled to make.
James leaves Miami in a tough position, but with a lasting legacy. The union of James, Wade and Bosh was an unqualified success, one that yielded four straight trips to the Finals and two championships. James didn’t deliver the five, six or seven championships he promised on that smoke filled stage in 2010, but he did enough to validate his decision. Now he moves on, moves home, with hope that he can bring Cleveland that same success.