In an SI exclusive, Lee Jenkins takes a closer look at LeBron James's return to Cleveland.
This story appears in the July 21, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Fifty-eight stories above the Las Vegas Strip, LeBron James sat on a beige sofa in his suite at the Wynn hotel, summer haze obscuring the floor-to-ceiling view of the Spring Mountains in the distance. Between bites of scrambled eggs and sips of carrot juice, James unspooled what sounded like a modern fairy tale. A boy grows up in a hard-bitten Rust Belt town, shuttling from one apartment to another with his single mother; he meets teachers, coaches and friends who help him become the most prominent basketball prodigy of all time; he is drafted by the pro team that plays 45 minutes away, elevates it to heights unseen and then abruptly bolts for a tropical paradise in a manner that devastates his supporters and wracks his soul. Four years pass, and he finds in paradise exactly what he sought, validation in the form of two championships, but home still pulls at his heart. He starts to recognize that, despite all his success, he means more where he was than where he is.
So he leaves the celebrated executive who lured him with his rings, the innovative coach who highlighted him with his system and the bedazzled supporting cast that reached four straight Finals and was a safe bet for a fifth. He trades all that, plus the mansion in Coconut Grove and the 70º January nights, for a rookie general manager, a coach who has been in the NBA for less than a month and a roster that has just one player of significance older than 23. He doesn’t take recruiting trips. He doesn’t personally listen to pitches. The only negotiation unfolds within. He makes the sentimental choice, not the pragmatic one, and that doesn’t happen much in pro sports these days. He risks championships, the ultimate currency for the megastar athlete, but he returns to the Rust Belt secure in the realization that a trophy resonates deeper at home.
“I don’t know if it’s a fairy tale,” James says. “But I hope it ends the way most of them end.” Dressed in a black stocking cap, blue tank and shorts, he looks so different from the way he did at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010, when his gingham dress shirt might as well have been a straitjacket. “Way more at ease,” he says. Fifty-eight stories down, a media armada tracks flight patterns, moving vans and entrée choices at LAVO. Is he 60% to Cleveland and 40% to Miami? Or the other way around? Did he meet with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert or not? Did he confide in Heat guard Dwyane Wade over dinner or not? Caroline’s Cupcakes, apparently an emerging news source in Canton, Ohio, reports he is headed to the Cavs. NBA free agency grinds to a standstill, an entire league waiting on its King, as if anticipating a plume of white smoke from the Wynn.
James is 29 now, a husband and a father, with two boys, and a girl on the way. He is at that age when a man -- whether doctor or plumber or best basketball player in the world -- decides to keep drifting or drop anchor. He insists he had no plan when he walked off the court in San Antonio, shell-shocked after the Game 5 loss to the Spurs, but over these past four years he left a heavy trail of bread crumbs leading back to Northeast Ohio. There were the tweets about how much he missed Cleveland fans and how Cavaliers broadcasters made games more fun. There were the wistful sound bites (“You talk about chemistry, we had chemistry”) and the regretful ones: “I could only imagine how the parade would have been down East 9th Street. It’s just unfortunate I wasn’t able to do it there.”
He never stopped calling Ohio “home,” never moved his corporate headquarters out of the Akron suburbs and never replaced the city’s skyline on his website. Two days after he won the 2013 title, he talked about seeing James Blair at a club the night before. Blair was the 21-year-old who charged up to him on the court in Cleveland during a game in March ’13, wearing a shirt that read "We miss you" and "2014 come back." Instead of recoiling, James patted him on the head and followed him on Twitter. “That’s my guy,” he said. He couldn’t cut the cord.
When Miami played at Minnesota last December, the Heat watched the end of the Big Ten championship football game in their locker room, and James rooted hard for his beloved Buckeyes. He shook his head in mock anger when asked why most of his teammates cheered for Michigan State instead. He sported a Johnny Manziel Browns jersey after the NFL draft, followed the Cavaliers from afar and occasionally called players to check in. “The King returns?” Cavs forward Tristan Thompson asked, 2½ years ago. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Of course, James was hurt by Gilbert’s Comic Sans screed and by the fans’ barbecued jerseys, but he also recognized the blurry line separating love and hate. James and Cleveland were the couple that couldn’t be together yet couldn’t stay apart. On July 6, James met with Gilbert in Miami, James apologizing for the Decision and Gilbert for the Letter. Last Friday, shortly after James told Heat president Pat Riley of his choice, SI.com posted his first-person account. It closed with the lines: “I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.” The words were a verbal fist bump to the area that molded him and defined him.
The Cavs were in the middle of a shootaround at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas for summer league. Players heard a single shriek emanate from the stands. Multiply that joyous cry by a few hundred thousand and you’d approximate what it sounded like in Northeast Ohio.
Twenty-three-year-old Melanie Muñoz was driving on Interstate 90 from Toledo and wept as she read her phone. “I know it was unsafe,” Muñoz says. “I don’t care.” Fifty-year-old Vicky Lewis was working at a McDonald’s in East Cleveland and interrupted the lunch crowd with an announcement: “He’s back! The King is back!” Thirty-eight-year-old Chad Zumock called an ex-girlfriend from Cleveland he broke up with around the time James left. “We talked for 45 minutes,” he says. “It was really nice.” Thousands of cars crept along the street outside James’s house in Bath, turning it into a Midwestern Sunset Strip. “They mainly just took pictures,” says Dave Ellinger, an off-duty detective working security at the home. “They want to remember this.” The Cavaliers needed so many extra phone lines for ticket sales that they instructed staffers to use their cells. Season tickets were gone in 10 hours.
It turns out not every James jersey in Cleveland was charred, not even close. “I had mine the whole time,” says Mike Potraffke, general manager of the Harry Buffalo bar and restaurant in Lakewood. “It was in the back of my closet under the rubble.” The parking lot of the Harry Buffalo became a landmark four years ago, site of the bonfire that filled national newscasts. Jason Herron, a Cavaliers season-ticket holder, brought the lighter fluid. “A lot of people made bad decisions that night,” Herron says. On Friday evening Herron and his friends gathered in the same lot and theatrically pulled Potraffke’s wine-and-gold number 23 out of ashes.
Blair remains barred from Quicken Loans Arena -- he is eligible to appeal the ban in March -- but no one could keep him from the immediate vicinity on Friday night. Mobs wandered aimlessly around the building, as if they expected James to pull up in a chariot, even though he was en route from Miami to the World Cup final in Brazil. One man sped a motorcycle down East 9th, wearing nothing but wine-and-gold boxers, yelling, “He’s back, baby! He’s back!” A vendor known as T-Shirt Joey chirped, “Get your new gear if you burned your old ones.” Besides the cottage industry of tees and signs, Baker Boulevard in Akron cooked up LeBron-themed cupcakes, including the new home court chocolate chunk.
The Gateway Bar & Grill in downtown Cleveland served $2 LeBron Shots: Patron, along with packets of sugar, to be tossed into the air like James’s pregame chalk. The Clevelander jukebox played Diddy’s “Coming Home,” Kanye West’s “Homecoming,” Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight,” Jay Z’s “Already Home” and Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.” Televisions were tuned to the Indians–White Sox game, but when Nick Swisher hit a two-run homer for the Tribe, the ensuing chant was L-B-J! Into Saturday morning the boozy throng on the bar’s patio swayed to “Welcome Back” by Mase and “My Way Home” by West and Common, under a 50-by-50-foot LED billboard of James in a Cavs uniform. The display, hovering over The 9 hotel-and-apartment complex across the street, was raised less than an hour after James’s announcement. “We’re all reacting like we won a championship,” Herron says, “but no one here knows how to react to a championship.”
Cleveland has not captured a title in a major sport since the Browns in 1964. The city has been plagued by economic turmoil. The population fell to its lowest point since 1900. Professionals of all vocations took their talents elsewhere. James made clear his homecoming is inspired by the region as much as the franchise. He is one native, perhaps the most gifted of all, reinvesting in the old neighborhood.
On Saturday morning the Think Tank room at the LeBron James Family Foundation was jammed with children and their families. “What he did means everything,” says 11-year-old Aden Vargo. “It means you can succeed here.” Vargo is one of nearly 800 kids in James’s Wheels for Education initiative, which identifies third-graders in the Akron public school system needing extra academic support and places them in a program designed to run through high school. James remained connected with the kids when he was in Miami, through web posts and voice mails, but now the bond feels stronger. “He’s like the father coming home,” says Jean Hinkson, grandmother to 11-year-old Jamil Wright. “If a father loves his family, this is what a father does.”
The first class of Wheels for Ed kids is entering middle school, and they will be required to perform community service. They are starting projects this summer, including the renovation of a century-old three-bedroom house in Highland Square with rotting wood and sinking floors. The home has been occupied by one of their own, 11-year-old Mariah Riley, who lives with her mom and two autistic brothers. James will join the construction effort in August, along with an HGTV crew. “I feel like my head is about to explode,” says Mariah, standing on her front porch, still digesting the double whammy of a rehabbed house and a returned hero.
Wheels for Ed families wonder if James tipped them off to his plans with a recent web post about his passion for his hometown. But the most obvious clue is painted inside the St. Vincent–St. Mary High gym, which James overhauled last summer. In his alma mater’s new training room, across from the tables where ankles are taped and knees iced, one sentence is painted on the wall: "I promise to never forget where I came from." Patty Burdon, who used to work in the admissions office until James was a junior and St. V created a p.r. position, stops and reconsiders the words. “Yes,” she says. “I think you can underline that.”
Twenty-four hours later Reverend Todd Davidson delivered a spitfiring sermon at Antioch Baptist Church in the Fairfax neighborhood of Cleveland. “People think the war for salvation begins on the outside,” Davidson intoned, “but the truth is it comes from the inside.” As the congregation rose and applauded, a teenage boy in the balcony shouted, “Amen! LeBron knows that!”
James spent the first seven years of his career in Cleveland, twice winning more than 60 games, once reaching the Finals. He made Quicken Loans Arena, and the surrounding downtown area, a destination. The season after he left, the Cavaliers had just 19 victories and in one fallow stretch lost a league-record 26 straight games. The Q and some nearby taverns felt like abandoned buildings. The Cavs gradually improved, and by winning the draft lottery three times in four years, their fortunes seemed to turn. But not even point guard Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in 2011, could guide them to the playoffs. Cleveland fired coaches Byron Scott and Mike Brown (for the second time).
“Good things come to those who wait,” says David Blatt, who in June was coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv and is now coaching an international phenomenon. The only person more charmed than Blatt is David Griffin, who was hired as the Cavs’ GM two months ago. First he lucked into the top pick, despite having a 1.7% chance, and tabbed Kansas dynamo Andrew Wiggins. That was just the opening act.
Cleveland’s youth is appealing to James -- in Miami he leaned on Wade and Chris Bosh, both in their 30s -- but it will also be challenging. He will have to carry the Cavaliers and mentor them at the same time. The maturation of Irving, Thompson and Wiggins, along with guard Dion Waiters and last year’s No. 1 selection, forward Anthony Bennett, will determine how quickly the Cavs contend. “He can teach us what it takes to get to a championship level,” Wiggins says. The 2008 Celtics proved it is possible to win the title a year after missing the playoffs, but they imported two decorated veterans in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, while James is still just one man. An Eastern Conference scout, when asked how far he expects the Cavs to advance next season, says, “Second round. LeBron can only do so much. Those young guys haven’t experienced the playoffs yet.”
Chicago becomes an insta-favorite in the Eastern Conference, after landing Lakers center Pau Gasol and the 2013 Spanish league MVP, 6' 10" forward Nikola Mirotic, to partner with Joakim Noah on the front line. But the hierarchy could change quickly if Cleveland is able to extricate power forward Kevin Love from the Timberwolves. Love has made clear he wants out, and while the Cavaliers may not have been on his preferred list before, everything is different now. Several suitors are pursuing Love, but none holds a chip as enticing as Wiggins, whose raw ability has drawn comparisons with James. League sources believe a Wiggins-Love trade is feasible, though Blatt insists the prized rookie is staying put. Even if the swap doesn’t materialize, Cleveland should at least be able to lure veteran shooters who can space the floor for James. “We know we have a long way to go,” Gilbert told NBA TV. “[But] there’s real hope.”
Gilbert, once considered the roadblock to a return, wound up clearing the path. His flight to Miami and personal apology to James made redemption possible for both. James signed only a two-year contract, worth $42 million, but that’s mainly because max salaries stand to rise after the NBA finalizes a new television deal. The current agreement is set to expire in 2016. James intends to finish his career in Cleveland, where his focus shifts from a collection of rings to one that would be transcendent.
The quest begins in three months. The chalk is in the air.
Emily Kaplan contributed reporting to this story. Subscribe to the magazine here.