Cleveland Cavaliers fans cheer as then-Cav LeBron James takes the floor in the 2007 NBA playoffs. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
I believe that in 2014, NBA megastar LeBron James will create the feel-good sports story of the millennium by becoming a free agent and rejoining the Cleveland Cavaliers. This seems like an impossible scenario: the team that LeBron spurned to “take [his] talents to South Beach”; the fan base that burned his jersey when he made “the Decision”; the owner who sent unhinged messages to the press in both the font and tone of an over-stimulated 11-year-old. It sounds impossible, yet LeBron hasn’t denied the possibility, and it makes sense in a way that transcends dollars, cents and championships.
If Ohio’s prodigal son makes this most unlikely of returns, the effect would be the kind of social phenomenon felt far beyond the sports world. I love Ohio, but it has become a state that people feel compelled to leave. As deindustrialization took its toll, the state saw its population decline drastically over the last decade. According to the 2011 census, Cincinnati, Toledo, Youngstown, Dayton and LeBron’s hometown of Akron all have suffered mass exodus since 2000. Leading the way was Cleveland, which hemorrhaged 17 percent of its population. LeBron, so hated for leaving, was just one in a wave, another young person in Cleveland who grew up and left. His return, however, would inspire more than just thoughts of symbolic resurrection. It also would mean literally hundreds of millions to the state. The Heat, according to Forbes, have risen in value by $250 million since LeBron arrived. And now, at 28 years old, the three-time MVP is at the apex of his basketball and cultural powers.
LeBron James is in the process of doing nothing less than mastering the game of basketball. He plays the way that Bruce Lee threw a punch: an economy of motion coupled with devastating effect. As the Miami Heat continue their twenty-six-game winning streak, LeBron has taken his all-around game to a level that only Michael Jordan has inhabited. Like MJ, he’s in that rare zone where galactic athleticism crosses on a graph with mental acuity. James is now not only fastest and strongest person on the court; he’s also perhaps the smartest. Watch him in the post as he decides whether to whip a pass to a three-point shooter, hit a cutting teammate or just overpower whoever has to defend him. The choices are deadly in their efficiency. He holds the ball, assessing angles like Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, but then has the ability to jump over or through you like the genetically spliced spawn of Jordan and Bo Jackson. The numbers don’t lie: He’s averaging 26.9 points while shooting 56 percent from the field, unheard of statistics for someone under seven feet tall. During one stretch of their winning streak, he scored 102 points on forty-seven shots. That’s efficiency to shame a cyborg. As his teammate Dwyane Wade said, “It’s kind of like, where is the bar for this guy? Does he have a bar?”