Holding Court: LeBron back home!

Bert A. Ramirez
Holding Court: LeBron back home!
After going away for four years, LeBron James is back where he belongs - in his hometown Cleveland where it all started

It had to end like this. The gods simply thought there’s no other way for this long-drawn drama to end except this way. After two championships and four straight trips to the NBA finals, LeBron James is going back home to Cleveland.

James, whose decision on whether to re-sign with Miami, the team he led the past four years, or move on – logically to his original team – probably consumed offseason free agency like none other in history, simply thought he had to put a closure to the most maligned move in his career, if not his life, to make him whole again. He had to right a wrong, as it were, and he did so by coming home.  “I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland,” James stressed.

James announced his decision in a first-person essay told to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. He may not have been aware of it given his age and detachment from the earlier history of the league, but it was the same magazine (although the Internet was not yet available at the time) that first broke the legendary Bill Russell’s retirement through a similarly-written personal account in 1969.

“When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championship, and we won two,” James said on SI.com. “But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time.  My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”

“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”

James became basketball’s biggest villain four years ago when he produced a TV special entitled “The Decision” and there announced he was leaving his home state Cavaliers and “taking his talents down to South Beach.” People thought it was a classless way to diss your home state’s franchise as it reeked of insensitivity, appearing as it did like James was adding salt to a painful wound. This negative public sentiment reached a crescendo when the Heat held an introductory program that paraded their Big Three of James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, who declared, with not a small amount of arrogance and hubris, that they were going to win “not one, not two… not five or six titles” but more, further inflaming an already annoyed public that didn’t look too kindly at the way James abandoned his old ballclub.

But four years into the partnership, the Big Three had unraveled. Wade was hobbled by injuries and barely recalled his old deadly form, Bosh failed to provide the big-man presence the team needed, and James was left to carry most of the load the way he did with his old Cavaliers team as Heat president Pat Riley was barely able to put the right pieces around them. It was a harsh reality check for James, and shortly after they were dethroned by San Antonio in the NBA finals in a series that came as close to a sweep as there is, James, Wade and Bosh opted out of the last two years of their contracts ostensibly to enable the Heat to add more talent.

But though that was supposed to be the original plan, it was there that James came to the realization that winning as many titles as they declared they would in 2010 was impossible as no three All-Stars can win without the necessary pieces to help them do it. It was also there that the deep-seated longing to go back to his roots, and see the fulfillment of his original dream of winning there, saw a fortuitous revival.  

“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James admitted in his essay.  “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now. 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.”

James met with Riley and Heat owner Micky Arison last July 9 and both Miami executives felt good they had a good shot at keeping James even on a short-term deal. But LeBron also met with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert three days earlier, starting the process of healing a wound that was opened wide when the 29-year-old superstar left Cleveland and Gilbert, in a fit of rage, wrote an open letter that called James a “coward,” among other things.

“As you now know, our former hero, who grew up in the very region that he deserted this evening, is no longer a Cleveland Cavalier,” Gilbert then wrote Cavalier fans while vowing, quite wrongly as it turned out, that the Cavs would win a title before James even won one. “You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal. You have given so much and deserve so much more.  Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there. Sorry, but that’s simply not how it works.”

Gilbert apologized to James when they finally met on that fateful Sunday in Miami along with James’ agent Rich Paul, who had earlier fielded all offers made to James, including those from such teams as Phoenix and Dallas, and business manager Maverick Carter.

“We had five great years together and one terrible night,” Gilbert told his once and future star. “I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back.”

“I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out,” James for his part said. “Everybody makes mistakes.  I’ve made mistakes as well.  Who am I to hold a grudge?”

And so was sports’ most improbable partnership again forged. When Paul called Gilbert just before James’ essay was posted on SI.com last July 11, and told him, “Dan, congratulations. LeBron’s coming home,” Gilbert couldn’t have been happier.

“I’m grateful that we all get another chance together now.”

And so is practically everybody in the basketball community, with the understandable exception of Miami. People simply want to see a story come to a happy ending, a storybook that finishes the way it should – with the main characters all finding their just place in the scheme of things, for better or for worse. The fit is simply too good and ideal not to let it happen.

TWO-YEAR DEAL. LeBron James (C) seen here attempting to score against then Celtics big men Kendrick Perkins (L) and Kevin Garnett (R)  will sign a two-year deal to return to the Cavs. File photo by Matt Campbell/EPA

Of course, Cavs fans are at the forefront of all the celebration. Less than eight hours after James’ announcement, the team has practically sold out all season tickets – estimated at more than 12,000 – that were up for sale. On the strong possibility alone that James would be coming back two days earlier, the Cavaliers hit a cool $1 million in ticket sales. Analysts are now saying that the Cavs are worth $1 billion on the strength of James’ return alone.

“This was the right decision for him,” a poster named G-man commented. “I respect that. If he can go there and win a championship then that will solidify his place as one of the all-time greats. I am not a LeBron fan or even a Cleveland fan, and really lost all respect for the guy when he ditched his team in order to pool together the best available players to buy a championship. Understand, I am not doubting his talent, just his will to win (the ability to take over a game/series to will his team to a win). But if he can do it there in Cleveland, then I will agree he deserves to be named as one of the best.”

Sportswriters, to a man, are also hailing James’ return to his home state, many of them saying it’s reflective of a new-found maturity that he never had before.

“Going back home to try and win a championship after what some of his neighbors put him through takes real guts,” veteran columnist Jim Litke of The Associated Press wrote. “It’s what plenty of us wanted James to do the first time around. Behave like a real king. Dig in his heels and redouble his effort to patch the cracks in the foundation of a Cavaliers franchise that spent more than seven seasons and hundreds of millions trying to build him a throne. That’s the way Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant got their championship rings.

“The only thing he could rightly claim to be the king of (in 2010) was hype, hypocrisy and stacking the deck by lighting out for South Beach to join superfriends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh,” Litke continued.  “A few of his tattoos – ‘Loyalty’ and ‘330’ (the Akron, Ohio, area code) – made a mockery of his words even as they spilled out of his mouth…  He went to Miami four years ago because it would be easier to win a title. He returns to Cleveland knowing exactly how hard it will be. If you want to call that maturity, and put that quality at the top of the list, you’ll get no argument here.”

Bill Simmons, noted basketball analyst, meanwhile, offers a different perspective somehow, thinking James’ return to Cleveland is a manifestation of his genius at recognizing where he should be at exactly what time. “If you think of him like a genius, it makes more sense,” Simmons says. “He’s smarter about basketball than you and me, and, really, anyone else. He sees things that we can’t see. During that last Miami season, I don’t think he liked what he saw from his teammates. LeBron James wanted to come back to Cleveland, but he also wanted to flee Miami. His heart told him to leave, but so did his brain. And his brain works like very few brains – not just now, but ever.”

“Those four Miami seasons made me sure of one thing: He’s one of the greatest NBA players ever. Now he’s pursuing a greater challenge: bringing Cleveland its first title in 50 years in any sport. Add everything up and it’s the best possible story. He’s the conquering hero who came home, and, hopefully, will conquer again. (But) it’s also not entirely accurate. I think LeBron would have stayed in Miami – for at least one or two more years – if he truly believed he had a chance to keep winning there.”

And not all people are thinking that James did it for the selfless intention of paying back his home state, either. Blogger Bryce Doody, for example, said: “Why are people giving Lebron (credit) for leaving the Heat? The Heat are a team whose window is closing and age is catching up with. Cleveland has three of the last four first overall picks. (It is) full of young talent. (Kyrie) Irving is just as talented as any player LeBron would be playing with in Miami. Iggy (Andrew Wiggins) has instant potential and (Anthony) Bennett has looked good in summer league. (Dion) Waiters and (Anderson) Varejao are also very solid NBA players. Cleveland is also looking to bring in players like Mike Miller and Ray Allen. This is the second time LeBron has run away when his team has faced adversity. To me it is saddening to see a player run away whenever things get tough. Some people think he is returning to Cleveland because it is more difficult, but to me that can’t be any farther from the truth.”

But Yahoo Sports’ Dan Devine debunks that theory, saying that as James has reached the crossroads of his career and life, his choice “had to be about more than the relative on-court merits” of either Cleveland or Miami, citing this portion in James’ own essay: “…This is not about the roster or the organization.  I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. 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. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”

Devine’s respected colleague Adrian Wojnarowski perhaps sums it up best when he said: “LeBron James comes home a two-time champion, comes home with a chance to deliver something Dan Gilbert would’ve never imagined possible again: a chance for them to be champions together, a chance to wash away all the stain of a Scarlet Letter and The Decision, to get together older and wiser, and better understand how it can be made right again. His cell phone buzzed on Friday afternoon, and Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, heard the words he could’ve never, ever imagined: LeBron’s coming home.”

Are Cavaliers contenders?

A quick look at the Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James on board would indicate that while they may not be a shoo-in for a title, they definitely are a strong contender. They have a nice core of elite talent led of course by James, who by himself can make a difference.

A projected starting five of James, power forward Tristan Thompson, guards Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins, this year’s No. 1 overall pick, and center Anderson Varejao can compete with the best teams in the relatively weak Eastern Conference.

But it’s in the quality of the supporting cast that this team can get a clear edge. Right now, that bench would likely be made up of erstwhile starter Dion Waiters, who figures to be the main reliever of potential All-Star Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, last year’s top overall pick, Matthew Dellavedova and recent acquisitions Brendan Haywood and Dwight Powell.

The seven-foot Haywood and the 6-11 Powell bring much-needed size in the frontline, having been acquired from Charlotte for guard Scotty Hopson and cash considerations. Haywood, who has one year left in his contract, missed all of last season with a broken foot but can be a nice reliever to Varejao with his 12-year experience that includes a championship stint with Dallas in 2011. He’s actually the Cavs’ top pick at No. 20 in 2001 but was promptly traded to Orlando.

James has reached out to former Miami teammate Mike Miller, and if the veteran sharpshooter as well as Ray Allen joins LeBron in Cleveland, the Cavs will have a talented, savvy team in there that can compete with whoever emerges as the top team in the East.

“My patience will get tested. I know that,” James said in talking about his team’s current roster, which is bound to lose free-agent forward Luol Deng. “I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach (European champion David Blatt). I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.”

The Cavs were reported to be interested in trading for Minnesota All-Star Kevin Love, possibly bringing together another All-Star Big Three of James, Love and Irving, but that has to be set aside for now with the Timberwolves reportedly not willing to give away Love without getting back Wiggins in return. Cleveland is adamant about keeping the 6-foot-8 Wiggins, a versatile swingman whom a lot of people say has superstar potential.

Homecoming fallout

LeBron James’ homecoming to his home state definitely left in its wake several casualties, the biggest of whom is of course Miami. James had informed Dwyane Wade of his decision and did the same to Chris Bosh, who was out of the country, through his agent before he made his formal announcement through the Sports Illustrated post. He also spoke with Pat Riley and Micky Arison the morning of that fateful Friday.

While Wade was disappointed, he understood James’ decision to come home. “As a friend and a teammate, I am sad to see my brother LeBron leave to begin a new journey,” Wade said.  “In 2010, we decided to come together all for one goal – to win championships and we succeeded.  We were friends when we first joined the league and created an unbreakable bond the past four years. Our collaboration will always be very special to me both personally and professionally. We shared something unique and he will always be part of my family. LeBron made the right decision for himself and his family because home is where your heart is. I know this was not an easy decision to make and I support him in returning to his roots. As an organization, a community, and as individuals, we achieved the goals we set when we first signed on together. We are champions.”

BROTHERS. Teammates no more, Dwyane Wade (R) considers LeBron James (L) his brother.  FIle photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA

Riley, for his part, said, “While I am disappointed by LeBron’s decision to leave Miami, no one can fault another person for wanting to return home. The last four years have been an incredible run for South Florida, Heat fans, our organization and for all of the players who were a part of it. LeBron is a fantastic leader, athlete, teammate and person, and we are all sorry to see him go.”

It wasn’t easy for James either as he cited the bond that he had created with his Heat teammates. “The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys,” he said. “I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished.”

If and when the Cavaliers are able to further improve their team, the fallout will definitely extend to other East teams, particularly the participants in a trade that enabled the Cavs to clear cap space for their move to bring back James, who will reportedly sign for a two-year, $42.1 million deal with an opt-out in the second year so he can get the maximum salary in the next collective bargaining agreement.

These are the Boston Celtics and the Brooklyn Nets. The Celtics, in particular, were responsible for giving Cleveland their $10.3 million trade exception that the Cavs used to clear cap space in exchange for Cavs center Tyler Zeller and a top 10-protected first-round pick as well as Nets guard Marcus Thornton and his expiring contract. The Nets, meanwhile, received guard Jarrett Jack from Cleveland.

The trade could especially boomerang on the Celtics if the Cavaliers are able to make good their plan of acquiring Kevin Love from Minnesota. The Celtics, of course, have long been trying to acquire the three-time All-Star forward but have not had success in pulling off the deal.

SHORTSHOTS: Carmelo Anthony will reportedly stay in New York by signing a five-year deal worth in excess of $120 million.  More on this on Wednesday…

LeBron James will reportedly wear No. 32 for the Cavs next season. He wore that number while starring for St. Vincent-St. Mary in high school…

The Houston Rockets have agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal with Trevor Ariza, the free-agent forward from Washington. Ariza’s deal has a declining scale: $8.6 million, $8.2 million, $7.8 million and $7.4 million to give the Rockets flexibility in the summer of 2016. Despite the contract, however, Houston could still match the offer sheet for Chandler Parsons…

Pau Gasol turned down a two-year, $10 million-plus per-year deal with the Lakers and will move to the Chicago Bulls possibly in a sign-and-trade that could get him $10 million per year, or a straight signing in the $6.5 million range. The seven-foot Gasol obviously wants out of LA although he tweeted: “It hasn’t been easy.  After meditating it a lot I’ve chosen to play with the Chicago Bulls. Looking forward to this new chapter of my career.” But Nick “Swaggy P” Young, unlike Gasol, has reportedly re-signed with the Lakers for $21.5 million over four years. The Lakers also finalized a trade with the Rockets for Jeremy Lin, a future first-round pick and other draft considerations. The Lakers will send cash and the rights to an overseas player to the Rockets, but no salary will be taken back…

Cleveland is closing in on a deal with Mike Miller, according to FOX Sports Ohio. The Cavs are also eyeing Chris Andersen to enable the Birdman to join LeBron James in Cleveland. But the Heat have an interest in re-signing Andersen, although mostly for the purpose of keeping him away from Cavs. Talk about bad blood…

The Memphis Grizzlies signed Vince Carter to three-year, $12 million deal, with the third year partially guaranteed.  It will likely be Carter’s last contract…

Phoenix and Sacramento are finalizing a sign-and-trade deal on a four-year, $27 million contract for Isaiah Thomas…

Chris Bosh is finalizing an agreement to return to Miami on a five-year, $118 million deal, effectively declining a maximum offer from Houston…

Gordon Hayward is staying in Utah after all. The Jazz on Saturday matched Charlotte’s four-year, $63 million offer to the restricted free agent. But the Hornets have moved quickly from the failed bid, agreeing with Marvin Williams on a two-year, $14 million deal…

Anthony Morrow will reportedly sign a three-year, $10 million contract to join Oklahoma City…

Kent Bazemore will sign a two-year, $4 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks. Bazemore has played for Golden State and the Lakers in the NBA…

Finally, Paul Pierce has reportedly agreed to a two-year, $11 million deal with Washington. What will happen now to his buddy Kevin Garnett in Brooklyn? – Rappler.com

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash,Sports World, Basketball Weekly, and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk, and slept sports most of his life.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.