Returning to Cleveland wasn’t about likability or serving as a symbol of civic renewal for LeBron James. It was about legacy.
How do you want to be remembered? It’s a question we’ve all wrestled with, and it’s one that guided James, who will turn 30 in December, back to where he started his NBA journey.
“The Decision, Part I,” a detestable, self-aggrandizing spectacle, tarnished LeBron’s legacy. Returning to Cleveland and winning a title will burnish it like virtually nothing else could. This hoops homecoming fades the biggest stain on James’s oeuvre, while simultaneously providing the opportunity for his career-defining triumph.
It’s good karma, good business, and a feel-good story for Bron-Bron.
No matter the magnitude of James’s talent and the intentions of his decisions he is never going to be universally loved, outside of his family and inner circle of sycophants. He is Goliath, and as Wilt Chamberlain said, nobody roots for Goliath. The Big Dipper wasn’t entirely right. Lots of people will root for Goliath and buy his sneakers and watch his commercials, but just as many will root against him and revel in his failures.
No matter his affinity for Northeast Ohio and its downcast people and his regret for publicly dumping them four years ago, James would not be returning to Cleveland if the Cavaliers had the same threadbare supporting cast they did when he decamped for Miami. Cleveland is a better basketball destination than it was four years ago with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, rugged power forward Tristan Thompson, guard Dion Waiters, and No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins.
It is a better one than Miami for the next four years, unless Dwyane Wade gets a DeLorean.
In the Cavaliers, James, son of Akron, Ohio, saw an opportunity to right a wrong and rewrite his legacy from championship carpetbagger to hometown hero who ended a Cleveland championship drought that dates back to another LBJ. Cleveland hasn’t won a major pro sports championship since 1964, when the Browns won the NFL title.
James started the rewrite process himself with his masterful essay for Sports Illustrated revealing his decision to reverse the original Decision, which, despite two NBA championships with the Miami Heat, remains the signature moment of his career.
LeBron is never going to reach the rarefied air of Michael Jordan. He won’t catch MJ’s total of six championships. He probably won’t equal the five won by Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant.
People seem to relish ridiculing the four-time MVP (see the lampoons that popped up after he cramped up in Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals) and bask in his failures. Even going to four straight Finals and winning back-to-back titles with Wade and Chris Bosh in 2012 and 2013 hasn’t changed the perception of James.
The only way for James to differentiate himself in NBA history is to bring a championship to Cleveland.
Winning one championship in Cleveland is worth three more in Miami from a legacy standpoint.
LeBron pretty much admitted this in the SI essay: “When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
So, James was willing to forgive the spiteful, caustic, juvenile, embarrassing “letter” penned by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert after James jilted the Cavs on national television four years ago this month. Every legacy has its price.
By the way, given Gilbert’s so-called regret about the letter, as he told Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, why did he wait until last week to remove his shameful missive from the team’s website? He should have deleted it during Cleveland’s NBA-record 26-game losing streak the season after LeBron left.
Here in the Hub of Hardware/the Universe we’re accused of being a bit parochial, of relating everything back to our fine city.
But the Celtics played a part in LeBron’s break-up and reconciliation with Cleveland.
It was the formation of the Celtics’ new-era Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen that convinced James he had to leave Cleveland to win.
When Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge put together his triumvirate, he also provided a road map for James to follow to South Beach.
Those Celtics eliminated James’s Cavaliers, who had advanced to the NBA Finals the season before, in seven games in 2008 on the way to the title. That summer, LeBron played with Wade and Bosh on the US Olympic basketball team, planting the seeds for Miami’s free agent takeover.
The last game James played as a Cavalier came at TD Garden on May 13, 2010, a 94-85 loss to the Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
James, who labored to a triple-double, watched as his supporting cast melted like a snowman in a tanning booth. Antawn Jamison scored 5 points, capping a series in which he averaged 11.8 points per game and shot 42 percent from the field. Mo Williams scored 20 points in the first half and 2 in the second, part of a series in which he shot 40.9 percent from the field.
James was ’Bron Baby gone, as his worst fears about Cleveland’s roster were hammered home in the Hub.
But the Celtics cleared the way for LeBron’s return to Cleveland.
Boston was part of a three-team deal with Cleveland and the Brooklyn Nets that allowed the Cavs to shed Jarrett Jack’s contract, creating the cap space to give James a max contract.
Here is hoping that Gilbert at least sends a fruit basket to Boston for helping his franchise become Ohio players again.
LeBron is coming home.
His old stomping grounds are his new legacy place.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.