As little as one month ago, the Cavaliers, as a representation of Cleveland, were a mess. They missed the playoffs. They were without a head coach and a general manager, and didn’t know if their two-time All-Star point guard would be re-signing for the long run. Their No. 1 pick a season ago, was frequently listed in any discussion surrounding The Worst. Radio call-in shows were debating the draft prospects of Doug McDermott. They then won the 2014 NBA Lottery, only to have their target succumb to a foot injury in the weeks leading up to the NBA Draft. They hired a head coach who has nary a day of NBA coaching experience and promoted their assistant general manager—a move similar to what they did leading up to the free agency period of 2010. Dan Gilbert, the man largely credited with being the biggest roadblock to any type of reunion, was not only still in charge, but was wielding a hammer that would make Thor blush. Their odds, a highly discussed numerical probability of said reunion as derived by record, roster and random hot takes, was said to have decreased mightily. But none of that mattered.
When discussing Sport, we often allow ourselves to navigate through the narrative, utilizing metaphors that are more in line with Normal Life. When LeBron James left Cleveland in the summer of 2010, Cleveland was painted as the lover scorned, the ex-boyfriend who went ballistic when the Prom Queen left for the younger, better looking replacement. Those who chose to defend James and his right of free agency—what with “free” being the operative term—chose to compare his relocation to an 18-year-old leaving for college. More often than not, we are forced to attend school where we are raised—it would take some serious string-pulling for any of us to attend High School wherever we wanted. Northeast Ohio was all James knew; leaving for Miami, for what would be four years of College Life, ended up being the perfect comparison.
“I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating,” James said in his written statement which was published by Sports Illustrated. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man.”
But once college comes to a close—once you pack up all of your belongings and leave behind all of those memories and empty kegs and unidentified stains—the choice is yours. Sure, you may be limited by job offers or familial responsibility, but when you’re the absolute best in your field, the path you travel is completely up to you.
For James, the seven years of sold out crowds meant more than the seven or eight nights of boos and R-rated chants. For James, geography, family, childhood and his all-to-quick adolescence filled up chapters of pages in his Book of Life that will, one day, dwarf the one or two that will feature a 305 area code. Flip to any sports-related cable channel over the next few days and you’ll undoubtedly find clips of James in a Cavaliers jersey—the night he drilled the playoff game-winner against the Orlando Magic1, the mind-blowing dunk over Kevin Garnett2, and the single-handed throttling of the Detroit Pistons in 2007, the one that led to more random people high-fiving and hugging one another in the alley between Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field than any night in modern sports history.
The four years that James spent in Miami undoubtedly made him a better player. The days of pounding the ball in to the floor seem like a distant memory. He decided to embrace his size, establishing a post game, taking advantage of higher-perctentage shots.3 But as a man? It’s one thing to say that someone has matured—has any sports town heard more recent talk about faux maturation than Cleveland?—but a completely different thing to see it act out in such dramatic fashion.
There will be no televised decision. There will not be a press conference let alone a smoke-and-strobe light-filled celebration. There will be no promises4. There was an essay, however. A well-worded, heartfelt barrage of carefully crafted sentences that were ultimately rooted in one anchor of an ideal: Home.
For all of the adulation and celebration and hugs and high-fives that occurred when the Cavaliers won the NBA Lottery—and the right to select LeBron James—back in 2003, this is much, much bigger. We’re not selecting him, Cleveland. He selected us. And this, with all due respect to Jim Gray, was the most earnest decision of all.
- I can still hear Mike Tirico’s call. [↩]
- I can still here Kevin Harlan’s “no regard for human life.” [↩]
- Only once as a member of the Cavaliers did James’ field goal percentage creep above .500. In Miami, it improved year-over-year, most recently finishing just shy of 57 percent—his true shooting percentage in 2013-14 was a career-high .649. [↩]
- Vegas, however, currently has the Cavaliers tied with the San Antonio Spurs as odds on favorites for 2015 at 4-1. [↩]