Author’s Note: This story was originally written on July 15, 2014. It was reposted on this blog November 9, 2015.
Though it was quite different from the 2010 buildup, LeBron’s free agency this past month had everyone talking. It seemed like no one thought he would go to Cleveland until about a week or two before he announced. Now, you’d think it was a foregone conclusion based on everyone’s reaction. “You always knew he’d come back… It just feels right… This isn’t a huge surprise… It was going to happen at some point.” Really? Stop me if you’ve heard this countless times over the last four years, “Why would he want to leave South Beach… LeBron just wants to win… He’ll never forgive Dan Gilbert for that letter.”
Allow me to be the first to admit this: I was completely surprised. Didn’t see it coming at all. That may be in part because I didn’t want to be letdown if and when he came back for more titles in Miami. I think everyone hoped for it but secretly knew it felt like one of those too good to be true stories in sports.
But that’s exactly what this is. It’s a story that’s too good to be true. Despite my scoffing at everyone’s insincere reaction to the news, I am buying into Brian Windhorst’s assertion that LeBron has grown tremendously as a player and as a man these last four years. While that growth can be attributed to any number of factors, I think the biggest thing was adversity. I know that sounds like one of those cliché athlete motivational quotes, but there’s no doubting the LeBron rhetoric took a dramatic shift in the national media after he left Cleveland.
People point to “The Decision,” but that was just the exclamation point on the bigger picture. He interrupted, and seemingly ended, the storybook basketball career he had begun with the Cavs. He was Cleveland’s hope, their golden boy and shining star that owned the sports world. Sure the city’s had a handful of decent teams in their history, but this was a larger than life superstar—you know the type that Jay Z name drops—who grew up there and tore through the Eastern conference every year. How could they not be hurt, disappointed, bitter? He gave up on the dream. And more than that, he left to go be a part of an NBA Superteam in Miami. That is what made NBA purists like Barkley turn on him. They may have been more understanding if he wanted to be the Knicks savior and own the greatest city on earth. But at the end of the day, this wasn’t Carmelo leaving Denver. This was Cleveland’s chosen one, King James, abandoning what everyone thought was his destiny.
I imagine the adversity that came with all these perceptions hit LeBron like a ton of bricks. Before the new big three nicknames could hit the press, Dan Gilbert’s letter went viral, footage of his jersey in flames was all over ESPN, and that spectacular 10-story Nike mural was taken down. With one announcement he went from hero to villain. Fair or unfair, it was LeBron’s reality. At first he seemed to be running with it, but we all knew it was an imperfect fit. That’s Kobe’s MO, not LeBron’s. Miami may have been his new home, but there was obvious discomfort that first season and it ultimately showed against Dallas. But there was no turning back.
“Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go.” –from LeBron’s letter in Sports Illustrated (James, Jenkins)
That’s probably my favorite quote from LeBron’s letter because it combines the two incredibly different epochs in his life with such a simple analogy. It’s also a good reminder that he never went to college and the general public can’t begin to understand his situation. The transition from high school to college is crazy enough; this guy went to the NBA after he graduated.
As a recent college graduate, this comparison makes LeBron’s time in Miami relatable. Everyone has those moments freshman year when they’re like, “I have no idea what I’m doing… This can’t possibly end well… I’m in way over my head.” And then you stay up all night and somehow figure out a way to write that paper or finish that project. By the end of your sophomore year you realize you’re halfway done and you can do it. “This is gona happen. I’m going to accomplish what I came here to do.”
To finish out the analogy I guess Pat Riley was that awesome professor whose class made you fall in love with your major. Spoelstra was that magic-working guidance counselor who somehow made everything happen. D Wade was that older brother in grad school who told you everything was going to be ok. And I suppose Bosh was that friend in your major whose grades were always much worse than yours so you knew if he could graduate, you definitely could.
I feel pretty good about those comparisons because you need all of those people in college. They all play a role in you accomplishing your ultimate goal of graduating. In the end, you may not have to leave home for college, but it’s part of the process. It also changes the way you think about things. That’s what Windhorst is talking about and it’s why it makes Miami an acceptable part of LeBron’s career if he is able to bring a title to Cleveland. All the adversity you go through in college, both personally and academically, is what really makes graduating so meaningful. Now, LeBron has graduated. He’s learned how to win it all and what it takes to be a champion.
But as I mentioned earlier, people are lying if they say they predicted this would happen four years ago. If that was the case Dan Gilbert’s letter could’ve just said, “Be smart, be safe, and be easy brother, we’ll see you soon.” No, the reality is he left the city of Cleveland standing in the cold with no answers and no hope. And they let him know it. The letter, the booing, the witty “Quitness” signs were all understandable sour grapes. It had to hurt those fans and that organization to see all the money and support they invested in LeBron lead to championships for rich retirees, dressed head to toe in white linen, living in sunny South Florida.
Yet, the reality is that’s what they had to do. They had to watch him go to four straight finals. They saw him ravage the Eastern conference and win two more MVPs. They witnessed him raise that Larry O’Brien trophy two years in a row. And somewhere during those brutal 48 months, they had to find some form of forgiveness in their heart.
When the news broke this week, a good friend of mine texted me about how remarkable of a story it is, “There are a few things that you don’t see in the world. Repentance is the biggest. Forgiveness is down the totem pole, but it’s still uncommon.” It takes humility to admit when you’re wrong, especially when you’ve had a lot of success in life. LeBron did that. Dan Gilbert did that. There was a lot to forgive on both sides, but it just makes this story that much sweeter.
Sure you can be a cold skeptic and say, “Who wouldn’t take him back?” It does seem hard to picture a scenario where the city refuses to support him or front office doesn’t show interest in signing him. You might think all this talk is romanticized, over the top sensationalism. And you might not be completely wrong. But isn’t this what makes sports so special? Stories like these are what make trivial competition become larger than life realities.
The city of Cleveland has no aspirations of dominating the sports world. They don’t expect the Indians to ever be the Yankees, or the Browns to be the Patriots. I think they just want their passion and unmatched loyalty to be rewarded one day. They hold on to the bleakest hope that they’ll celebrate a championship again after waiting half a century.
So if you’ve got an NBA team I don’t expect you’ll root hard for the Cavs; you’re not a fan, no one expects you to. But you’re crazy if you’re not happy for them. If they do find a way to reach the top and win that long awaited championship, smile for Cleveland. Smile for LeBron. Smile for the story, because it seems too good to be true.
James, LeBron. Jenkins, Lee. “I’m Coming Home.” Sports Illustrated. 11 July 2014. Web.