Lost in the joy and shock and in the very real fact that LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has to do with family and nostalgia and the power of going home is another crucial fact driving the Return of the King: the overwhelming hold LeBron’s own legacy has on him.
The best basketball player on earth makes it clear in his Sports Illustrated essay that much more than the game itself pulled him back to the place where his jerseys once burned in the streets in a frenzied orgy of hate and disgust.
There is a better roster and a brighter basketball future waiting in Cleveland than anything Miami was able to offer. There is Akron, and home, and the very human fact – easy to understand for those of us whose hearts and souls were shaped by a place – that home will always have a hold over us beyond money, beyond one owner’s bitter screed, beyond harsh memories or whatever truths forced us away in the first place.
All of this is absolutely real for LeBron. Much of this is what makes his return, in some ways, our return. Outside of Miami – and to that city’s credit, for some still inside it – LeBron James has gone in four years from the villain we all saw and loathed to the everyman we all long to see make it. Minus the money, minus the fame, minus whatever hard feelings remain and whatever off-putting ego you think you see in a man who calls himself the Chosen One, past it all is that universal thing in all of us that makes the story of the prodigal son resonate so widely and deeply.
So celebrate LeBron’s return and these reasons behind it. You should. But don’t miss just how important LeBron’s legacy is to him, how obsessive he is about it, and how powerful returning to Cleveland can be in its service.
There is a worthy idea that LeBron can never pass Michael Jordan the basketball player. Not now. Not with his 2-3 Finals record, especially when juxtaposed with Jordan’s six Finals Most Valuable Player awards and flawless Finals record. I think the case is closed. Maybe. Maybe not. Time will tell.
But that does not mean he cannot catch Air Jordan the brand.
For LeBron, the love of home and the pull of family and the incredible force nostalgia can have over a person’s life is real. But it doesn’t hurt that all of these things point directly toward a decision that could burnish LeBron as one of the most interesting, complicated, nuanced, thoughtful and – eventually – successful athletes to ever walk the earth. One of sports’ most compelling and celebrated winners.
I’m from a place like Cleveland: A blue-collar community with pride over its down-to-earth, Midwest roots but a touch of sadness over what has been lost. Even some knee-jerk self-defensiveness. Jobs, young people, whatever prestige you feel loosened and taken away when someone casually visits your town and leaves with his nose held higher – but also a place of family barbeques and winter nights and that very Midwestern sense of being at the heart of a country but uniquely separate in a very special place. That kind of city craves its own champions, people it raised up itself who represent not an escape from that place but a manifestation of its special value.
To go to that place, his place, and bring a championship would lift LeBron to a level that transcends sports. He wouldn’t just be a champion. He’d be a city’s son come back to represent it against all the doubters and challengers who said it was not worthy of him.
Remember: They said no. They said it was impossible. They scoffed and said Cleveland was no Miami, that Dan Gilbert’s anger-laced letter was a burned bridge that LeBron James would never re-cross, that his past was no match for Wade and Bosh and Riley and two rings. That Cleveland (with a laugh) was Cleveland; that Miami (too smugly) was, after all, Miami.
They mocked Cleveland, even if they didn’t mean to, and those of us who saw Cleveland differently, saw its roster differently, and understood LeBron in a way those not from a place like either perhaps cannot, saw this, too: That Cleveland, with Akron lurking so close by, was an open door he might walk back through.
Through that door is not just home. Not just a better basketball fit. Not just the Return of the King. Through it is a legacy opportunity – maybe the only one – that can compete with the giant shadow Michael Jordan left behind.
The King is home. Now the raw power of watching him try to bring glory back to Cleveland begins.
Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.