CLEVELAND – For LeBron James, the four years away from home – the hate, the burning jerseys, the ridicule, the failures, the successes, the championships, all of it – have led to this: His first public return to northeastern Ohio as a Cleveland Cavalier.
It begins Friday evening, with his charity event in Akron, his hometown, and a formal welcome by the city itself that has mushroomed into a full-fledged event. The usually small and intimate gathering that used to take place at his old high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, shifts to the football stadium at the University of Akron. The spot may be big enough to accompany the 20,000 people who snatched up tickets within hours of their availability, but it may not be big enough to contain how much Akron and Cleveland now have riding on LeBron’s return.
There will be deeper currents running below the surface, as there always are when it comes to LeBron James. Friday’s event will be layered with hoopla and hope and that strange brew of forgiveness and relief that comes with warring loved ones who have turned blame back to friendship, hate back to love.
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It will be a spectacle. While LeBron has gone back to Akron every summer, and while that city has always been an island unto itself even during the darkest days of Cleveland’s hate for its state’s famous native son, the sheer magnitude of the people coming out this time around speaks to how deeply felt LeBron’s return is here. It will be a love fest built on hope, reunion and the beauty of spotting for the first time and with your own eyes the prodigal son, home again.
But beneath all of that will be a burgeoning expectation. It will be a new weight, to be sure, from the one LeBron carried during those dark and then riveting days in Miami. But it’ll be heavy all the same.
You cannot be LeBron James without a fatiguing burden of expectation. For greatness. For rings. For MVPs. For legend. For infusing in whatever city he’s attached to whatever feeling it has in being so tied to these things.
That natural sense that LeBron must be this thing or that thing will only rise. The story, of course, of his return adds to this. So does the arrival of Kevin Love, a deal Yahoo Sports and FOX Sports 1 NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported this week is already done. That star-studded addition gives the Cavs the best trio in the game, Cleveland the front-runner status in the Eastern Conference and LeBron a co-star capable of amplifying what we all now expect from Cleveland this upcoming season.
Already, the joke that LeBron James is the league’s executive of the year has taken hold, as Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas underscored by tweeting this week that LeBron is the league’s best general manager. Funny. But with hints of truth. Mike Miller and James Jones have decided to play Cleveland for a reason, and Love will reportedly sign long-term with Cleveland. It’s not the chance to be in the same city as Johnny Manziel that’s brought them here. This, too – LeBron’s fierce holdover and effect on who will and won’t be playing with him in Cleveland – also adds to the fact James had better win right from the start.
Fair or not, that is and will be what is expected.
There’s also the fact that LeBron will have to face whatever critics lampooned his decision to spurn Miami for Cleveland. Want proof? On the week of his homecoming, a billboard sprung up, supposedly from the city of Miami and bearing “You’re welcome” and a picture of two championship rings.
The person behind it, Dan Le Batard, is one of sports writing’s most talented figures and a really good guy. He was also one of LeBron’s biggest supporters and says he still is, a master talent who wielded it four years ago arguing that supposed trolls and haters needed to grow up and let LeBron do his own thing. He says this one, though, is just all a joke. That we should join in the irony, if we’re smart enough, or be on the wrong end of the joke if we’re not. But the people of Akron, Cavs fans, and I would guess LeBron James don’t find it very funny. Whatever, I’m thinking the implication is pretty clear: Miami gave LeBron those rings, not the other way around.
LeBron may not have handled it well, but the people who called themselves his fans and supporters four years ago became motivation once they turned on him. So here’s some more of that, just another friendly face “burning his jersey” – er, I mean, “joking around” in good fun. Whatever it is, it’s an interesting question LeBron will get to answer. Fact or fiction – Miami got LeBron those rings and not the other way around?
Time will tell. And LeBron will feel the weight of that, too.
I like return stories, and as a Midwestern guy with a wife from Ohio and affinity for good things happening in “flyover country,” I’ve made no secret the past 18 months how much I wanted to see LeBron go back. It would be great theater. It would be great for that part of the country. It would be downright compelling stuff.
And so it is.
But it also comes with expectation as much as love, with something to prove as much as a place to return to, with a rush of adulation that will soon be replaced by absolute eagerness.
So it begins Friday, in Akron, among the faithful: The adulation, the love, the return of The King – and all the expectation in the world.
There will be no patience plan here. No two-year or three-year honeymoon period. Regardless of what LeBron said in his Sports Illustrated letter, regardless of what he or others say going forward, the time to win is now. This very moment.
Welcome home, LeBron.
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.