ON BASKETBALL | The first Decision was about hubris and concerns about his personal legacy. The second Decision is about humility and a sense of purpose.
By leaving Cleveland for Miami and going back to Cleveland on Friday, LeBron James made a dramatic reversal from the power move that defined his career, brandished his authority throughout the NBA and allowed him to take his seemingly predestined place among other legends in the game.
This time around, James isn’t just taking his talents some place. He is also taking his family, two championship rings, two more most valuable player trophies and a greater understanding that winning in some places — there’s no place like home — will be more valuable than others.
James got what he wanted and needed from his four years in Miami. The Heat taught him how a championship-level organization operates, provided him with a chance to play with two of his best friends in basketball, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He turned the American Airlines Arena into nightly theater, a place to be seen, where rappers, celebrities and wealthy tycoons could sit courtside and snap selfies near the self-proclaimed King.
But Miami will always belong to Wade, no matter how many rings they would’ve won together, and not one, not two, not three championships anywhere else would’ve trumped the exchange rate for winning just one title in Cleveland.
James had to understand that his home state had never fully healed from his departure, the scab wasn’t ready to be removed. One bad cramp in the NBA Finals served as a reminder that he will always be a target for scorn from those who never forgave him for how an ill-planned television special on ESPN played out.
The best way for James to repair his image was to go back to the place that raised him and praised him before anywhere else. Of course James won’t be able to win over everyone, and some fans in Miami will struggle grappling with the loss until they remember they live in Miami. But few can find fault in hometown kid who left, made good, learned from his mistakes and wants to return.
If James wanted to make a basketball decision, he had better options. Houston had more seasoned talent. Phoenix had a comparable stash of young talent plus the cap space to add another running mate in either Carmelo Anthony or Bosh.
But he didn’t want to be viewed as a mercenary jumping ship to the next hot team. To him, the choices were to stay or go home.
Miami had plateaued and there was no clear indication that the team could make the necessary moves to improve, nor that Wade’s body would ever allow him to get back to elite levels. The Heat went all in for immediate gain but never developed a rising core and now the “Big 3” era is no more.
Bosh decided to stay in Miami on a reported five-year, $118 million deal. Wade will continue to own Dade County as it moves into what will assuredly be a difficult rebuild, though perhaps less of one with Bosh returning.
The Cavaliers have some talent in two-time all-star point guard Kyrie Irving and shooting guard Dion Waiters. They drafted Andrew Wiggins first overall last June and he could either blossom into a star along with James or be used as the key trade bait to secure Kevin Love from Minnesota.
Perhaps the most ironic part of James’s move back home is that Miami still owes the Cavaliers a top-10 protected pick in 2015. But as Cleveland’s team is currently constructed, it would need some incredible growth from its players to immediately satisfy James’s appetite for championships.
The marketing component of this move cannot be ignored. Now, there are jerseys to be sold, T-shirts to be made and Nike shoe campaigns to be laid out for the prodigal son who is back to make amends. To an audience that had grown to accept him as a champion the court, James can now be viewed as a more beloved figure, a champion of the people.
In Ohio — and especially in Akron — James is viewed as an icon, a symbol of the greatness than can come from a region known for dealing with and overcoming adverse situations. He wasn’t swayed by that angry, emotional and irrational letter that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote four years ago. Pride wouldn’t keep James from trying to accomplish something bigger than a selfish pursuit. He now takes on the challenge of leading an entire community — a responsibility he couldn’t understand as a 25-year-old who had never had a chance to attend college.
James’s career won’t necessarily be defined by whether or not he catches Michael Jordan with six titles, nor if he surpasses Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the all-time leading scorer. James has a chance to do the unprecedented in a city where the Larry O’Brien trophy has only visited once — when the San Antonio Spurs carried it out of the Quicken Loans Arena in 2007 — and hasn’t won a major championship of any kind since 1964.
Fifty years later, Cleveland sports fans have a chance to experience an even better feeling. The best player in the world chose them, chose to give them hope that it really could be done in northeast Ohio.