To break down this big, league-shaking decision, I chatted via e-mail with Kevin Merida, managing editor of The Washington Post and a big NBA fan.
So, Mark, what should we talk about? The weather? George Clooney’s beef with the Daily Mail? Uh, LeBron, and the fact that I nailed he was headed to Cleveland more than two months ago without any sources, except my own mind?
Let’s get this out of the way up front: You were 100 percent right and you were 100 percent right at least two months ago. At some point early in the playoffs, when we discussed how this could be the last go-round for the Heat, you confidently predicted he was going to go back to Cleveland because he had to go back to Cleveland, and you were correct. (And you did it all without the “sources” who turned free agency into a maelstrom these past few weeks, with an endless array of reports, rumors and nonsense filling the time while we waited for actual news.)
This is seen as a heartwarming tale because it involves LeBron coming home after he bolted town and picked up a couple of rings, returning to the franchise that drafted him a more mature and experienced player ready to finish what he started. Last time LeBron was a free agent, what he said was overshadowed by the way he said it. This time around, big part of the reaction seems like it is due to how he made his announcement. The contrast between his “Decision” of 2010 and his decision in 2014 speaks to just how much he has grown up these last four years. This time, he explained his logic through a thoughtful discussion with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated.
Even knowing that LeBron is the biggest star in the NBA and a one-man multi-multi-multi-million-dollar business, and so he and his team presumably fine-tuned the message they wanted to present, his message seems heartfelt and earnest. He spoke honestly and earnestly about leaving for Miami and about raising a growing family in his hometown. Even speaking as a Miami fan who just watched my franchise basically get obliterated, I cannot begrudge his decision.
Why did you think from the beginning he had to go home? And now that he’s back, where does this leave the rest of the NBA, a league so dominated by him that free agency essentially halted while teams and players waited for his decision?
Well, Mark, LeBron spoke eloquently in Sports Illustrated about what home means to him. I can’t top that. But here’s my added take: Over the past four years, he has been steadily, savvily re-chiseling his image. Great commercials featuring his family. Smart interviews, a TNT special. Speaking out on controversial subjects — Trayvon Martin, Donald Sterling. He is the Ambassador of the League now. Returning to Cleveland was the last thing left to be done to remove whatever stain remains from “The Decision.” He’s like Rocky now — savior of the hardscrabble city.
It has been a long road back for LeBron, but he has done a remarkable job changing his public image in all the ways you mentioned. And now that he’s going back to Cleveland, he will take on a role he has never really had in his career: That of the elder statesman leading a young team to be molded around him. In his last Cleveland stint, they brought in the likes of Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace, Antawn Jamison and whatever was left of Shaq. In Miami, he teamed up with his peers. This time, as LeBron said in his Sports Illustrated essay, he’s “the old head” who can mentor the other players. It’s the rightful place for the league’s preeminent player.
And what about Miami? My favorite team looked like it was on the verge of crumbling into dust for a while on Friday, but now Chris Bosh (and potentially Dwyane Wade, knee problems and all) look like they’re sticking around. Rather than plummeting from the Finals to the lottery, they could still be a playoff team in the moribund East. How does the balance of power shake out now that LeBron is in Cleveland, Bosh is staying in Florida and Carmelo appears to be staying in New York (for now, anyway)?
Hey, Mark, props to you for calling Bosh’s return to the Heat. I think he now becomes Big Man on Campus. I’m just not sure he can carry the Heat with a possibly gimpy Wade. But maybe those guys want to demonstrate they are not the Miracles, backing up Smokey Robinson. And yes, I realize I am revealing my youth with that cultural reference. As for the balance of power, I am sticking with what I predicted: with LeBron back in Cleveland, Cavs come out of the East.
We’ll have to revisit this next spring when the playoffs roll around. We’ll have to get you some more updated references in the meantime.