And you thought Tolkien’s Return of the King was good.
There’s no elves or wizards and this isn’t Middle Earth, but it kind of feels like a fantasy. The most recognizable and powerful athlete in the country willfully chose to leave the tropical enticement of Miami for….Cleveland.
Yes, Cleveland. That city that’s too often been the butt of so many jokes. That city you thought only produced Drew Carey. That city that’s been victim to The Drive, The Shot, and The Decision. On the surface, who would ever choose to spend the rest of their career in Cleveland?
That’s where LeBron James is different. It’s not about the surface.
For James, Northeast Ohio is home. I won’t even try to phrase what James thinks of the area because he already eloquently did it himself with his NBA shape-shifting essay in Sports Illustrated. Deep down within, no matter what glamor he might have experienced in Miami, James knew Ohio was in his heart.
So now he’s back, with a cavalier decision to be a Cavalier again. As for what we’re supposed to make of it, I’ve got a few ideas.
First, any talk accusing James of taking the easy way out in his career to just gain titles can now be silenced. There was nothing wrong with his choice to go to Miami and form a team that would go on to appear in four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them back-to-back. With the amount of pressure on his gargantuan shoulders to even just get one ring, James made the smartest basketball decision he could make by joining the Heat.
His move to Cleveland certainly presents a more challenging scenario than his move to Miami did. There’s a lot of potential and promise with him, Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Wiggins on the roster (maybe even Kevin Love if they can deal for him). But there’s still a good deal of uncertainty. David Blatt, who seems to be well revered in the basketball world for his international work, has never coached an NBA game. It may take some time for him to establish a system and get his players to buy into it to contend for a title.
James will also be expected to mold Irving and Wiggins to try and get them as close as they can be to their maximum potential. That will take time, patience, and willingness to work from the two young guys. If the trio can gel quickly, and get the right role players to contribute, Cleveland certainly has as good as a shot as anybody to conquer a lackluster Eastern Conference.
Secondly, James has fully grown up since he was last a Cavalier. We’ve all been Witnesses to his maturation as a player and man. You can credit his four-year stint with Miami for that, starting with the loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. In that season, The King tried to be more of a Tyrant. He took on a more villainous approach and persona, unrelentingly chasing that elusive ring he so desperately coveted. But it didn’t end as planned, and everyone took their turns laughing at The Big Three for not winning the title in their first year together.
Those laughs didn’t last long. The next two years saw James go back to enjoying basketball again. He shined in a position less system under Erik Spoelstra, fully putting his combination of a brilliant basketball brain and beastly physical stature on display en route to two championships and Finals MVP’s. The three-peat couldn’t happen, as the Spurs picked apart the Heat in the most impressive Finals performance in recent memory. But James did all he could in those Finals (ignoring cramp jokes) and really didn’t get much help.
This brings us to who he is now, and what my final point is. When I read his Sports Illustrated essay, I came away with a notion: you will never, ever, see an athlete give so much insight into how they came to make a choice. He left no questions unanswered and simply just wanted to return to the place he’s always belonged. The revelation confirmed something to me that I’ve come to learn over his career.
When I have a child, I’ll probably tell them Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time. By then, LeBron’s resume will be even better than it is now, and the child may ask me about him in comparison to His Airness, like many who currently compare the two. And I’ll respond simply by saying on the court, MJ holds the advantage.
But off of it? It’s no contest. LeBron James has shown more honesty, maturation, and overall likability than Michael Jordan did in his entire bloodthirsty basketball career. He threw a grudge to the side by meeting and coming to terms with Dan Gilbert, who ripped James with that awful letter a few years back. Michael Jordan couldn’t even get over being cut in high school or lashing out at doubters in his Hall of Fame speech. James has a basketball perspective and knowledge of those around him that I don’t think is matched by anyone in NBA history, Jordan included. To me, that’s as impressive and noteworthy as anything he’s ever done on the court.
So rejoice, Cleveland. The King has returned to his rightful throne to try and deliver your first professional sports title since 1964. Take pride in knowing the Prodigal Son wants to be the one who ended the drought.
And outside of Cleveland, all around the country, take pride in knowing that no matter where you go, what you do, or how much you accomplish, one thing will always be a part of you.