MIAMI — Every old story now tells another story, somewhat different than the one intended at the time. Back in April of 2012, when I requested to talk to then-Miami Heat forward LeBron James about his personal transition to South Florida, it was because I was under the impression, based on frequent observation and occasional conversation, that he was much more at ease during his second Heat go-round.
Nor, during our interview, did he make me think any different. He was in an upbeat mood and came off as exceedingly earnest, speaking with a smile about the simple joy of waking up to hear his sons splashing in the pool outside, after they had spent most of his first Heat season in Akron with his then-girlfriend Savannah.
"I'm leaps and bounds more comfortable than I was last year," he told me, while I was still working for The Palm Beach Post. "I don't think a lot of people understand, but it was the first time for me ever leaving the state of Ohio. It was the first time for me ever leaving the city of Akron. Even when I played in Cleveland the last seven years, I stayed in Akron. So it was a transition for me, going into a different state, going to a different place, and then learning the city, learning the people and learning all that. It was challenging for me for sure. It played a lot on my mind."
But now, at the conclusion of his second Heat regular season, he related that his mind had been relieved by the presence of so much more of his family, from Savannah (since upgraded to fiancee) to his sons to his mother to his future in-laws. He spoke of starting to acclimate to the area, finding hidden restaurants and bicycling through neighborhoods—doing everything short of learning Spanish.
He even spoke of the special benefits of establishing roots in a second region.
"I'm blessed to be in this position where I have a home here in Florida and a home back in my hometown of Akron, and be able to expose my kids to two different lifestyles," James said then. "When we're back there over the summertime, they love it. And when they're here during the season, they love it here, too. That's what drives me—if they smile, and they enjoy it no matter where we are, I'm happy."
But as it turned out, James was never quite happy enough. Not when he was Harlem Shaking or videobombing or trophy-raising—not once, but twice, in terms of the latter activity. Not when the Heat organization signed (Ray Allen) or drafted (Shabazz Napier) players of his liking, in order to help him continue to contend. Not when Erik Spoelstra was telling the world that the Heat didn't "take his greatness for granted"; or Pat Riley, serenader of superstars, was calling him the "BOAT" for best of all time; or owner Micky Arison was showing him the respect throughout that his previous employer, Dan Gilbert, egregiously failed to exhibit at the end.
Not when he was never really home.
Which he wasn't.
At least, that's what came off most clearly in the essay that Sports Illustrated posted early Friday afternoon, the one LeBron opened by introducing himself "a kid from Northeast Ohio," who has walked, run, cried and bled in front of the people there, so much that he sometimes feels "like I'm their son." He characterized his relationship with that area as "bigger than basketball." And while he didn't regret his decision to spend four years in Miami, a life-shaping experience that he compared to college, he became convinced he could now make a more significant societal impact somewhere else.
"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," James said.
Where he did.
This is an admirable ambition, and one in keeping with many of his statements during the most recent season, as he seemed to tire of all the basketball legacy talk, consistently shifting the conversation to the contributions he wanted to make off the court.
This was especially evident during his charitable endeavors, including one appearance during All-Star weekend at a Boys and Girls Club in Gretna, Louisiana, that his foundation had helped to renovate. Weary as he was, nodding off in an SUV before the event, he came to life as the kids danced and sang and laughed, and he kept coming back to that moment whenever asked about what he deemed more trivial topics in the weeks to come.
Sure, there are plenty of Boys and Girls Clubs in South Florida, and he had visited some of those as well during his four years here. Sure, there's also an acute need for someone of his stature in areas not all that far from his Coconut Grove residence, if he had chosen to stay. And, sure, a cynic could pick apart some pieces of his essay and assert that, if the Heat had won a third straight championship, or Riley had struck gold early in free agency, James may have been more likely to put even his strongest sentiments aside, at least for a while, and remain where his basketball fortunes were clearly brightest.
But the Heat didn't, crushed by the Spurs in the NBA Finals.
Then Riley didn't, running into too many restraints as he tried to recruit top complementary talent.
So it shouldn't surprise anyone that James started seriously searching.
Inward, outward and homeward.
"This is what makes me happy," James wrote, in the essay submitted with SI staffer, and "2012 Sportsman of the Year" cover writer, Lee Jenkins.
This explanation will never make all Heat fans happy, especially those who felt they had done enough to earn his enduring attachment, especially the most passionate protectors on social media, those who defended him time after time after time against the nastiest and most nonsensical narratives, swatting away the attacks with anger, humor and even a fair bit of statistical and historical research.
They coined flattering nicknames. They created hilarious memes. They even changed primary sporting preferences, with South Florida somehow turning into a basketball town, the Miami Dolphins relegated to secondary status.
They may have convinced themselves that he could completely reciprocate, that he could put Ohio—Cleveland, if not Akron—behind Miami, if they merely continued to highlight the favorable comparisons, touting their weather and their culture and their sports owners who don't send out offensive Comic Sans screeds. They may have convinced themselves that he would never leave, the same way a mistress might tell herself that after getting the guy to stray from his wife. They may have convinced themselves that he was finally over that first love, even as he kept texting, calling and even visiting her from time to time, just to check in, just to stay friends.
Just in case he reconsidered.
So this was a case of expecting too much, of not fully understanding the nature of the arrangement.
James was always on loan. Yes, this was a profitable transaction for the peninsula, for as long as it lasted, not just for the Heat's management but for all sorts of peripheral people, whether running a nightclub on South Beach or running their mouths on local sports radio. But, eventually, South Florida would need to return him. It didn't matter if it was entirely ready. Or, as it turned out, anywhere near ready. The clock was in his control.
"I always believed that I'd return to Cleveland and finish my career there," the essay revealed, to no one's surprise. "I just didn't know when."
When is now.
Gone he goes.
Like his sons, he made a splash in South Florida. But this was a splash for the ages, one never witnessed in any of South Florida's aquatic areas, not for all the cannonballing off diving boards. This was a splash that even Dan Marino or Shaquille O'Neal or Dwyane Wade hadn't made, so big that it left several counties utterly, happily soggy.
Now James is off to the pool he prefers, the one of his youth, the one where he first learned to float, then swim.
For Heat fans, nothing left to do but towel off.