On Friday, four years and three days after he announced that he would be leaving Cleveland to join the Miami Heat, LeBron James said he had decided to return home. The contrast between his actions in 2010 (the hyped buildup, the presentations, the universally-reviled “Decision” infomercial aired on ESPN) and 2014 (a quiet, contemplative process with little to no leaks; a measured, thoughtful essay posted by Sports Illustrated) is obvious, with his words and deeds suggesting that the 25-year-old prodigy who left is returning as a more mature, introspective man.
A lot of the attention has been lavished on Cleveland, which makes sense, because Cleveland, the put-upon sports town with newfound hope, is the story now. Cleveland is the woeful franchise that hasn’t seen the playoffs since LeBron and has been so bad they earned the top pick three out of four years since he left; now, they’re going to be an exciting team to watch next season and beyond, to see how LeBron and his new, younger team learn to play together.
Meanwhile, far to the south, there is the franchise he left behind. The team he joined in 2010 with promises of not one, not two, but several championship trophies. How is this franchise’s fan base — the oft-mocked group that leaves legendary Finals games early and boos the team during another Finals game — supposed to react now that he is leaving after four years? Inevitably, some are going to be angry, because of course they are going to be angry, LeBron James played for their team and now he has decided to play for another team.
As a longtime Miami Heat fan, though, I find it hard to be angry. In part, this is because I always thought this day would come. We knew when LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh signed their deals that free agency loomed in 2014. We knew that after four seasons, it was possible another team would offer more attractive options. We knew that players age and we knew that other teams would make the necessary moves to offer the Miami stars big money this time around. This did not appear to be a team built to finish out their careers together.
But mostly, it’s impossible to be angry because of what we got to watch for four seasons. The Miami Heat were the best or one of the best teams in the league for that stretch. This was a team that made it to the Finals four consecutive times, won two titles and won more than 70 percent of their regular-season games. As a fan, where is the complaint? Obviously, it would have been preferable if LeBron stayed. Obviously, it would have been better for the Heat next season if they had LeBron on the floor. Still, looking at what happened over the last four seasons, it’s impossible to say the Miami Heat fans were short-changed or could have used a little more.
It can be difficult to stop while something is happening and realize that, much later, you will look back on that time fondly. This is true of many things — if you think back to your happiest memories of an era, did you really know at the time that it was one of your happiest moments? — but it can be particularly true for sports, because sports fans are always looking at what lies ahead, at the challenges to come, at the potential playoff seeding, at the match-ups, at the future. We’re talking about sports here, so obviously we shouldn’t be taking any of this overly seriously, but sports fandom (like any fandom, like any deep-rooted interest, like anything on which we choose to spend our spare time and energy) has a way of bleeding into our minds, our memories, our histories.
At some point during the 2012-2013 season — the same year the Heat posted their 27-game winning streak, the same year the reigning champions seemed to have found a new way to click and play together, the same year they made this, the same year they played in a historically great NBA Finals series that was as close to perfection as an NBA series can get — it occurred to me that I was probably experiencing the apex of my Miami Heat fandom. Sure, the team could draft some ungodly superstar in a decade, but in sports you’re much more likely to lurk around the middle or near the bottom than you are to watch a once-in-a-generation player suit up for your team.
As the team’s win count started to climb that season, as they kept charging through the league, as they made it to the Finals, as they fell behind three different times, as this happened and as they eventually won, it was difficult to imagine a better team to root for, a better season, a better experience as a fan. And it came amid a four-year stretch that was generally unlike anything fans get to experience for such a length of time. We watch sports hoping that our teams will win or that, at the very least, they will entertain us and give us something to warrant the time, money and attention we lavish upon them. It’s impossible to begrudge LeBron his decision, which he outlined in a very reasonable, humane and thoughtful way, and it’s impossible to complain about the last four years because of what we got to see for the last four years.
For Miami, the franchise falls back to Earth — though they won’t descend completely into the basement, as fans feared, because Chris Bosh and possibly Dwyane Wade are coming back. For Cleveland fans, the moment is one to treasure, just as fans celebrate any time their team drafts, signs or trades for a great talent. In sports, what happens on the court or field is largely overshadowed by what happens around the game. The reason for this is fairly simple: Most fans don’t get to watch their team win a title or even realistically contend for one. Only one team can win a championship each year (duh), and a handful can come close, but most teams — and, therefore, most fans — are simply never going to get that close to the promised land. (This is particularly clear in the NBA, which has seen an astonishing lack of true parity in its modern incarnation. Since the 1979-1980 season — the first year Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and therefore the first season of the modern NBA — just nine teams have combined to win all 35 championships. The occasional Phoenix, Indiana or Sacramento will pop up and make things interesting, but they will almost always fall short.)
Cavaliers fans have to bask in this because it is exciting — the best player in the world, the one who slipped away, is theirs once again! — but they also savor this because this is the moment when everything appears possible and nothing has gone wrong yet. A Cavs team starring LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins could contend in the weak Eastern Conference and possibly make it to the Finals, depending on Derrick Rose’s health; it seems unlikely, right now, that they would be able to beat the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, we don’t know who else will be added to Cleveland or any of the other contenders, so this could change as lineups are tweaked. Could they make the necessary moves? Can they swap Wiggins for Kevin Love and pick up Mike Miller or Ray Allen? It’s all possible right now, because everything is possible, because anything is possible now that LeBron is back.
So for Cleveland, after four years, this is the moment to cherish, because as with so much of how we experience sports, this is the moment of hope and potential and infinite upside. This is why we pay so much attention to free agency, to the draft, to the various roster moves and trades; not because fantasy sports have wired us differently (well, not entirely because of this), but because this is as good as it may get, because players get injured, because dream teams don’t pan out, because better teams come out on top, because an incredible number of big and small things have to go right in order to win a championship and all it takes is one or two little things to derail the whole enterprise. Which makes you appreciate it all the more when things go right.