"I'm coming home."
Four years after LeBron James severed ties and broke hearts in Cleveland, three words on his Instagram account and at Sports Illustrated signaled the return of the prodigal son to the Cavaliers. It seems much has changed since 2010, not the least of which is a public relations strategy that was wizened by the mistakes of that first "Decision" and, this time, got it right.
No gratuitous television special. No hour-long spectacle at the Boys and Girls Club. In his own words, as told to SI's Lee Jenkins, LeBron is going back to Cleveland a changed man -- a realistic man -- with all the maturity and leadership that come from two championships.
"I'm not having a press conference or a party," he said. "After this, it's time to get to work."
To be fair, LeBron has been working to this point for a few years now. As Larry Brown Sports noted in May, LeBron (and his management team) had made it a point to mention whenever possible that he's "just a kid from Akron." It's really quite incredible how successfully he's managed to rehabilitate his image among Ohioans, especially given the seemingly insurmountable vitriol Cleveland fans held toward him. Even Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, he of the Comic Sans hate mail, has completely reversed his position.
Of course, the prospect of welcoming back the best player on the planet has a funny way of obscuring all those feelings of hurt and betrayal. Gilbert is no doubt ecstatic about the impact LeBron will surely bring to the historically downtrodden franchise. I'm sure it doesn't hurt that the star's presence could possibly almost double the Cavaliers' worth, pushing the team's valuation past the billion-dollar mark.
For his part, though, LeBron has stayed grounded in his expectations for the team. Instead of haughtily promising, "not one, not two, not three …" championships to a city that hasn't seen a title in half a century, he is asking fans to keep their expectations realistic and remain patient:
I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We're not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go.
In those words, LeBron both refuted and affirmed the logic held by many, including me, who thought he would return to Miami for another year in hopes of winning a third title before departing for a Cleveland team that isn't built to win now. LeBron, we thought, is most concerned with his legacy, his place in the pantheon of NBA greats, his name next to Michael's and Kareem's and Kobe's. That may well require a third ring at the very least, we thought, if not two or three more.
We were right about one thing: LeBron is thinking about his legacy -- he's just not as shortsighted as we all thought. He's prepared to hold out for as long as it takes, to take charge of a roster full of babyfaced yet promising talent and a coach with no NBA experience and bring them to the big show. If he succeeds, LeBron will go down as Cleveland's greatest hero, the hometown kid who came back a man and built a championship team from scratch in a city that could use a celebration. If he fails, he'll still get credit for trying. We might not remember him as the centerpiece of a Heat dynasty, but we should appreciate his valiant intentions in rejoining the Cavs. Not all championships are created equal, but LeBron hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy in Quicken Loans Arena a few years down the line? That's a storybook ending. That's "bigger than basketball."
Now, as LeBron said, the work begins. The Cavs are still looking to trade for Kevin Love, and now have as a major selling point the opportunity to play alongside the King. LeBron can look forward to a homecoming season and his responsibility of helping Kyrie Irving develop. And the rest of us can go back to not overanalyzing players' dinner plans.
Your move, 'Melo.
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