Four years ago, when LeBron James, the greatest basketball player in the world, spurned his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, it was a national sports sensation. For Clevelanders, a fan base who haven’t had a professional sports championship since 1964, it was a nightmare. It was a story with a poetic feel, too. A hometown hero forsaking his upbringing—James was born and raised in Akron, a suburb of Cleveland—for the glitz and glamour of the beach. For Cleveland, it wasn’t just that he’d done the unthinkable; it was how: “I’ve decided to take my talents to South Beach,” LeBron coldly explained during an ESPN infomercial dubbed the Decision. For Clevelanders, this wasn’t just painful; it was cruel. LeBron had become the Betrayer.
Even now, four years later, the Decision still rankles. Yet the regrettable optics obscured the fact that the choice LeBron made—to sign a contract with another, better basketball team—was defensible; it was, in fact, a shrewd professional move. A closer look revealed the obvious: He went to Miami to win the championships that he couldn’t in Cleveland because the Cavaliers’ ownership never supplied him with the teammates to win them.* He went to Miami because he wanted to play with his friends, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He went to Miami, also, because it’s beautiful there (I’ve heard), and glamorous (so they say), and because the prospect of living someplace other than northeast Ohio, where he’d spent his whole life, probably seemed like an intriguing idea. Last but not least, he went to Miami to refine his game with a better coaching staff, who ironed out James’ few flaws and helped transform him from an unquestionably great player into one of the top three players of all time (a rank that is currently rising).
* Seriously, take a look at the 2009-2010 Cavaliers’ roster and see if you recognize anyone (other than a wilting 37-year-old Shaquille O’Neal). During that season, LeBron amassed an incredible 27% of his team’s points, 36% of his team’s assists, and 16% of his team’s rebounds. He led the Cavaliers in scoring, assists, steals, blocks, free throws, and free throws attempted, all while playing 39 minutes per game. By advanced stats, he was more than twice as valuable as the Cav’s second-best player. Remember: Jordan had Pippen, Shaq had Kobe, Magic had Kareem, and Duncan had Parker and Ginobili. LeBron, that season, had nobody. The Decision notwithstanding, the Cavs earned James’ rejection.
After reaching, and stumbling, in the Finals that first year, James and the Heat won two straight championships before falling a month ago to a transcendent San Antonio Spurs team. Four years, four Finals appearances, two championships—not too shabby. In hindsight, it’s hard to argue that the Decision—or I should say, its result—wasn’t the right one.
Despite all this, the Decision has hovered, like a wraith, over LeBron’s post-2010 career. For Cleveland and its sympathizers (especially in that first Heat season), every Heat win meant LeBron the Betrayer was at work. Even casual NBA fans jeered when James choked in the 2011 Finals against Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks. And there were many who proclaimed James’ hubris had cursed him.
But after the loss to the Mavericks, something happened. James changed. This wasn’t some pseudo-spiritual adjustment; he straight-up remade his game. He started taking fewer mid-range two-pointers (the least efficient shot in basketball), and perfected a devastating post-up game. Through endless hours of practice, he developed into a dangerous three-point shooter. His defense, always smothering, became impregnable. He took his failures to heart, and the next time he found himself within reach of a championship, he didn’t choke. In the 2012 Finals, he destroyed Kevin Durant’s Thunder in five games while averaging 30.3 points and almost ten rebounds per game. He and Wade were a vision, whipping through the defense on fast breaks, Wade gliding and James thundering down the court and skying for effortless dunks. They, and the Heat, were beautiful to watch. For LeBron haters everywhere, the nightmare had come true.
But with athletes, physical decay is inevitable; bodies break down; the bills eventually come due. The Heat (barely) held on for a second championship in 2013, and then age caught up with James’ supporting cast. LeBron, still 29 and in his prime, carried the team as far as it could go in 2014. It was Wade, Ray Allen, Bosh, and Shane Battier, shadows of the players they once were, whose decline was the difference between glory and defeat. Then came the Heat’s reckoning: LeBron had an opt-out provision in his contract; if he chose to, he could leave Miami behind. He opted out, plunging the NBA momentarily into chaos. Teams lined up to entice him to their cities, desperately clearing salary cap space and treating him to expensive dinners. For eleven days, the sports world waited. Who would LeBron choose?
And now (finally) I get to the point. Last Friday, something remarkable happened. In a letter penned in Sports Illustrated, LeBron announced his plans. “I’m Coming Home,” he said. He was returning to Cleveland. No televised announcement, no drum roll. Just a letter, which began: “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio.”
The letter is a remarkable work of honesty and intelligence, as impressive for what it doesn’t say as what it says. (Among the things it doesn’t say: that signing with the Cavaliers, a young squad with some superb talents and sky-high potential, works in James’ professional self-interests, as well.)
It’s remarkable for its apologetic tone: “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now . . . . If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently.” This is the greatest player of his generation, maybe of any generation, admitting he was wrong. “No press conferences now,” he added. “It’s time to get to work.”
It’s remarkable for its odd bits of insight: “Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am.” LeBron, remember, went straight to the NBA out of high school. Unlike most NBA players, he never got a chance to spend time in a different city, experiencing new surroundings.
It’s remarkable because it grapples with James’ complicated relationship with his hometown (complicated in large part by the antics of the Decision): “The letter from Dan Gilbert [the Cavs’ owner], the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned—seeing all that was hard . . . . My emotions were more mixed. 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?”
Lastly, it’s remarkable for the window it shines into James’ family life: “I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”
Who can know LeBron’s mind but James himself? There’s a Bill Clinton aphorism that comes to mind here: “there’s no difference between selfishness and selflessness, if you know how the world works.” Signing again with Cleveland, like the Miami deal, is a good business decision for James. The Cavs are an exciting young team, a team that James could benefit from as much as Cleveland will benefit from him. Four years ago he was incapable of grasping the consequences of his Decision; he didn’t quite understand the pull of his hometown. This time around, he got it just right. Which is a good thing—for James, for Cleveland, and for the NBA. Let’s see what happens next.