The five universal stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. Since LeBron James made the choice to take his talents to South Beach, one could argue that Clevelanders have had a lot to grieve about – a baseball franchise that could not quite make the leap into a playoff birth, a football organization continuously defeated by the lack of a cohesive unit of leaders, and a basketball team that became one of the worst groups in NBA history from 2010 to 2014 after the best player in the world left his home to pursue his goal of winning an NBA title elsewhere.
While LeBron’s approach to his last major free agency decision might not have been taken with the best course of action (a televised viewing declaring his choice), he ensured that this go around would be much different. In 2010, LeBron James was loud and emphatic with his decision during the original “LeBrocolipse.” But like most movie sequels, the level of action is usually not nearly as high as before, and twists and turns could still potentially change the entire story. Neither King James nor his personal circle of close friends and associates leaked a hint of information regarding his future going into the 2014-2015 NBA season.
“I’m coming home.”
The three most significant words in LeBron James’ piece to Sports Illustrated regarding the “LeBrocolipse Part II” equaled the perfect summation for the decision that the four-time Most Valuable Player had made. He noted his heartfelt relationship with his home of Northeastern Ohio, a bond that no one outside of the region’s borders could possibly understand. LeBron had mentioned in his most recent statement that he did not understand the importance of his Ohio home when he initially departed to pursue NBA Championships with now-former teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. However, with his first formal opportunity to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers officially in sight, LeBron acknowledged the idea that after four years away from the state that he grew up in, he might have in fact been a little homesick.
Via http://www.si.com, James stated that the “people there (in Cleveland) have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.” After four years with the Miami Heat organization (two of which ended with the utmost success in winning back-to-back NBA titles), LeBron finally understood the meaning of his bond with his home in Akron, Ohio. While Miami might have transformed him into a better teammate and product of the game, South Beach did not mold his personal traits and roots, which held the most significant value within the mind of LeBron James. This is certainly not to discredit LeBron’s time with Miami. In fact, his return to Cleveland allows his duration with the Heat to make even more sense.
In Cleveland, LeBron was an explosively efficient and über-athletic player who operated at a caliber similar to that of Michael Jordan long before James’ time in the Association. But LeBron was also young, and while his lack of a competitive college basketball experience proved to be a non-factor down the road, it can be argued that it might have affected James’ postseason play with the Cavs. That is where Miami entered the LeBron equation. It was certainly a tough pill to swallow – watching the best player in the world join forces with two other superstars and a medley of proven veterans in South Beach – for NBA fans, excluding the die-hard Miami Heat supporters and the bandwagon population that would arrive soon later. But while Miami will indeed forever be known as the “bought-not-built” dynasty (at least for the years 2010-2014), the Heat still deserve a lot of credit in the maturation of LeBron James. In playing with a great combo guard in Dwyane Wade (who also had an NBA Championship ring under his belt prior to the construction of the Miami Big Three) and hybrid big man Chris Bosh, James learned the art of sacrifice in the NBA. He understood that he would have to give up opportunities in order to create better ones for his teammates, a skill that he had yet to master with the Cavaliers.
Although the Heat were unsuccessful in their quest for an NBA title in the 2010-2011 campaign, their disappointing series loss to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks was perhaps the best possible scenario that Miami and LeBron James could have endured. They were expected by many analysts and fans alike to destroy their opposition. However, their lack of a defined chemistry resulted in their downfall to the Mavs. The proceeding offseason following the Finals loss, the Miami Heat developed a relationship among its players that eventually led to back-to-back NBA titles in 2012 and 2013. And while their success was often questioned by fans around the world, the Big Three of Bosh, Wade, and James had taken the league by storm. Despite suffering a series defeat to the spectacular performance of the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals, the success of the Miami Big Three era was not in question. Not only had LeBron James learned the art of being a defined superstar in the Association, but he also developed the ability to become a better teammate in a variety of situations both on and off the court. Most of all, LeBron James had finally grasped the necessary tools to become a winner.
At the same time that LeBron was finally earning the success that he had worked for his whole life, the Cleveland Cavaliers were stuck in a realm dominated by losses in what seemed to be more than a world away from the bright lights of Miami, Florida. The draft lottery was quite good to the Cavaliers, giving them three of the last four first overall picks, as well as two fourth overall picks the last four seasons. Owner Dan Gilbert has managed to turn those picks into a star point guard in Kyrie Irving, a hustle big man in Tristan Thompson who does not have a reliable offensive foundation, a solid yet far too inconsistent shooting guard in Dion Waiters, an undersized and currently inefficient four in Anthony Bennett, and a potential star shooting guard who is still unproven in Andrew Wiggins (which actually presents an issue regarding the splitting of playing time between him and Waiters). In short, the Cavaliers needed help, and they did not maximize all of their recent draft picks to their utmost potential. The past four years without the King in Cleveland had been plagued by losses, inefficient play, and uncertainty about success in the future.
However, when Kyrie Irving signed his 5-year/$90 million contract extension to remain with the Cavs just a few weeks ago, it seemed that Dan Gilbert had finally found some light from the bottom of the abyss that he had taken his organization to when he wrote a letter blasting LeBron for abandoning his home and guaranteeing that the Cavaliers would win a title before James did. Well, the second part of his letter could not have been more wrong. And while Gilbert and Cavs fans have the right to feel that LeBron abandoned them, they have to consider the superstar’s mindset. Just like owners and general managers must consider that the Association is a business where they have to do what is best for their team at the end of the day, players must do what is best for themselves as well. Whether that questions their selflessness or not, players are people, not things. LeBron sacrificed money and his reputation to put himself in a better position to win, and boy did it pay off.
While Cleveland may not be the best fit overall for LeBron given all of the options that he had at the start of the recent free agency period, his choice clearly made the most sense for him personally. Regardless of the new head coach in David Blatt (who has an extremely accomplished past in international basketball, most recently with Maccabi Tel Aviv), LeBron is moving back to a place that he knows far too well. He understands the significance of his home and he explored his options, whether it was Cleveland, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, etc. in the best way possible – with complete silence. In his return to Cleveland, LeBron is now a better teammate and a defined winner, decorated with more awards recognizing his offensive and defensive dominance. While LeBron does indeed want to continue the quest for more championships, he will have his hometown supporters backing him up every step of the way moving forward. In his final words to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, James said “in Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” LeBron has lived up to these expectations, earning every opportunity he has been given to compete late in the regular season and into the summer months. While owner Dan Gilbert can never take his words back from when LeBron left in 2010, James recognized the grief that the entire Cavaliers roster and fan base had experienced. In this particular moment, LeBron James reflected on what his heart wanted, not what others could have dictated to him.
Now, LeBron James is in Cleveland for the long haul.
Now, LeBron James is home.
Written by Alex Floch, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I am currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in a sports family, I have formed a distinct love for the industry. I enjoy writing about sports in my free time and hope to one day be able to pursue it as a career.