On this day four years ago, I wrote a post in the aftermath of The Decision. I recalled how bizarre the whole experience was, and how unfun it was to see your team and your city excoriated on national TV. I wrote that I liked Dan Gilbert’s letter, even if it was a little childish, because the people of Cleveland needed someone speaking for them that night. I made the point that it wasn’t that he left, because I couldn’t really blame him for that, but the fact that he did it on national TV that made it such a ruthless betrayal.
During that first season with Miami, LeBron seemed to embrace his villain role, and I was happy to root against him along with what seemed like the rest of the country. But despite that, and sometimes in spite of themselves, the Heat made it all the way to the Finals. It seemed like LeBron was well on his way to his first championship (of not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…) when the Heat took a 15-point 4th quarter lead in Game 2. But the Mavericks stormed back, won Game 2 and then 3 of the next 4 to steal the championship from Miami. LeBron hadn’t played up to his usual standards in the series, and he had been humiliated on national TV.
I like to think the first seeds of a comeback were sewn that summer, when in late August the Indians managed to bring Jim Thome back to Cleveland from the struggling Minnesota Twins. Thome wasn’t nearly the high profile free agent that LeBron was when he left, but he was certainly part of the disappointingly long legacy of Cleveland players leaving as free agents for greener pastures. I was there when Thome came back in 2006 with the White Sox for the first time, and he was booed pretty heavily. But over time those boos died down until, at the very least, it was a 50-50 mix between boos and cheers. And in 2011, when Thome finally returned, despite the fact that he was well past his prime, he was welcomed back and all was forgiven (they’re unveiling a statue of him next month). I like to think LeBron saw this reception, even if there isn’t any evidence to support it.
And then in 2012, the Indians acquired their biggest free agent this century, if not ever: they hired Terry Francona. The Indians’ manager doesn’t play a position, but for the first time since, well, The Decision, Cleveland sports gained some credibility. With Francona helping, the Indians managed to sign Nick Swisher (who is also an Ohioan), Michael Bourn, Scott Kazmir and others, and Francona’s first season was by all accounts a success.
But it was around that time, in 2012, when newly-ringed LeBron started talking publicly about a return to Cleveland at some point. By then I had gotten over my personal anger, and LeBron had shed his villain persona. I was back to rooting for him, having forgiven The Decision as a good guy being misled by some slimy agents and PR people. I always sort of figured he’d at least try to come back at some point. Even when he was playing for Miami, he seemed connected to Cleveland, always calling himself a kid from Akron. But I thought he’d be back when he was past his prime, maybe when he was 36 or 37 with a minutes limitation and bad knees. That would have made a good story, but probably wouldn’t have brought much more than some closure and some early round playoff exits. So even though I thought he’d be back eventually, I sort of looked forward to it in a general detached sports fan sort of way, sort of like how I’m viewing Derek Jeter’s farewell tour this year.
Two years later, and it was July 1, 2014, and LeBron was a free agent again. Everyone sort of expected him to opt out, either to send a message to the Miami front office or to give the front office more flexibility to refresh the roster. Maybe it’s just the recency, but this free agency period felt a lot crazier than the last one, maybe because LeBron kept his poker face until the last possible second. We read into everything, from meetings his agent set up to color codes on his website to accounts he followed on Twitter. I really didn’t think he’d go to a new team, but the more the thing dragged on the more it seemed like something was different.
After 10 full days of frenzied coverage, LeBron announced his decision in the most un-Decision way possible: with a classy, introspective, and heartfelt letter that talked very little about his basketball talents, and much more about his love for northeast Ohio. In that way, it probably didn’t make a lot of sense to anyone except people who live in or grew up in Ohio. (As someone who also left Ohio for warmer climates, I can verify that it’s a great place to live and to grow up. It’s also a place that’s really easy to take for granted.) By the last line, you knew what his decision was, but he said it again, emphatically: “I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
The Heat were really good sports about the whole thing, overall. I loved Pat Riley’s statement where he said he was disappointed, but couldn’t begrudge a man for going home, as well as this tweet from the Miami Heat:
Things won’t be quite the same as last time. On the down side, we’ve probably already seen LeBron at his best, at least in terms of a physical beast who can dominate both ends of the court. He’ll still be the best or among the best players in the NBA for years to come, but unlike his first stint, we won’t be wondering about his on-the-court ceiling; I think we’ve already seen it. But it’s off the court where things get so much more exciting. The LeBron that returns is more mature, knows his place on the team and knows his place as a leader in the community, as more than “just a famous basketball player”:
But this is not about the roster or the organization. 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. 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. 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.
It’s exciting to see someone with such a high profile bet so much on Cleveland. LeBron is still at the height of his powers, and could have literally been the best player on any team he chose to play for and been the king of whatever city that team was in. But rather than the glitz and glamour of Miami or the legacy of the Lakers or Knicks, he chose home. Don’t get me wrong: Cleveland’s roster is an intriguing one for LeBron and should be at the very least fun to watch when he actually takes the court, and there were certainly worse places LeBron could have chosen. But if he was looking for the easiest path to more rings, Cleveland wasn’t it. But LeBron chose the Cavs anyway, and even the deepest cynics have to admire that, at least a little bit.
What does this mean for us, as Clevelanders and Ohioans? It occurred to me yesterday that when LeBron played for the Cavs last time, we sort of took him for granted at times. Sure, he was a great player, but we always haphazardly compared him to other great players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, acknowledging LeBron’s greatness but wishing we had one of those guys with both greatness and championship pedigree. During the last four years, LeBron’s absence from the Cavs almost spoke louder than his dominance of the rest of the league: without him these last four years, the Cavs had the worst record in the NBA and didn’t make a playoff appearance. No, LeBron didn’t manage to win a championship those first seven seasons, but when the team around him was a high lottery team, it’s not hard to see LeBron wasn’t really the issue.
During LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland I think I saw him play only twice. I sort of held a grudge against die-hard Cavs fans because I’m a die-hard Indians fan, the Indians had suffered for far longer and it seemed like the Cavs were much closer to a championship. I’m much more of an Indians fan than a Cavs fan, but in the spirit of not taking him for granted, maybe this time I won’t be as picky about who wins a championship first. And even if LeBron doesn’t deliver a championship (which I hope he will), maybe we can all remember how much more fun it is to be a Cleveland fan with him than without him.
Four years ago, I titled my post “The night is darkest just before the dawn”, and I’m pretty happy about that title today because it now seems prescient. In that darkest part of the night, I never imagined that the dawn was only four years away, and yet maybe that’s where we are today. It wrapped up a great week for Cleveland, and don’t look now, but the Indians and Browns don’t look half bad right now either (my half-season review of the Indians is coming next week). LeBron (sort of) said it first, but I’ll say it again: it’s an exciting time to be a Clevelander.