The King has returned, and he’s been learning.
Not just how to win championships or how to care, but how to show people you want to win championships. How to show people you care. He’s learned PR and he’s learned how to manoeuvre atop the masses.
His first attempt was sloppy. He stuck the landing and won a couple trophies, some individual hardware, but the take-off was garbage.
There was no decision in this decision. It wasn’t a nationally televised event that ripped the hearts out of the chests of Cleveland, Ohio, that left them to beat on until they just stopped and died right there on the stage. Sure, those Boys & Girls got, like, a bunch of money or something. But nobody cared about that… because this is sports, and that was America. And when the game’s on the line, when your favourite team’s on the tele, you don’t give a damn about kids. And that’s fair enough, honestly.
LeBron’s decision was a well-intentioned flop. Like quicksand, the harder he tried to make it all seem like, really, “Man, um, this is tough,” he just couldn’t. The more questions he answered, the longer we had to wait for him to just pick a damn city, the city he’d already known he was going to pick while everyone – Cleveland, especially – just dangled in the wind and waited on his word, the faster he sunk and the lower he fell.
The Cavaliers had put everything into one man. Only problem was, Cleveland isn’t Miami. And Cleveland knows that.
That’s why none of that rust belt city’s threats meant anything. That whole deal where the Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert wrote what can conservatively be called a staunch letter of disapproval, where he vowed Cleveland would win its own NBA title before LeBron won his first… hell, that was painful. It was hard to watch. It was like seeing your buddy drunkenly try to confront his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, and then watch him continually tell you “I’m fine, I’ve moved on” even while he sits on the toilet and cries for hours every day.
To see LeBron in Miami, with a new number and two new teammates, knowing that the Heat wouldn’t just inevitably win a title very soon but that they’d also do it while tearing up South Beach – a substantial cultural improvement from the Cuyahoga River – well that had to hurt Cleveland’s for-some-reason faithful fans.
It was clear who won the breakup. Not just to the Cavs, but to America. And worse for Ohio, to LeBron as well.
But now he’s back. And he did it all his way. He wrote his own op-ed for Sports Illustrated, which was subtle but still indulgent. He did it on a Friday morning, when most of us were driving into work. He didn’t do it in primetime, in front of the nation, while ESPN could turn the whole affair into a ratings slam dunk. (That may have been an obviously crass and poor move from LeBron in 2010, but it clearly wasn’t obvious to him, and he has admitted as much.)
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled,” James wrote, in an exclusive piece of SI.com called ‘I’m Coming Home’.
“It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.
“I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
Sorry, I just have something in my eye…
This time, Bron held interviews with his suitors and he held the chips. That’s important. You can hate a celebrity for being a celebrity, but it’s hard to hate them when they take the words right out of your mouth – when they’re playing into the character you know them for in their movies. In 2010, James was like Shia LaBeouf with a bag over his head, making your forget he could have ever lasted through the filming of Indiana Jones, three Transformers films, and the Wall Street sequel. But now, James is like a George Clooney character… he’s so himself in the movie, you don’t even need to know the film’s title. When you’re recapping the film for your friends, you don’t call him by his character’s name. You just go, “Oh, remember the part where Clooney says…”
Last time, LeBron tried to be loved. He ended up hated.
This time? He wasn’t trying at all. He was just making a choice.
And from John Wayne to Clint to even Kobe, there’s nothing we love more than someone who shoots first and asks questions later.
We like someone who’s selfish, as long as they’re not all greedy about it. (Does that make sense?)
Take Michael Jordan for example. His Airness has got to be the most egomaniacal pri*k in NBA history. But Jordan was only an egomaniacal pric* because he was an egomaniacal pr*ck. LeBron will always be compared to Jordan, at first because he took #23 when he entered the league in 2003, and now because he’ll likely retire as the second-greatest player of all-time, behind Michael.
And while Jordan ended his career with the Washington Wizards – or had you blocked that from your memory? – he will always be remembered as a Chicago Bull. And only a Chicago Bull. Sticking with one team for the meat of your career, that makes you loyal. So when LeBron bolted Northeast Ohio for the sunny retirement communities of South Florida, there was a great disturbance in the force. He re-wrote the script, and we love twist endings but we hate uncomfortable twist endings – like how the Mother dies in How I Met Your Mother or how the dinosaurs overtake San Diego in Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
Because basketball greats aren’t supposed to go into the Hall with options – they’re supposed to go in with one jersey choice and only one jersey choice. Jordan had Chicago. Larry Bird had Boston. Bill Russell had Boston, too. Magic had the Lakers. Even John Stockton and Karl Malone have Utah. Steve Nash may have played for Dallas and now L.A., but Nash was a Phoenix Sun as soon as he was traded to Arizona and he only left when the Suns had no need for him – sorta like Jarome Iginla leaving Calgary with at least four years of hockey left.
The guys who did chase a title somewhere else, who did leave the city that brought them into the NBA, raised them and coddled through the storms and sleepless nights? Guys like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem did that sh*t. But they never won titles on their own. They were all-time great but they weren’t all-time GREAT. Wilt went from the Warriors to the Sixers to the Lakers, only winning his title when Russell and the Celtics weren’t in his way. Kareem won one title with the Bucks, and then he rode Showtime, Magic Johnson, and Pat Riley to a bunch more in the 80s.
But neither of them was the omega.
So when LeBron left Cleveland for Miami, his career felt unfinished, even thought it sorta just started. It felt wrong and weird and almost like an alternate universe. And the Heat weren’t the Lakers or the Celtics or the Knicks… they were the Heat. The nouveau rich. The Wild West, but very East.
Except Jordan wasn’t perfect, and his career wasn’t perfect. Michael may not have left the Bulls for another NBA team, but he did leave them for baseball. And when he returned, he wore #45 for a season, a strange season where the Houston Rockets were the best there was, where Patrick Ewing might actually win a championship. (But he didn’t. The universe has standards, of course.)
But Jordan gets a pass because he, well, is Michael Jordan. And he had already won three NBA titles. Three straight, actually. As bizarre as his first retirement was, it wasn’t cruel.
LeBron’s divorce was. It was public and bitter and it cost Cleveland her early 20s.
Except now they’re remarried. And let’s hope its harmonious.