Bron-Bron is all grown up. And it shows.
Four years ago, LeBron James orchestrated one of the most selfish television events of this century, arrogantly telling the world he was taking his talents to South Beach and incurring the wrath of a nation. A No. 23 James jersey was burned on Cleveland Street, and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert characterized LeBron’s “Decision” as a “cowardly betrayal.’’ LeBron Hate ruled the day.
Today LeBron is loved throughout the land, especially in Cleveland. He is taking his talents to Lake Erie. He is the Prodigal Son, returning home to protect the rim.
This time, LeBron did it with class. He released a thoughtful, eloquent letter on Sports Illustrated.com, announcing his move back to the Cavaliers, writing, “I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there . . . This is what makes me happy . . . What’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.’’
I have no idea how much help LeBron might have had with this missive. It doesn’t matter. Many of John F. Kennedy’s speeches were scripted by Ted Sorensen. The thoughts are what matter and LeBron’s message is one that even Miami fans should understand and allow:
Ich Bin Ein Clevelander.
How do you rip a guy who wants to go home? Going home is a primary instinct. LeBron has always been part Michael Jordan, part Wilt Chamberlain. Now he is part Thornton Wilder, part Garrison Keillor. He is Dorothy in ruby red Nikes. There’s no place like Cleveland.
Making this story even better, LeBron is going home to godforsaken Cleveland. Who does that? Think Art Modell would go back to Cleveland? Bill Belichick? Manny Ramirez?
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. Everybody says they’ll never go back to Cleveland.
There is nothing like this in the annals of American sports. At 29, James is already one of the top 10 players in the history of basketball, possibly a top-fiver, and he has a chance to be the best ever. He is the most famous athlete in the land and he has opted out of Miami Beach for the concrete and despair of Cleveland. After abandoning his friends and neighbors, he is coming home in an effort to give the fans of Cleveland something they have not experienced in a full half century: a championship.
There have been no championship Duck Boats on the Cuyahoga River since Lyndon Johnson was president. The last time Cleveland won a championship in any major sport was when Jim Brown toted the rock for the Cleveland Browns in 1964.
The Browns were beaten by John Elway’s Drive in 1987 and Earnest Byner’s fumble in ‘88. Like LeBron, the franchise left Cleveland, inspiring heartbreak and hatred. The Browns, owned by Modell, bolted after the 1995 season, then came back as an expansion team in 1999. The Cleveland Indians last won a World Series in 1948. They couldn’t win the Series in ‘54 when they went 111-43 during the regular season. The Tribe blew it again in the 1997 World Series when Jose Mesa couldn’t close it out against the Florida Marlins. The Cavs have never won anything and totally imploded after the Celtics shocked them in the 2010 playoffs — LeBron’s first, last stand.
LeBron’s move will have ripple effects throughout the NBA. Other stars will follow. There will be blockbuster trades and free agent signings. This might even affect the Celtics and Danny Ainge’s pursuit of Minnesota star forward Kevin Love.
But it’s not about NBA rosters or championship odds at this moment. It’s about a once-in-a-generation talent who began his professional career with his hometown team and jilted that team in the worst manner possible, only to return four years later with an announcement that was contrite, heartfelt, and humble. He has brought hope to the hopeless.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,’’ LeBron wrote. “It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. The passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.’’
These are cynical times, but I am buying LeBron’s message. It was hard to root for him when he played for the Miami Heat, but it’s easy to root for him now. He is already infinitely wealthy and famous. He’s won a couple of championships. He could have gone anywhere, but he has chosen to go home to Cleveland.
How are you going to hate him now?
More LeBron James coverage:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.