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Return of the King: Why LeBron James Chose Cleveland

(May 28, 2009 - Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)
(May 28, 2009 – Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

“He’s coming home, coming home. Tell the world he’s coming home. Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday. He knows his kingdom awaits and they’ve forgiven his mistake. He’s coming home, coming home, tell the world he’s coming home.”

The Decision 2.0 is official and despite not being the favorite, the hometown team of Cleveland won the LeBron James sweepstakes.

But beyond the name and the fact it had to do with a basketball player, the Decision and the Decision 2.0 are completely different. Their differences are why the results are the opposite.

James was 25 when he first hit free agency. Blessed with a grown man’s super-human body at a chiseled 6’8 and 250 pounds, but still a blossoming young person in the mind. It didn’t matter if he had seven years of NBA basketball under his belt, he wasn’t a full-grown young man. He had two children with the same woman and hadn’t put a ring on her finger yet.

What is a 25-year-old supposed to feel and think when he hears the press and the media compare him to Jordan in one discussion then say he can’t win in Cleveland in another? What is a 25-year-old supposed to think when he sees his teammates around him not step up in the playoffs year after year?

He can look at the stat sheets and see his numbers are fantastic so what is wrong with this picture?

This 25-year-old James was frustrated. He kept his frustration from hitting the media, but it was obviously there. His friend Dwayne Wade saw that and invited, no pleaded his case for James to join him. Once Chris Bosh realized the same opportunity was there, he joined first. Wade and Bosh had signed in Miami long before James had made the Decision.

It was a simple decision and one that the majority of us who love to win would make. Why should the best player in the game suffer with a perennial loser and a subpar GM? If anything, he was so good that he hurt the Cavs. They’d win, but never improve because their draft picks weren’t high enough to get quality players. They were stuck in the middle between winning it all and just plain losing with no chance to get better. It was logical to leave.

What 25-year-old James didn’t realize, maybe even couldn’t realize at that point was just how much he meant to Ohio. How he was more than an NBA player.

He was the next Jim Brown, the last big winner Cleveland ever had and even if he didn’t win, Cleveland would’ve loved him forever.

Cleveland loves their players that try their hardest. Go into the bars and you sees Kosar and Newsome jerseys even though they never won anything beyond a division title. Jim Brown’s voice is heard even now 50 years later since he last put on a jersey and people are silent until he is done talking.

That’s what James didn’t realize or at least fully understand. Sports isn’t a business in Cleveland, it’s part of their soul, their drive and their livelihood. It is what keeps the people going in many ways as they struggle in that tough environment.

Their light at the end of the workday tunnel.

If he truly did know, then he wouldn’t have screwed up the Decision the way he had. It was like watching a hammy soap opera without the 61 hokey people rotating adulterous affairs between each other over 20 years and music that would violate a person’s eighth amendment rights. The majority of people I’ve spoken to will agree that his leaving wasn’t as bad as how he left. It was just a terrible, terrible way to go.

Fast forward four years now to this: “When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio,” James said to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins.

That 25-year-old is now a 29-year-old. In four years, he has changed just like all of us. He’s been to the NBA Finals all four years with a 2-2 record. He’s been a MVP again. He’s felt the joy of a championship parade. He’s finally gotten down on one knee and gave the love of his life the ring that’s been missing from her finger all this time.

He’s felt the joy of watching his sons get bigger and the pleasure of playing in Miami.

But beyond the glitz and glamor of South Beach, he’s also grown up and seen what was missing. The parades lacked the emotion, the rings lacked that special shine, and the tears didn’t have the punch they could have.

Miami isn’t a sports town. It has won titles, it’s had parades, but it is not a sports town. How can it be when it has the ubiquitous bikini-filled beaches and the allure of the ocean in its backyard?

James was never going to be loved the same way in Miami. The fans have proven it over and over again by leaving games early (even when the game wasn’t out of reach) and sometimes being overmatched by the jeering of visiting fans. Whereas Cleveland fans would stay and love despite all of the pain and torture of losing.

“What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?” James said.

The 29-year-old James now gets it. He gets that building a legacy isn’t just about winning. It isn’t just about making buckets. It’s about how the next generations are going to see you when they turn the history book to your page. Miami? They should feel nothing but gratitude, but they would never give him the kind of status and respect that Cleveland would.

The loyalty Cleveland fans have to their players transcends history. It stays in the present every day of the year. That 29-year-old now knows where he belongs now.

“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”

James couldn’t look at himself in the mirror and feel right about how he left and he couldn’t feel right with himself if he didn’t try to win one for his home town. That’s the power of Ohio right there. The power to inspire loyalty in its crops. In a way, it is fitting that he left because you don’t know how much home means to you until you had to leave for a while.

He knows he missed a shot to join teams that have better chances to win. He knows he’s going to have to trust a losing organization to help him finish the job. He knows it’s going to be hard work and it will probably take time.

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

“He’s coming home, coming home. Tell the world he’s coming home. Let the rain wash away all the pain of yesterday. He knows his kingdom awaits and they’ve forgiven his mistake. He’s coming home, coming home, tell the world he’s coming home.”

Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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