Let’s get that out of the way right now. For four years, we’ve all heard the same refrain. "It wasn’t that LeBron James left Cleveland," we’ve been told again and again, "it was how he left." The reason that the best player in basketball took so much abuse, was so roundly criticized, was the format of his announcement, a prime time spectacle hosted by Jim Gray, televised on ESPN, and sneered at by the sports media. As the story goes, the world would have been fine with King James’ trip to Miami, as long as he’d announced it more gently, more respectfully. Maybe a little less "taking my talents to South Beach" and a little more "I’m so thankful for my time in Cleveland." Even LeBron himself has bought into this narrative, saying over, and over, and over again that if he had the opportunity for a mulligan, he might have made his choice in a different way. Surely, a different approach would have saved James a great deal of abuse.
Don’t believe it for a second.
LeBron James could have announced his departure in a press release, a first-person essay, or with individual, hand written letters to every single Cavaliers season ticket holder. It wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. LeBron was leaving, and it didn’t much matter how the news was delivered, it still wasn’t going to be well received. Tears were going to be shed, jerseys were going to be burned, and Comic Sans was going to be abused. Four years ago, LeBron was bound to be a pariah, not because of a TV special, but because of a universal, and understandable truth.
There’s no good way to leave home.
LeBron’s Cleveland reunion, once inconceivable, is now the biggest story in basketball.
For obvious reasons, the concept of "home" has a particular resonance in the world of sports, and the NBA is no exception. When Carmelo Anthony was traded to the New York Knicks, the MSG Network quickly turned around this commercial.
It was beautiful, and emotional, and it didn’t much matter than Anthony had only lived in New York City for eight years before relocating to Baltimore. "Home" was a concept that anyone can rally behind, because after all, who doesn’t understand the unique affection that a person has for the city they grew up in.
We’re accustomed to thinking of the modern athlete as living a nomadic existence. He starts his career wherever the draft dictates, and when his free agency finally arrives, he heads for the club that has the greatest need, and the most dollars. Generally speaking, "home" rarely enters the equation. That’s why it’s so special, and so celebrated, when a player makes his mark with a hometown team. Whether it’s Mark Messier providing the heart of the Edmonton Dynasty, Dick Butkus representing the Windy City inside and out, or Cal Ripken breaking the unbreakable record for the team he grew up cheering for, we marvel at the select few athletes who actually grow up to don the jersey that they pictured themselves in as children.
Kevin Durant’s Washington, D.C. roots have dominated discussion of his impending free agency.
Of course, "home" can also be a double-edged sword. Just ask Kevin Durant. This week, he made the unfortunate mistake of showing some affinity for his Washington, D.C. roots, responding to Britt McHenry’s hopes for a KD homecoming. (Or, at the very least, a cool headphones commercial.)
"Just wait on it." That’s all it took, and everyone was off to the races, jumping on the latest scrap of evidence that when 2016 comes, Durant will join the Wizards, creating a beautiful story in the nation’s capital, and ripping out the heart of Oklahoma City in the process. That’s the problem with "home", you see. It can mean so many different things. There are childhood homes, adopted homes, homes you’re born into, homes you build, and places that come to feel like home. When you put it all together, it means that coming home is complicated, and keeping everyone happy, creating that sporting fairy-tale that unites the world behind you, is damn near impossible.
Even during his stint with the Heat, LeBron James held close to his Akron beginnings.
Cleveland isn’t really "home" for LeBron James. He’s made that clear throughout his career, emphasizing always that he considers himself a product of Akron, Ohio, and that in many ways, the two cities’ physical proximity led to a great deal of hard feelings.
"It’s not far, but it is far," LeBron told GQ’s J.R. Moehringer back in 2010, "And Clevelanders, because they were the bigger-city kids when we were growing up, looked down on us… So we didn’t actually like Cleveland. We hated Cleveland growing up. There’s a lot of people in Cleveland we still hate to this day."
That quote seems quite ironic today, as Quicken Loans Arena prepares to host one of the biggest homecoming celebrations the sports world has ever seen. Tonight, the Cavaliers faithful won’t care that King James actually hails from the little city down the way. They’ll forget all about that night four years ago when he left their team in a lurch. They certainly won’t be concerned with the fact that a championship is far from guaranteed in this second stint of the LeBron era. No, those are mere details, sure to be swept up and pushed aside by the pure, unbridled joy of a day that very few thought was actually possible.
Just as LeBron’s departure was certain to leave scars, his return is sure to heal them, no matter how long it takes him to gel with new teammates, learn a new system, and make a post-season run. James’ homecoming will undoubtedly be messy at times, but tonight, he gets to live the fairy-tale. He’s one of the few people on this earth who means so much, to so many, that he can lift up an entire city, simply by showing up, simply by being present once again. But of course, it won’t just be Cleveland who’s inspired tonight. We may not all cheer for the wine and gold, but everyone’s got a place that they pine for. Everyone wishes they could reclaim a part of their past. Everyone has somewhere, something, and someone that they miss, that they couldn’t hold on to forever.
LeBron’s Cleveland return, months in the making, is sure to resonate beyond the state of Ohio.
Tonight, when LeBron James throws the chalk into the air once more, it’ll be more than simply a ritual renewed. It’ll be a sign that relationships can be repaired, no matter how fractured they may seem. It’ll prove that time has a way of changing everything, and making the impossible seem preordained. Mostly, it will make us believe, if only for a few hours, in a truth that means a great deal to anyone who’s a long way from what’s important to them.
Yes, you can go home again. Just ask the once, and future King.