In 2013, I predicted that LeBron James would shock the world and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Many, “insiders” with pipelines into executive suites and owners’ boxes said there was no way this would happen. The consensus was that the four-time-MVP would never marry the last years of his prime to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise and a wretched team owner, Dan Gilbert, who insulted James like a bratty adolescent on his way out of town.
All logic said they were right. But I still thought they were wrong and was confident, even throughout this last Bynum-and-Bailey circus of a season in Cleveland, that LeBron would find his way home. I apologize for this self-aggrandizing “snoopy dance” over my predicting something correctly, especially when my personal record of predictions is, on the whole, wretched. (My belief that a Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry–led Knicks team would make the 2008 NBA finals remains a sore subject.)
But for me, the idea that James would return to Cleveland, no matter how much of a train wreck of a franchise it had become, seemed preordained, even obvious, to anyone paying attention to his off-court persona. First of all, LeBron James is the most “meta”, self-aware, consciously cinematic athlete we have ever seen. If Michael Jordan was the superstar of his own blockbuster movie, LeBron has always aspired to be actor, producer and director. Every step he takes has one eye on posterity. “The Decision” of 2010, when LeBron “took [his] talents to South Beach”, which brought him the rings that he craved but left hurt feelings and bad vibes in its wake, did not fit the script that LeBron James had already written in his own mind. If LeBron sees himself as Martin Scorsese, The Decision was his Bringing Out the Dead. By coming home to possibly bring a sports championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964, LeBron James can make Goodfellas. He can produce and direct his own magnum opus even—perhaps especially—if it means an ending where he’s eating egg noodles and ketchup.
Securing a title for Cleveland would establish a legend far greater than winning multiple championships in Miami. Dragging a snake-bitten city to the heights of the sports world and smashing on all of the Modellian bad karma in his path would establish a narrative singularly his own. Choosing to return to Cleveland, a city that has lost almost a fifth of its population over the last two decades, makes him a prospective folk hero.
LeBron, as I wrote in 2013, has always aspired to be something more than a collection of specialty sneakers. Early in his career, he said he wanted to be a “global icon like Muhammad Ali” without the clearest sense about what that meant. In recent years, by speaking out for Trayvon Martin or becoming the first prominent NBA player to say that Donald Sterling had no business in the league, it seemed like he was figuring out what Jordan never did: that “being Ali” meant standing for something bigger than yourself.
By going back to Cleveland, LeBron is embracing his power as someone transformative, someone who could be, without cliché or Nike branding, more than an athlete. By making all the haters, from Dan Gilbert to the fans who burned his jersey, to the vicious media voices, sob in gratitude over his return, he is making this about more than just his own redemption, but theirs as well. Even by insisting on maximum money and not succumbing to the owner-friendly media-driven narrative that stars should accept less “for the good of the team”, he is doing right by young players currently getting hosed by a boss-friendly collective bargaining agreement. It may take some time to make it all work in Cleveland, but by shouldering the burden of a city’s collective damaged psyche and demonstrating the power to rebuild the most burned of bridges, LeBron is going for folk-hero status. He is attempting to produce the ultimate movie of his athletic life. Succeed or fail, it will be a collective thrill to see him try to write the final act. In other words, he’s already won.
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