A fan waves a cutout of LeBron James during a baseball game between the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians on Friday, in Cleveland. James announced earlier Friday he is returning to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Mark Duncan / Associated Press)
The comfort forged through maturation and growth wasn’t enough to keep LeBron James from the natural pull of his home state of Ohio, proving perhaps for the first time an athlete chose to belong to a city rather than himself.
Not even Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s history of foolishness could keep James away from where his heart never left, and Gilbert stands to gain from it — a true fly in the ointment of what appears to be a heartwarming situation on the surface.
This is the same Dan Gilbert who railed against the NBA’s star system in 2011 when he whined and moaned about then-New Orleans Hornets star Chris Paul being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. It forced then-commissioner David Stern to do an about-face, resulting in Stern having to move Paul to the lesser-heralded Los Angeles Clippers.
“I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back,” Gilbert told Yahoo! Sports of the open letter he posted four years ago bashing James’ decision to sign with Miami.
Gilbert’s rantings, one of a spoiled brat who didn’t get his way when his money, power and influence weren’t enough to keep a forward-thinking player like James in his stable, nearly cost the NBA a full season during the 2011 lockout.
A rant, one that he allegedly “regretted” even though that letter stayed on the Cavaliers website until days ago when the possibility of James returning became more than a pipe dream.
It’s a little hard to believe in the benevolence of a man who took four years to apologize for defacing someone’s character in some emotional meeting in South Beach last Sunday.
Immaturity, lack of foresight
Now, thanks to some lottery luck, Gilbert has four No. 1 overall draft picks on the payroll: James, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Bennett (who has yet to show anything) and Andrew Wiggins. Drafted just last month, Wiggins has been tabbed as the best pro prospect since James in 2003.
We’ll see where Gilbert’s hard-line principles stand next time the collective bargaining agreement opens in 2016.
James’ 2010 departure was necessary for his professional and personal growth, and his return was a signal he recognized his responsibility to his home, the game itself and his family. That’s the narrative that’s been painted and primed and will be used to describe his return to Cleveland.
What likely will be missed is this point of irony: Gilbert stands to benefit after years of immaturity and lack of foresight.
And here all this time we were to believe NBA players were the ones with tunnel vision, and the owners were the true stewards of the game. James and Gilbert — whether refreshingly or sadly — switched roles.
James is running the show here and hasn’t done anything according to the bland superstar handbook. He made the boldest statement when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was killed, spoke out strongly against Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and even his forgiveness again highlights his humanity.
The best player in the NBA did the unexpected, for the second time in four summers, after going to what’s akin to graduate school in South Beach. He needed Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and the situations that allowed him to thrive the last four years.
Who knows if Riley’s challenge to stick it out rubbed James the wrong way, or if Wade’s gimpy body aided in his decision, but his reasons likely will be kept with the same secrecy as his decision to come back to Cleveland was.
Cleveland rejoices, a large segment of James-haters will become card-carrying members of the LeBron bandwagon again. And, as a residual effect, Dan Gilbert wins.
After the NBA world waited with bated breath for the last three days, almost impatient at the fact James had the league at his whim while making his next — and likely last significant career move — a single tweet from Sports Illustrated set the world afire.
James had to leave the cocoon of home, and didn’t have to return this time. As he stated to SI, it was almost an admission this wasn’t a basketball decision.
“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way,” he stated. “My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. I see myself as a mentor now.”
Four-time MVPs still in their prime don’t traditionally switch zip codes, not with championship runs so hard to come by, and especially not for sentimental reasons.
Love of family
Shed a few tears of joy for a feel-good story if you like, but this is less about Gilbert growing up as an owner — who realized controlling interest of a team doesn’t mean control of the players — and more about James’ love of family, sense of a bigger purpose and deeper connection to Northeast Ohio.
Good for James, good for title-starved Ohio, although the jersey-burning Cavs fans should’ve felt ashamed of themselves right along with Gilbert well before they started lining up outside the man’s home in Akron on Thursday.
Now the clock resets. James has forgiven, and he probably had to make peace with the fact that had he walked the primrose path with those Cleveland fans only to return to Miami, the hate would’ve been just as strong.
James returned to his crazy ex-girlfriend because he felt obligated to, well aware of what Gilbert and Cleveland would do if they didn’t get their way, and feels comfortable with his role.
Bigger than basketball, greater than his legacy in the context of basketball — and larger than the side-eye he’ll forever treat Gilbert with — James said he’s forgiven. But if he’s the man he’s demonstrated himself to be, Gilbert’s actions will never be too far from his mind.
And know that LeBron’s choice should make you take back a lot of premature and incorrect thoughts about his personal character, after he’s answered the ones about his athletic character time after time.
In Cleveland’s moribund sports history, associated nicknames come to mind, with laughter not far behind. James’ choice to come back to Cleveland changes it slightly.
Call this “The Return” if you like. Just know you’re calling it “validation” for Dan Gilbert, which should certainly make you a little squeamish.