June 29, 2016

Intermittent clouds

LeBron James returning home with class

LeBron James is coming home.

In a carefully crafted, nearly perfectly composed essay as told to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, James righted a lot of wrongs early Friday afternoon and set off a wild celebration among most Northeast Ohio sports fans by announcing he was returning to play for the Cavaliers.

I say “most” because some people will never forgive James for announcing “The Decision” to leave Cleveland for Miami live on ESPN four years ago.

There are others who simply don’t care about the Akron native’s return.

Both groups are entitled to feel that way, but this is how I see it: If James and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who ripped the small forward in a letter to fans hours after The Decision, can look each other in the eye — and themselves in the mirror — then why shouldn’t I move on as well? This does not mean either man should (ever) be anointed, but for me it really is as simple as that.

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

And who am I? During his first seven years with the Cavs, James was a pleasure to watch, cover and interview. His talents on the hardwood were evident to all. Off it, he was insightful, opinionated and funny — sometimes all at once. Almost always, he was friendly and cooperative.

Rarely did I — or anyone else in the local print media, for that matter — get a chance to speak with him one-on-one, but on the few occasions that I did, James was the same way. On one occasion, I told him I had graduated from Akron North High School, and he immediately told me that he had once lived in an apartment complex in that part of town before adding that his uncle had played basketball at North.

It wasn’t much, I know, and it took no outrageous effort on James’ part, but to be able to handle all the attention at such a young age, especially when he was often being pulled in several directions, was no small accomplishment.

The Decision was a huge gaffe and James knows it, but I’ll give him one mulligan, especially because he’s come to realize that he not only needs Cleveland, but Cleveland, which went 97-215 and barely sniffed the playoffs in four seasons without him, desperately needs him.

If James and Gilbert are using one another for personal gain, which they very well may be, so be it. It’s no sweat off my back. The fans, who have not enjoyed a major sports championship since 1964, are the real winners.

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

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left,” he added. “Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go.”

James, who made his announcement prior to flying to Brazil for the World Cup final, was eloquent, emotional and humble in the SI essay. Whether he actually wrote most, part or any of it really isn’t all that important, because the Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High graduate, with Jenkins’ help, addressed just about everything he should have.

In that sense, this letter was much classier than the 2010 one that initially had Gilbert on the verge of sainthood in these parts.

“My goal is to still win as many titles as possible, no question,” James said. “But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”

James made it a point to thank the Heat organization and his now former teammates, saying, “I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland.”

The 29-year-old failed to address Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston, a contest in which some people, including Gilbert, thought the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder quit.

I’ve never felt that strongly — the guy played so hard in Game 6 that he approached a quadruple-double when his turnovers were included — but I do believe James got unbelievably frustrated and, for a moment or two or three, became convinced there was nothing he could do to prevent the Celtics from winning the series.

James probably was right, too, but there will be no opportunity, at least in the near future, to get that question answered.

“I’m not having a press conference or party,” James said in the SI essay. “After this, it’s time to get to work.”

Make no mistake, there is plenty of work still to be done, but there is once again a legitimate reason to believe the Cavs could be on the verge of something special following the most important day in franchise history.

While I have made a personal vow to never again refer to James as “The King” or “The Chosen One,” his return has everything to do with the renewed hope in Cleveland.

Wisely, James did not predict the Cavs would win a championship next season or even the season after — “I know how hard that is to deliver,” he said — but Cleveland was quickly installed as the favorite by a number of Las Vegas odds makers.

Should that title ever happen, either in 2015 or a year or two later, it would be the culmination of an odd set of occurrences that, put together, have created almost a perfect storm to date.

Viewed as a pariah or traitor in Cleveland after The Decision, James led Miami to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two titles, but the Heat got trounced by San Antonio in the finals this season and suddenly found itself with an aging and thin roster.

The Cavs went 19-63, 21-45, 24-58 and 33-49 — Gilbert vowed in his 2010 letter that they would win a title before James — but managed to acquire some solid young talent (Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, perhaps Anthony Bennett) while also keeping veteran Anderson Varejao and maintaining salary cap flexibility. (Wiggins, incidentally, was not mentioned by name in the SI essay. Whether it was an honest omission or an indication he could be traded as part of a deal for Minnesota power forward Kevin Love, I do not know.)

Don’t underestimate the importance of any part of that perfect storm, but also never forget the hurricane that ultimately blew James back into town: Cleveland is a 40-minute car ride from Akron and an even shorter drive from James’ home in Bath Township.

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given,” James said in the SI essay. “Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him @RickNoland on Twitter.

Rick Noland About Rick Noland

Rick Noland is the Cavs beat writer for The Gazette and the author of "Over Time," a compilation of stories he's written in more than 30 years as a journalist. He can be reached at 330-721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.