Loyalty remains a prime factor in LeBron’s decision

LAS VEGAS – In the aftermath of LeBron James going on television four years ago this week to break up with the city of Cleveland and take his immense talents five miles or so from South Beach, I remember laughing at one thing harder than the others.

The "loyalty" tattoo.

Yes, LeBron has one that says just that — he got it long ago. And of all the hate and sadness and shock, Northeast Ohio felt on that Friday morning/afternoon, and of all the images of LeBron quivering, then celebrating, then taking off into the night, my mind kept coming back to that loyalty tattoo and thinking what a joke that was.

I was wrong.

AWAITING A DECISION

Things have changed, LeBron has changed, the Miami Heat have changed and the Cleveland Cavaliers have changed (two or three times). But as the eyes of the NBA and specifically the eyes of Cleveland have LeBron — two titles and two more MVP awards later — on the cusp of making another decision, I truly believe one thing has not changed.

His loyalty. His loyalties.

And that’s the reason I believe he’s wavered. It, too, is the reason I think that, even though it is Friday morning, July 11, nearly three weeks since LeBron opted out of his contract, 10 days since free agency began and 18 hours since he left Las Vegas to fly back to Miami, it’s possible that LeBron still hasn’t fully made up his mind.

He has loyalties in both places.

His high school friends and teammates from Akron who were here with him in Las Vegas this week. They’re going to be 30 this year.

He’s extremely loyal to the part of his inner circle that serves as his marketing and business team, too, rather obviously. Those guys have loyalties to Cleveland. Those guys pushed Miami four years ago. Those guys have pushed out other agents and other professional hangers-on and have overcome the longest odds to "make it" in a cutthroat business. They’ve been there for LeBron in the good times and in the couple difficult ones, too, and they’re still here.

Running LeBron’s camp this week was a small army of Nike employees. Inside that small army was a smaller army of people who only seemed to be around when LeBron was, from a PR agent to three people who showed up carrying bags of LeBron’s shoes and socks and ankle tape, to people who obviously do something (right?) and have mastered the art of looking important while wearing the swoosh.

LeBron came in to Thursday’s morning practice over at the Cashman Center with three friends. Two of them were in LeBron T-shirts made by Nike.

Loyalty is a two-way street, though getting escorted all over Vegas in a parade of chauffeured Escalades probably does make that an easier street to travel.

I saw other familiar faces over at the camp. It used to be in Akron, where both LeBron and I have been known to spend our summers, and I recognized more than a few of the coaches in both the college and high school camps. They’ve been loyal, and vice-versa. In addition to the high school teammates known from the documentary and multiple state championships and just being LeBron’s friends, there were more people with Akron ties there – older people who never played on LeBron’s teams or went to school at the same time he did.

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Some I know because they used to steal the ball from me. Some I recognize just because we have a mutual friend — and I guess we had a mutual reason to be in some convention hall in Vegas this week.

LeBron.

He’s been extremely loyal to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, pledging at least a million bucks for a new gymnasium there last summer (guessing he picked up the overages, too) and then more than $250,000 for new uniforms for every athlete in the school and the band. His loyalties would suggest he’ll want his kids to go to school there someday.

All of those are legitimate reasons LeBron might choose the Cavs and the chance to be the ultimate Homecoming King.

When LeBron showed back up at the gym Thursday afternoon with Dwyane Wade, I started remembering that loyalty might be the reason he chooses Miami, too. Wade has been here since Monday, too. He’s been close with LeBron since long before they counted all the titles they were going to win on that Miami stage. Theirs is a bond that’s been closely scrutinized and will continue to be as Father Time drops Wade further down the list of the truly elite NBA players, but every guess would indicate it’s a very strong bond.

The numbers back that up.

After LeBron became a free agent, Wade opted out of $42 million in guaranteed money in hopes of helping the Heat sign him back.

I repeat, Wade opted out of $42 million in guaranteed money. Think that was brought up on the flight Wade and LeBron took back to Miami?

LeBron probably feels some loyalty to Pat Riley, too, and breaking up with him would probably be hard to do. No one knows what went on in their Vegas meeting this week, what was said or what might still need to be said, but the Heat’s four-year run was engineered by Riley’s ability to get LeBron to sign up — and then let him lead the way.

All of this waiting and speculating and wondering has been hell on Cleveland. There are legitimate reasons he could succeed by coming back, and for all the lack of loyalty shown in the way he left four years ago, there’s something dangling out there. No Cleveland pro sports team has won a title in 50 years, yet a beaten-down fanbase remains extremely loyal.

No one knows what LeBron is thinking because he hasn’t said a single public word. But it’s fairly obvious that the Cavaliers would be in his thought process for historical, geographical and emotional reasons, and a few of those link up to loyalty. If he could go finish what he started and be the guy to end that slump, he’d never be forgotten but just about anything he’d like to take back probably would.

Trust that he’s thought about that. Trust that he’s thinking about a lot of things.

The thought that this Cleveland flirtation (from afar, to be fair) is real and the reports all week that said LeBron was 85 or 90 percent coming back to Cleveland got the city’s collective hopes up. They led, too, to another thought — that a more mature, more self-aware, smarter-but-still loyal LeBron wouldn’t think to crush Clevelander’s feelings again. Or, more accurately, that he shouldn’t do it again.

But loyalty is a funny thing. It, too, is a very powerful thing.

It’ll make a man think twice.