Redemption, thy name is LeBron James.
Four years after one of the most controversial free-agent signings in NBA history, Ohio's prodigal son is going home.
In a stunning turn of events, James spurned a last-ditch Las Vegas pitch from the Miami Heat (per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears), opting instead to join Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins and the youth-imbued Cleveland Cavaliers to form what is sure to be an instant title contender in 2015.
Word officially broke shortly after noon Friday:
Here's how James' announcement, relayed to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins, begins:
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. 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.
Now we do too, even if it took us until now to realize it.
It seemed too good to be true—a just ending in a court where such seldom prevails.
To be sure, James would've been more quickly forgiven for deciding otherwise. Short of a few off-the-cuff remarks made at a 2012 morning shootaround (via Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer), he remained mostly mum on whether or not a regal return might be in the cards.
This time around, the Cleveland conjecture was almost completely out of his hands—hijacked by forces beyond LeBron's control and spun to within an inch of parody. Partly because we wanted it to be true, partly because we believed it in keeping with his public punishment.
So there were the cars and cameras lined up like metal leeches on LeBron's street. Those who drove them carried pitchforks and hugs, if in heart rather than hand, awaiting word. We were no different.
All the same, the back-to-back titles and quartet of NBA Finals showings had earned him something of a hometown respite; James' play was simply too brilliant, too functionally unimpeachable, to let one media miscalculation malign the growing greatness.
That he was just 25 years old when "The Decision" went down—old enough for moral agency, young enough to forget what it means to wield it—somehow never struck us as relevant.
Instead, furious fans registered their rage with flames to fabric, as if protesting invasion by some foreign flag. Angry patrons screamed at TVs with the righteous conviction of citizens forced to heed another stolen election.
Perspective is a dying currency in American sports. Hence why fandom, derived from "fanatic," fits the bill so perfectly. We get angriest over that which is most familiar. Being Ohio's favorite son, James didn't have much room for error. When he slipped, the fall was four years long.
Catching the last branch before impact doesn't absolve James of any wrongdoing. From concept to execution, "The Decision" was disastrous.
James understands this. He regrets it, of course, and has even gone on record to that effect (per Sporting News).
"The way it panned out with all the friends and family and fans back home, I apologize for the way it happened," James stated after finally dethroning the Boston Celtics in the 2011 playoffs. "This was the opportunity of lifetime."
The way it happened. Not that it happened. The way it happened. The way a 25-year-old incubated to basketball manhood by spotlights and exacting eyes will make it happen, 100 percent of the time.
To lord it over LeBron the way we did, the way we never do the ones who truly deserve it: That's our decision, our disaster.
But LeBron understood the ratio of indignation to raw, real-world stakes was skewed from the start. Even he knew that, by becoming bar none the best basketball player of his generation, the only holdouts would be the fevered first-time-long-times.
So after surveying the scene—back-to-back banners, yes, but with loss fresh on the mind and a Western Conference brass grown deeper by the year—LeBron likely came to this single, simple conclusion: To have any chance of outfitting four more fingers, I need to roll the die on upside.
In a column penned back in May, Forbes' Tom Van Riper underscored the competitive calculus at play in the LeBron James Sweepstakes:
LeBron's jump to Miami four years ago wasn't about a bigger market or a bigger contract – Cleveland had the ability under the rules to make him the biggest offer, and today's modern media would yield him about the same amount of exposure in either city – it was about mining for championships. The Heat had [Dwyane] Wade, the Cavs didn't. Now, the pendulum is swinging back. If you had a few prime years left, where would you rather spend them? With Irving and Wiggins, or with a 32-year-old Wade nursing balky knees and a cast of aging role players?
Impossible athletic specimen though he may be, LeBron knows his career clock isn't ticking any slower. If he's ever to exorcise the demons of "The Decision," it has to be now, in his prime. Not at 35, twilight moving fast toward Springfield stars.
That's not to say James is stepping into the most bucolic of basketball scenes; last year's Cavs were a disappointing mess. At the same time, James—humble halftime interviews aside—realizes his pull and power, knows that he makes this core instantly credible. Contending may take some growing pains. Once there, though, just watch the waters part.
We'll save next season's tea leaves for later. We've already read too many.
The chapter LeBron just authored, however—that we haven't read. Sports seldom prepare us for such narrative turns, for the moment when malevolence becomes beneficence, when bad guys find the path back to better ways and the universal righteousness of roots.
LeBron James, more than any other basketball player on the planet, makes greatness seem routine. That's why, "The Decision" and all its attendant baggage aside, we acknowledge him in kind.
Becoming, in the hearts and minds of millions, both great and good—this, rare as it is, might be his finest-ever feat.
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