Americans are, in a way, trained to think in four-year increments. It’s how we structured our most prestigious political office, after all. The attendant tales of Oval Office corruption and redemption—rarer though the latter may be—only embolden the temporal template.
July 8 marks exactly four years since LeBron James took to the stage at a Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, to utter the now-infamous words: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”
Over the past few days, word has spread—albeit more through source conjecture than quoted comments—that James could be open to returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, per ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein.
It would certainly make for a great story. Whether it absolves James of The Decision’s sins, however, is another question altogether.
Make no mistake: Redemption alone won’t compel LeBron back to his home state. We’re talking about one of the smartest, savviest athletes of his generation. Kings don’t just up and leave castles for keeps.
To believe Cleveland is anywhere close to contention, James must see something in the Cavs’ core—Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao—worth risking easier rings. Potential and upside are fun for fans to fawn over; for athletes, they’re just words waiting for wills.
Perhaps if James is willing to sign a full five-year contract, the eventual returns might be worth it. However, this would seem to fly in the face of reports from Windhorst suggesting LeBron—with flexibility his operative ethos—could be looking for a more short-term deal.
Short of compiling the best guesses from a hefty list of plugged-in reporters, providing precise odds on a potential prodigal return from James is next to impossible (unless you believe Chris Sheridan's figure, that is).
That enough of them have deemed it not impossible, though, suggests the karmic calculus is close to foremost on LeBron’s mind.
In fact, it may have been for quite some time. Back in 2012, CBS Sports’ Ben Golliver—based on an interview with The Associated Press—reported this off-the-cuff quote from the King:
I don't know. I think it would be great [to return to Cleveland]. It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot fun times in my seven years here. You can't predict the future and hopefully I continue to stay healthy. I'm here as a Miami Heat player, and I'm happy where I am now, but I don't rule that out in no sense.
Ever since, speculation has abounded that, under the right circumstances—perfect ones, perhaps—James might try to make formal, final good on a healing process four years in the making.
Now, with everyone in the NBA universe on piercing pins and needles, James continues treading ever so carefully, lest he heighten hopes so much that Cleveland fans wind up shamed for getting fooled twice.
Just how taut of a public-relations tightrope is LeBron tiptoeing? If you ask CBS Sports’ Gregg Doyel, it’s string-theory thin:
Does LeBron owe Cleveland something? Oh, you're damn right he owes Cleveland something. He doesn't owe Cleveland his return, but he owes that fanbase and even that franchise the decency he didn't show in 2010 when he tore out their heart on national television and ate it with a nice Chianti while Jim Gray leered. In 2010 Cleveland didn't see it coming -- nobody saw it coming -- when LeBron left for the Miami Heat. Stars like LeBron don't leave their team, and certainly not their hometown team (Akron is basically a Cleveland suburb), without having the courtesy of giving them some advance warning.
For James, the flak of four years ago was entirely self-inflicted—the bloody blowback wrought from a flagrant disregard for the feelings of a long-suffering fanbase, clumsily conducted under the guise of harmless theater.
This time around, however, the circus is someone else’s production. In having his every movement and meeting tracked on Twitter and put to print, James’ free agency has become a farce; he is neither free nor in possession of agency—at least not morally. What he decides will be brutally and breathlessly scrutinized, even if he went out of his way to not so much as hint at the alternative.
In the end, it was James who put himself in the precarious position of having his every possible move be subject to public trial—notwithstanding our curious collective propensity for patronizing 25-year-olds, of course.
If LeBron does indeed take his talents back to Lake Erie, there are sure to be some for whom such a move will stink of simple cynicism, a way to absolve himself the unforgivable Midwestern sin of seeking the easy way out.
For the rest of us, let’s at least acknowledge that, however genuine you believe the contrition to be, there's nothing easy about bowing to the brother you betrayed.