The Prodigal Son Returns

In the end, it turns out neither LeBron James nor the Cleveland Cavaliers could go on without each other. Back in 2010, “The Decision” was received by several basketball fans and non-fans much the same way wrestling fans took Hulk Hogan’s betrayal of WCW and the subsequent creation of the NWO. LeBron had become a wrestling heel on that day. The difference, however, is that while Hogan knew what he was getting into by turning the most popular character in wrestling history into its biggest bullying jackass, James clearly never meant his switch to Miami as a heel turn. It’s not that “real sports” don’t function like wrestling, with storylines and characters. Of course, they do; the media make sure of that. It’s just that LeBron is not comfortable with being a heel. That much was obvious even during his time in Miami.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers never recovered from LeBron’s departure. Owner Dan Gilbert wrote him an angry letter that was only taken off the Cavaliers website a few days ago (a fact that still baffles my mind), when James’ return to Cleveland became a distinct possibility. The Cavs stumbled around for four years in a swamp of on-court mediocrity fueled by horrendous personnel decisions and a general feeling of being cursed. “God hates Cleveland,” the saying goes, and the city’s fans have adhered to this belief a long time ago.

There will not be a more important piece of news in the sporting world in 2014. (Well, in any country not named Germany, anyway.) James’ return helps the Cavs in more ways than mere on-court performance. It shines a positive light on a Cavaliers’ team that has seldom attracted spotlight for reasons other than ridicule since LeBron’s departure.

As was the case for many NBA observers, I could not believe LeBron would return to Cleveland. The split had been too painful and violent, the backlash too great. The mere existence of Dan Gilbert’s letter was one thing, but the words he used were another. They were not just hyperbolic, they were personal. Gilbert attacked LeBron not merely on his judgement, but on his character. I never would have handled “The Decision” as poorly as James did, but had someone said of me the things Gilbert said of LeBron, I could never have forgiven him, much less play for the man’s team again.

Was the decision to return to Cleveland as selfless as LeBron makes it appear? Obviously not. Had LeBron believed the Heat were a good bet to go three-for-five in terms of championships, I still think he would have stayed in Miami. However, the case can be made that the roster he’s joining has more upside than the one he’s leaving. It’s hard to believe that his departure wasn’t somewhat precipitated by Dwayne Wade’s worrisome health/performance in the finals, the apparent beginning of Chris Bosh’s decline, as well as the less-than-stellar personnel decisions by Pat Riley and the Heat’s top brass. Amnestying Mike Miller turned out to be ill-inspired, as were the signings of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, two fairly high-profile NBA draft busts. By the end of last season, LeBron was visibly tired and angry, realizing that after leaving his hometown Cavaliers, he was suddenly stuck on the same kind of team from which he thought he liberated himself when he left Cleveland. Add that to the fact that there was no way he could get max money from Miami and, all of a sudden, his departure looked more likely.

So do I believe the slick letter that was published on SI.com? Well, I believe a little bit of everything, but not all of anything. I do believe he wanted to return home; I believe, and no one can convince me of the contrary, that a big part of him has always felt guilty about ever leaving home. I do believe he’s genuinely enthusiastic about the upside of this Cavs team. (Note: LeBron mentions the names of several future teammates he’s anxious to team up with, but conspicuously absent from those names is that of Andrew Wiggins. This has brought many to suggest that a trade for Kevin Love might be in the works, with Wiggins likely headed to Minnesota. Call me shortsighted, but trading as good a defender as Wiggins when the 2013 Cavs couldn’t stop anyone from scoring 110 points unless they were allowed to use crowbars strikes me as a bad move. I like Love too, but scoring points wasn’t Cleveland’s problem last year, AND they’re getting LeBron. James is an elite defender, but he needs help on the defensive end too, and a player like Wiggins, who’s already close to elite defender status with the talent to improve his offensive game, seems to me to be the kind of asset an up-and-coming team should hold on to. What am I missing?)

Back to LeBron’s letter. I’ve already dealt with the fact that I do not believe his diplomatic claim that Miami’s roster had nothing to do with his decision. Nor do I believe he has become as stoic as he pretends to be when it comes to Dan Gilbert. “Who am I to hold a grudge?”, asks LeBron. I understand why he would want to put it this way. It’s another acknowledgement that “The Decision” was as poorly executed as it was ill-advised. It’s his way of saying, “Hey, I messed up too, so I don’t want to get on my high horse.” Still, who is he to hold a grudge? Well, let’s see. He’s the guy Gilbert called a traitor, a quitter and a coward. He’s the guy who would have been well within his rights to tell Gilbert to go fuck himself. Because as viciously as LeBron backstabbed Cleveland, and as right as Gilbert is to say James owed him, at the very least, the courtesy of a phone call to let him know he was going to Miami, Gilbert had a duty, as an NBA owner, to act like an NBA owner and not like a child who needs a reminder from Mommy that two wrongs don’t make a right. James’ actions were bad, Gilbert’s were shameful. There is no comparison between the two, and I think LeBron knows this. He just can’t say, “Fuck Dan Gilbert, I’m coming back for my family and my hometown, not for that little bitch!”

I also wasn’t a fan of the overwrought, heavyhanded collection of clichés about the blue-collarness of “Northeast Ohio,” which Lebron needlessly uses to ingratiate himself with a fanbase he’s already reconquered by the sheer act of his return. One thing I suspect LeBron might have said, had he been allowed to be more candid, is that those championships in Miami didn’t give him the sense of fulfillment he’d get from winning a title in Cleveland. SI’s Phil Taylor suggested, at the time of “The Decision,” this might happen to LeBron and I think he was right. Of course, LeBron would never admit to it.

It hasn’t taken long for some to ask whether this puts him back in contention to pass Michael Jordan as the greatest basketball player of all time, or if it puts him out of it altogether, given that it’s bound to take time for this roster to mature enough to contend for an NBA title, let alone the four James needs to match MJ’s ring total. I’m sure I won’t be the first to say that this discussion needs to stop. There ‘s no passing MJ. And that applies to anyone in the foreseeable future. The biggest problem with this discussion, though, is that it’s mostly held between two groups of people, both lacking the objectivity to assess things correctly.

On the one hand, you have the incurable Jordanites (Me? A Jordanite? Yeah, you got me!). To them (and I exclude myself here), the discussion is now worth continuing, because a) LeBron copped out when he went to Miami, teaming up with the very player he should have aimed to beat, which Jordan never would have done in a million years, and b) it appears that LeBron will fall short of Jordan’s six rings, not to mention that MJ remains the only top 10 player never to lose a final.  Thus, it enhances Jordan’s profile that even a player as talented as LeBron can’t surpass him.

On the other hand, LeBroniacs now shout that we can’t compare the two (they have a point) because a) they played in different eras, which conveniently excludes Jordan from the discussion of where LeBron ranks in the pantheon of hoops stars, or b) these LeBroniacs accept that Jordan is currently impossible to dislodge from the top of the NBA’s pyramid and that any battle for NBA greatness will net you the number 2 slot at best.

Personally, I’m with my fellow Jordanites on the facts of the debate, but I agree with the Lebroniacs that we need to put it to rest. LeBron is not catching MJ. It’s not just about rings, MVPs or All-Star appearances. It’s also impossible for him to pass Jordan, the myth. LeBron is too talented and great not to become a myth once he’s gone. Lots of great things will be written/have already been written about him. But I’m as close to certainty as I can be that, about LBJ, no one will ever write something like this:

Jordan always knew who he was. He had to win at everything. He studied up on opponents and searched for any signs of weakness, even pumping beat writers and broadcasters for insider information. He soaked teammates in poker on team flights so brutally that coaches warned rookies to stay away. He lost in Ping-Pong to teammate Rod Higgins once, bought a table and became the best player on the team. He dunked on Utah’s John Stockton once, heard Utah owner Larry Miller scream, “why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” then dunked on center Mel Turpin and hissed at Miller afterward, “He big enough for you?” He bribed airport baggage guys to put out his suitcase first once, then wagered teammates that his bag would be the first one on the conveyor belt. He stormed out of a Bulls scrimmage once like a little kid because he thought Doug Collins screwed up the score. When a team of college All-Stars outscored the Dream Team in a half-assed scrimmage and made the mistake of puffing their chests out, Jordan started out the next day’s scrimmage by pointing at Allan Houston and simply saying, “I got him”…. and Houston didn’t touch the ball for two hours. (Excerpt from “The Book of Basketball,” by Bill Simmons, p.613, paperback edition, ESPN Books/Ballantine Books. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.)

There’s no topping this. That’s the kind of pathological, borderline morbid competitiveness that Jordan had. Few people other than sports fans would find this laudable or endearing, but Jordan is deified because of it. Does LeBron have this? Obviously not, or it would have showed by now. If he had it, he would have been far too obsessed with topping Dwayne Wade to join him in Miami. And now that Wade is aging and that his health is a source of increasing concern, James would turn his attention to proving his superiority to the next guy in line, probably Kevin Durant. And in this age of Twitter, he just might rub it in everyone’s faces 24/7/365. Is it damning for LeBron that he isn’t wired like this? Not at all. Would he need to be like this to top Jordan? I think so.

But one question should haunt sports fans: why do we want to see LeBron pass MJ so badly? Do we just care because the media tell us we should? Or is it something else?

I ask because if one person seems to have pulled out of that race, it’s LeBron James. It is legitimate to ask whether this is something he ever cared about. Sure, there was the whole wearing-number-23/doing-the-MJ-powder-toss-before-games shtick, but as much as people wanted to compare LeBron to MJ, he never really played like Jordan. I can’t remember the name right now, but a short while ago, someone said of LeBron James that he’s the most unselfish player in the league. For all his strengths, no one in their right minds would say that about Jordan. He believed, like Kobe Bryant, that whatever was best for him was best for the team. Not LeBron. In the Heat’s 2011 playoff series against the Celtics, Dwayne Wade practically had to tell him, “Man, snap out of me-then-you-then-me mode! The Celtics have no one who can guard you! Hog the ball, and make them pay!” Put Jordan there at that time, and his teammates barely see the ball.

And when you think about it rationally, was LeBron’s decision to join Wade that awful? Not really, until you consider the ugly truth: the MJ expectations are something WE have imposed on LeBron, and before he left for Miami, it seems he was too polite to say, “Hold on! You don’t get to dictate what MY expectations of myself are going to be!  I’m going to Miami, and I couldn’t care less what you think.” In many ways, “The Decision” was a cry for help, and as is the case for most cries for help, it came out wrong. While some liked the fact that he joined the Heat to form a Super Team and many didn’t, the way he went about “The Decision” garnered near-universal scorn. In other words, it’s not THAT he went to the Heat but HOW he went to the Heat. OK, but this would mean we basically faulted LeBron for not bullshitting us the right way. Could we really be that superficial?

Actually, we are. Want proof? Look at the reaction to his return to Cleveland. Nothing but praise. Strange, isn’t it? In a vacuum, it’s hard to argue that his decision to leave Miami (i.e. a declining Dwayne Wade, not much of a supporting cast, and another paycut) for Cleveland (i.e. a talented but super raw roster, a rookie coach, a max contract and not much else but the comfort of home) is any less selfish than his choice to join the Heat in the first place. But the fact that he was much slicker about it this time adds to the praise he was always going to receive for walking away from the “purchased” championships of Miami to go home.

There is something romantic and exciting about the story of LeBron returning to Cleveland to play for the closest thing he has to a hometown team. This isn’t a great story because his choice negates his infamous “Decision,” or the pain he caused an entire city on that day, but precisely because it doesn’t. Burying the hatchet is a far more beautiful and noble gesture than to pretend the hatchet doesn’t exist. Sure, it’s scripted. Sure, LeBron is coming home for other reasons than merely “coming home” or fulfilling his responsibilities to his community. Sure, LeBron’s so-called maturation has much more to do with style than substance. But it’s everything we wanted to hear. He might not give us the “topping-MJ” narrative, but he’s so talented, and he so badly wants us to root for him, that he just might give us anything else we want. Definitely not fit to be a heel, then.

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