Let's face it—he was a lousy villain. A real villain doesn't care what people think about him, and while LeBron James improved at hiding just how much he cared, he never managed to draw the blinds completely. He cares. He's always cared. That's why he's going back to Cleveland.
It's also why running away to Miami made him such a polarizing figure whose mere name in a story, no matter what the subject, could inspire thousands of comments about who he was really was. Because there was Bron Bron, the kid from the neighborhood with the shy smile who likes nothing more than to hang with his lifelong friends, and then there was King James, the chest-pounding slayer of legends and hunter of titles in the glitziest spot in all of Florida.
Bron Bron is a person. King James is a myth, an image and, let's be honest, not a very apt one. Read a little medieval history or catch an episode of Game of Thrones to see how kings truly behave. Kings don't reach out to other kings to work on their sword play. They don't fret that rulers before them don't recognize their kingliness. Even the kindliest ones do what they do to stay in power, not because they want to spread happiness.
That's what LeBron James does—he tries to take care of those around him. He wants people to be happy.
That's also why everything he did and said over the last four years didn't seem quite authentic. Dwyane Wade, aka Flash, aka Wow, is made for Miami. He might've come up in Chicago but, boy, it sure feels as if he was made for Lambos and models in bikinis. Same as Michael Jordan, North Carolinian, who took on the buttoned-down, cigar-chomping persona of Chi-town. Or Kobe Bryant, Philadelphian, whose flair for the dramatic made him synonymous with LA. Or Tim Duncan, the Virgin Islander, who now seems to embody San Antonio.
Are they still known by nicknames they've had since their childhood? Friends they brought with them and created jobs for just so they could continue to be together? No. They recreated themselves to fit who they wanted to be and what they wanted to accomplish and never looked back.
LeBron? He gave it a shot. Never quite took. That's why he's going back to Cleveland.
"At the end of the day, he's a homegrown Ohio boy," his former coach Mike Brown said.
Go back and look at that first celebration the Heat had when Chris Bosh, Wade and James are standing there as the crowd roars. Bosh and Wade are looking at each other and practically preening; whatever LeBron is feeling seems to be driven by the crowd's excitement, more so than his own. It's the look of someone who is happy because those around him are.
Or revisit any of the postgame press conferences with Wade and James at the podium, dressed up in their most cutting-edge finery. Wade always had a yeah-look-at-me aura, while James is more hey-I'm-just-trying-this-out.
"It didn't feel right, look right, smell right," said Brown, "but he was searching for a way to win. He was chasing championships."
The problem with that? Championships were never first and foremost in his mind. If they were, he would've evolved into the defender and post player he is today a whole lot quicker. He would've been taking the biggest shots in the biggest games a whole lot sooner. And he would've taken to task anyone, friend or foe, who stood between him and those championships back in Cleveland already—you know, the way he eventually did in Miami.
He took his talents to South Beach because the people at home were increasingly frustrated and he couldn't see a way to change that, not if winning a ring was the only solution. So he went away and found a circle and a place where he could win it all. Four straight runs to the Finals. Two championships. The chance to do something truly historic.
When Duncan and the Spurs lost in the Finals, they were bound and determined to go back and get what they felt was theirs. They still have that mindset. LeBron lost in the Finals and apparently said, "OK, what's next?"
If it were all about championships, the concentration and focus in 2012 and effort to the point of exhaustion would've been there in 2011. The performance he gave in Game 5 this year would've come in Game 3, with the series tied, because that would've asserted the Heat's superiority—LeBron's superiority—over the Spurs anywhere except in the stifling confines of a non-air-conditioned barn.
If it were all about championships he would be following the San Antonio model and staying in Miami for at least another year or two, because continuity and experience and the mental toughness and execution forged in the crucible of postseason play matters. As much as everyone wanted to stick a fork in Wade and Bosh and the entire Heat organization after the Spurs won, the fact is they waltzed through the Eastern Conference and stole home-court advantage from San Antonio. What, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra couldn't have coaxed the same crew through the same gauntlet again the way San Antonio did?
And as much as Las Vegas and everyone else wants to portray the Cavaliers now as the favorites to win it all, history shows it's not about merely putting together a championship-caliber nucleus. It's putting that nucleus inside an organization that understands all the minute tasks and decisions and building blocks and lessons that go into winning it all.
One GM I spoke with the day James announced he was returning to Cleveland shook his head disappointedly. The reaction surprised me because most everyone else—me included—seemed to be caught up in the euphoria of James going home, or perhaps showing he learned from the awful way he handled his last announcement—or perhaps simply relief that the constant speculation of what James would do was finally over.
But this GM couldn't fathom why James would leave a team with a proven track record for knowing how to win a title for one where he, James, is the only one who has that knowledge. One whose cupboard he hasn't really explored, not having met—to anyone's knowledge, anyway—with GM David Griffin or coach David Blatt or incumbent star Kyrie Irving before making his decision.
The Cavs don't even have the third piece—Kevin Love—that supposedly would give them their nucleus. Did James go to Miami without knowing what the three-man nucleus would be? Hell no.
But that's because, unlike then, this isn't about legacies or championships or proving he's the best player ever to play the game.
"People are excited that he's coming back and it puts Northern Ohio back on the map," Brown said. "They feel like they won something already."
As has LeBron. He's won back his chance to be exactly who he is: a kid from Ohio trying to make the people around him happy. He understands that nothing would do that more than a championship, but now that's all he needs to do. He doesn't have to prove he's better than Jordan or build a dynasty or chase down any of the other prizes that his physical gifts and knack for the game suggest are attainable. If he delivers a ring or rewrites the record books, great. If not, he still gets to be Bron Bron again, an Ohio kid from the neighborhood hanging with his pals.
That is why he's going back to Cleveland.