LAS VEGAS – Root for the story. It’s an ethos of this sports media business that gets neglected too often in these modern times, what with the fan blogs and team-specific Web sites. But it’s a line straight and true to covering this stuff professionally, avoiding any partisan tilt and occasionally having something special about which to cover, report and write.
LeBron James choosing to leave Miami and return to the team for which he previously played is the better story because…
And loyalty and identity and a few other things that lift this beyond basketball.
Who chooses Cleveland? More specifically, who among the sports and entertainment world’s biggest names and brightest stars chooses Cleveland? The shore of Lake Erie in northeast Ohio is the place you take your talents from, whether you take them to South Beach or not.
Miami will always have the 2012 and 2013 titles and four Finals in four years. As Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry that it’s over, smile that it happened.” But Cleveland is home for James (well, Akron but close enough). And home was where James’ heart was when he announced his decision Friday in a letter on SI.com to return to the Cavaliers next season in search of NBA glory, yes, but something even greater.
Immediately when the news hit Friday, an increasingly anxious but committed sports fan base in Cleveland erupted in joy, excitement and redemption – counterweights, all, to the angst, sadness and anger left in James’ wake when he exited four years ago.
And because he was one of them, James had context to get over Cavs owner Dan Gilbert‘s heated, foolish, mocking public letter in the aftermath of “The Decision” in 2010. He so identified with the people whose hopes and dreams were invested, probably too heavily, in him and the Cavaliers that he could look past the flaming jerseys, the snarky placards and the boos that descended on him each time he played at The Q.
James even told those people that in his expressive, heartfelt letter on the Sports Illustrated Web site, a far classier way this time to make his free-agent decision known to the world:
It was easy to say, “OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.” But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?
So much for those clinging to hope, in the media or out, inside the Heat organization or out, that hard feelings from Gilbert’s silly Comic Sans rant would trump the big-picture values James wrote of (with the assistance of SI’s Lee Jenkins). Petty in the first place, that sort of outlook on life or even just business seems childish next to the things that helped make up James’ mind. Of the folks back home:
I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.
James knows all about the love those Cavaliers fans – and those of the MLB Indians and the NFL Browns and Ohio State and more – have for their teams and sports stars. He knows well the suffering they have endured, with no major sports title since Jim Brown ran the Browns to their 1964 championship. He took heat for rooting for the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees, looking like a frontrunner but easing the frustration of the inevitable letdowns closer to home.
James knows this too:
These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man.
That’s something Cavaliers fans really need to chew on, especially the last part. They might not have liked what they would have gotten over the past four years had James stayed in Cleveland. The pressure to win there, and presumably futility similar to what he and they went through from 2007 through 2010, slowly and surely could have wrung the fun out of 156 more regular-season home games of LeBron. So, too, could the pull from other teams trying to pry him loose, the incessant questions from media at every NBA stop.
The drum beats of bigger markets and something akin to the “Big 3” maneuver – had that particular “Big 3” version not happened – might have swamped the basketball and been too much for that guy to handle. They would have not been the best of years with LeBron in place.
These have a chance to be the best of years, now, with LeBron back home. The siren song of free agency is over. He needs to go nowhere. James has his rings and the Cavs have their pieces for a real future, thanks to the heights-to-depths dynamic that seems the surest way to NBA rebuilding.
James’ omission of No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins‘ name in his published explanation Friday was a little curious, leading to instant parsing (and rumors that Wiggins might be traded for, say, the immediate help of Minnesota’s Kevin Love). But taken in whole, it is nothing short of a mission statement for him and his career going forward.
James sounds like he’s not going anywhere. Friends, rivals, All-Stars, they’re all welcome to join him as he chases as many rings in Cleveland as he can. But the work he has staked out for himself goes far beyond the Larry O’Brien Trophy he wants to deliver:
I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.
The NBA is going along for the ride, and gets itself the better story.