Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Four years later

Four years later, I’m back where I was.

Just like that July day in 2010 when I sat down to pen my thoughts on LeBron James leaving for Miami, I don’t have any way to sum up LeBron’s return in a nice, neat package. It covers so much ground, means so much on so many levels, it’s difficult to find a broach point for it all.

But if there is a point of entry, it’s probably one word long: Change.

A lot has changed these past four years. In 2010, I was a single apartment-dweller who counted sports blogging as his primary hobby. In 2014, I’m married, a homeowner, and have pushed sports blogging far into the background to concentrate on other endeavors – namely running and artwork. (Oh yeah -- I co-authored a book, too).

In 2010, LeBron was still a work in progress. He accepted the burden of his talent – carry the team, carry the city, carry the region, and take the game-deciding shots – but deep down, I think he resented it. He longed to belong, like he did in his happiest of basketball times, when he was winning state championships at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, with teammates who would become lifelong friends and business associates.

He resented the pedestal he had to occupy, with thousands of eyes looking at him as the ultimate antidote who could neutralize every flaw on the Cavs roster, and above all, the emotional baggage of an entire region, wrought by half a century of sports heartbreak.

In the 2010 playoffs, LeBron decided he’d had enough. Maybe he didn’t overtly quit, but he played like a man defeated. Like a player who was tired of lugging everything around on his shoulders. He wasn’t this region’s savior – he was its Atlas. And he didn’t want that anymore.

So he left for Miami. Dwyane Wade was still in his prime, as was Chris Bosh. LeBron was no longer a chosen one; he was a member of a chosen three. It took a year of discord to iron out the wrinkles. The 2011 Finals, and the subsequent summer, was LeBron’s nadir. But it helped forge him into a champion.

LeBron has done a lot of growing these past four years. He reached the NBA’s summit twice, among four straight trips to the NBA Finals. He learned what it truly takes to be a champion, what it truly means to be a champion. And perhaps in the process, he learned that title banners don’t make the man. They don’t even make the player.

The 2010 version of LeBron seemed to be obsessed with accumulating championship rings. His holy grail was to meet or surpass the six rings won by personal idol Michael Jordan. Six, for him, was a magic number. Get to six and cement your image on basketball’s all-time Mount Rushmore. That was the end that justified all means.

The 2014 LeBron still wants to win as many rings as his career will allow, but it appears that he no longer views six as his pass/fail line. You can win two titles, or three, or four, and still have one of the greatest careers of all time, and – even more importantly – have a career that fulfills you personally.

Which brings us to LeBron’s essay, co-authored by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. It materialized on SI.com at about 12:15 p.m. Eastern Time on July 11. Four years and three days after “The Decision” wounded this region unlike any event had wounded it since the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995.

I had just finished setting up my booth at the Cain Park Arts Festival in Cleveland Heights when my phone started going berserk with text messages. After two solid weeks of false leads and red herrings and Internet trolls and rumors about clandestine private flights to Miami, I was initially hesitant to believe the news. Surely it was a fake site or a fake Twitter account “breaking” this story which hadn’t broken despite the vigilance of thousands of fans for days on end.

But there it was, legitimately, on SI.com. The 2012 SI "Sportsman of the Year" cover photo of LeBron smiling, wearing a black suit with his first Heat championship ring prominently displayed on a finger. Laid over the picture, a three-word headline: “I’m coming home.”

The headline linked to the 12-paragraph essay. I read it over several times, just processing it.

It was hard to not feel some tears welling. It’s everything we ever wanted LeBron to say – to feel – about our embattled, often-ridiculed region. Everything we thought he didn’t feel in 2010, he actually did feel, and quite profoundly.

He was coming home, and not necessarily because he felt the Cavs offered him the best chance to win more titles in the short term. He was coming home because he wants to serve as a leader and a source of inspiration for Northeast Ohio. Because our region “needs all the talent it can get.” Because he wants the children of the region – our future doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs and artists – to follow his example and build their careers here.

Because nothing would satisfy him more as a basketball player than to win one ring for us -- to be the curse slayer.

He left not because he was a cold-hearted mercenary, but because he knew he could never learn what he needed to learn by staying put. He had to go to an organization that had been to the top. He had to get scorched by the spotlight. He had to become the villain. Everything that he never had to face in Cleveland, he knew he was going to have to face – and overcome – in Miami.

Over four years, he was broken down and rebuilt into a player who returns home as a mature leader and mentor – someone who not only knows his role and the burdens that come with it, but has grown to embrace it and is eager to pass on what he has learned to younger players like Kyrie Irving.

Four years later, LeBron has reached a point where he really, truly and completely understands what he means to this area. We want to win a championship, of course. But his relationship with this region means so much more than just basketball. And that’s what we were in danger of permanently losing in 2010.

The pain caused by his departure, and how it was carried out on national TV, caused him to become a local pariah. LeBron was all but erased from the concourses at Quicken Loans Arena. You seldom found any evidence in the community that LeBron once played for the hometown team.

Sure, LeBron came home to Akron every summer. And yes, he gave -- and still gives -- much in the way of time and money to community causes in the area. But we didn't view him as someone who was really on our side. Not when he left every fall, pulled that Heat uniform back on and administered several annual beatdowns on the young Cavs.

If that was the final chapter in LeBron’s relationship with Northeast Ohio, it would have been downright tragic. The greatest basketball player this region has ever produced, and the greatest player in Cavs history, a virtual nonentity, persona non grata. Reviled, not revered, in the area where his legacy matters the most.

The only way to real repair was for LeBron to come back to the Cavs while he could still play at a high level. A diminished 38-year-old LeBron returning during the sunset of his career wouldn’t have done much to repair the relationship. For the public to buy in, LeBron had to come back while he was still in his prime, still at or near the top of his game.

That’s exactly what happened. LeBron, at the age of 29, is back, and it would appear he intends to finish his career here.

It’s a new beginning with the best possible goal: A happy ending.

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