Commentary

No place like home for LeBron James

After changing perceptions of loyalty in NBA, LeBron decides to return to his roots

Originally Published: July 11, 2014
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

The rationale for LeBron James' return to Cleveland could be found on Twitter about an hour before Lee Jenkins issued a link to his first-person account from James in Sports Illustrated.

The Washington Post then sent out a chart listing America's 10 richest families. What struck me wasn't the amount of money. It was the hometowns. Places such as Bentonville, Arkansas. Wichita, Kansas. Racine, Wisconsin. And it didn't even include the person who has a personal connection to LeBron: Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, Nebraska.

People who had amassed incomprehensible wealth didn't rush to relocate after the first big check arrived. They didn't retreat to a private island in the Caribbean or take tax haven in Monte Carlo. They stayed in the places they knew. They couldn't escape the gravitational pull of the familiar. So before we had our answer from LeBron, we had our answer.

There were further explanations in the Sports Illustrated piece, including a response to the question of how James could reconcile with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert after Gilbert's infamous letter. "We've talked it out," James said. "Everybody makes mistakes. I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"

James didn't address the issue of how he and Gilbert bridged the business aspect of their divide that was exposed during the 2011 lockout, but we can hear that later.

LeBron was preoccupied with the broader themes, of community, redemption and inspiration. And maybe we should pull back and examine the broader perspective of what this round of LeBron's free agency meant. If 2010 was about indulgence and exploring the recruiting experience he never had when he went straight from high school to the NBA draft, this time was about restraint. Only one publicly disclosed meeting, and no television show.

The medium was very much the message in this case. Maybe, just maybe, LeBron's form of announcement highlights a shift away from the everything-must-be-televised mentality that cultivated The Decision. I never blamed LeBron for going on TV to pick Miami. He has had cameras in his face since adolescence. He grew up in the 1990s, the age of "The Real World" and televised court trials. He'd seen viewers flock to broadcasts of people choosing a spouse from a group they'd just met a few weeks earlier.

But we know LeBron has gained an appreciation for the power of the written word. Remember how he read books in the locker room during the playoffs on the way to the 2012 championship? He'd also seen the positive response when Brittney Griner and Jason Collins announced their sexuality through first-person stories. He realized that written stories offer better control of his message than television specials that can be reduced to a single sound bite.

LeBron was on camera for 11 minutes during The Decision, but the only part anyone remembers is "This fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach."

They didn't even hear the "Man, this is tough" that preceded it, which indicated just how difficult it was for him to leave Ohio.

They don't remember his reason for choosing Miami that was perfectly valid and even prophetic: "The best opportunity for me to win."

They've forgotten this part, which is more relevant than ever today: "I never wanted to leave Cleveland. My heart will always be in that area."

By announcing it this way, people will think of the overall story, which is exactly how LeBron wants this framed. It's an archetype, really, a classic American story that fits right in with "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" or "The Great Gatsby," two cautionary tales that examine the costs of leaving small towns for the glittering metropolises.

Keep in mind this exchange from "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," when the Scarecrow asks Dorothy, "I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to the dry, gray place you call Kansas." Dorothy responds: "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home."

And that's how LeBron can leave the warmth and glamour of Miami for the dreary winters of Ohio.

There's also the chance to shift the storyline. There was a telling anecdote from Jenkins' Sportsman of the Year profile of James in 2012. Even though he famously roots for the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, "James is a sucker for underdogs -- 'I love Arian Foster, from the Houston Texans,' he says, 'because he didn't get drafted, he played on the practice squad, and now he's probably the best running back in the NFL' -- knowing full well he will never be one himself."

Everyone loves to cast themselves as an underdog. It's why America got caught up in the men's national soccer team at the World Cup more than it ever embraced our Olympic basketball teams. It's a rare example of the lone remaining superpower competing at a disadvantage on a global stage.

LeBron is already acknowledging that the young Cavaliers will take time to develop, and he'll have to dispense the knowledge he gained from becoming a two-time champion in Miami. He's drawing the distinction between his tunnel-visioned quest to get championships for himself in Miami and his recognition of what even a single championship would mean to Cleveland. He is adding chapters to his story unlike any we've seen in sports.

What will be the ripple effect? The Decision made it easier for Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to change teams in the heart of their careers. Players no longer felt the need to waste precious years where they didn't want to be because of an unnecessary sense of loyalty.

Will the new standard be competition or comfort for Anthony, who didn't make a basketball decision when he forced a trade to the New York Knicks in 2011? He wanted to go to his preferred city for the most possible money, so he insisted on a trade that gutted the Knicks' roster, rather than waiting to join them as a free agent at a slightly reduced rate. Now will he cast a wary eye on Cleveland and wonder if the best way to beat the team being assembled is to join the Chicago Bulls? Or will he take a lesson from LeBron and wait it out in New York, the place he wanted to be?

Other players learned from LeBron, because LeBron has learned from LeBron. The past four years taught him that his instincts are correct. He wanted to put himself in position to win championships, and the worst result he had was coming up three victories short, an opportunity that would be a dream for most franchises.

He also gained a sense of his power. It's not false grandiosity to consider himself more than just a basketball player. Not after the Forbes valuation of the Cavaliers dropped from $476 million to $329 million within two years of his 2010 departure, while the value of the Miami Heat zoomed from $364 million to $770 million while he was there. Not when he stopped NBA traffic like a crossing guard by delaying his announcement over the past week.

So it's not far-fetched to think this is about more than just the balance of power in the Eastern Conference.

"I feel my calling here goes above basketball," LeBron told Jenkins. "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."

In Miami, he was introduced simply as "Number 6, LeBron James."

With the Cavaliers, they made sure to include "From St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, in Akron, Ohio."

Maybe those additional words are the only ones he needed to hear ... again.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.