I still remember where I was on July 8th, 2010.
As part of a family tradition, every summer my mother and I take a short three-day trip to someplace in Europe, and in 2010 we decided to visit Amsterdam. Free agency was under way, a phenomenon she’s never understood the magnitude of, so I insisted on a hotel that had wifi, or at least some sort of internet connection. As it were, we ended up downtown where summer life was at its fullest and every night was a party.
All throughout the day, rumors had circulated that LeBron James would choose the Miami Heat and the internet was buzzing. Several sites had overrun servers, message boards went down, articles took forever to load on ESPN, and I was at the bottom of the totem-pole with a wonderful 1MB/s connection shared by 10-12 others on our floor.
When the show began, it was early morning and the streets had already quieted. Over the next hour, the world witnessed one of the most egotistical and surreal displays in free agency of any sport. It served as a built-up for people wishing for LeBron to choose his old Cavaliers, as spurning them on live television after all those highlights would be too insensitive, too cruel, even slightly evil. The longer the show became, the more cruel it’d be to not return.
And when it came down to LeBron announcing his new destination, something weird happened. Here I am, in Amsterdam of all places, on a shaky stream (totally legal, I swear!) in the middle of a very hot night, thinking I’m the only one crazy enough to spend my time watching a live free agent decision. But when LeBron said the words “South Beach”, I heard roars from outside the window and in the street. Our hotel was stacked up next to an apartment complex and several of these homes had people streaming the event in dire anticipation just like me, and some were streaming video off their laptops around a fountain in the street.
That’s where it hit me. LeBron was never going to be the same player again in anyone’s eyes. This was a monumental change in the global perception of him. The guy who could do no wrong, suddenly had.
In the weeks that followed, the web was ablaze. LeBron was a cheat, a fraud, a new-found enemy that needed to be humiliated in the worst manner possible through the suffocating powers of defeat. People wanted his head, and the media had a field day writing him about him, creating “Heat Index” pages, interviewing the greats of the game for soundbites to stretch the story, and even looking back at his Cavaliers career to find clues about him leaving Ohio in the dust.
When the Heat lost to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals, as far as the general public was concerned, a score had been settled. LeBron was not a winner, not mentally strong enough to handle the pressure and he was never going to be one of the best to ever play the game. It re-started a media witch hunt that, despite two championships in four seasons, lasted until a few days ago, when Lee Jenkins from SI.com got the scoop of a lifetime; LeBron was coming home.
The goodwill in returning home is substantial. The process of forgiveness has been sped up, and people are slowly beginning to trust LeBron again. But the damage done four years ago still lingers around the world. Some believe LeBron is too far gone to ever being capable of making the right decision, and view his signing with Cleveland as a need of being liked. Others think he once again chose to chase rings, seeing the writing on the wall with Dwyane Wade’s diminishing game and aching knees, and instead preferred the younger legs of Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins as his new wingmen.
Fact of the matter is this; for whatever he does to rectify it, and for as long as he tries, LeBron will always have a tarnished element to his legacy that won’t ever fully heal. There will be a four-season outline which he began in the most antagonistic way possible, although that was never his intention.
For as much talk about LeBron James there is, very rarely is perspective considered. There has never been a player in the history of the game, who could emotionally impact all of us, more than him. Everyone has an opinion on him, and they vary more on him, than any other player. Any article written about him, any news segment showing him, any radio broadcast discussing him, you will never find a more controversial NBA player in terms of public perception.
So in an attempt at restoring logic, returning home and signing with the Cavaliers is not LeBron doing damage control.
Like a select few of the game’s legends before him, LeBron transcends the sport he plays. He’s become an icon, a global presence, one whose talents on the hardwood no longer equals the power of his personal brand. If he didn’t care about Cleveland, he wouldn’t have returned. He could have signed in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, even Boston, and conquered the world through playing in a market that could support his fame.
The Cavaliers, just six months ago, were a mess of near epic proportions. Luol Deng, after having spent 26 days with the franchise, was fed up with them. Coaches and players didn’t get along, as both Irving and Dion Waiters were trying to position themselves as the leader going forward. The club won the lottery three times in LeBron’s absence, waffled on several of their at-times multiple first-round selections, and were the league’s laughingstock.
You don’t go back to something like that, unless there’s love.
LeBron, and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, talked it out as grownups, which is symbolic of LeBron’s four year journey to the south. When he left, he did so under immature circumstances (likewise was Gilbert’s reaction), and now there’s a sense of perspective, inner patience, and maturity.
LeBron has grown up, and is coming back to Cleveland as the man they were all expecting him to become. He just took an unexpected detour to find himself.