LeBron James Rises: Cleveland’s Dark Knight Returns

Four years ago, LeBron James was criticized for his inability to close in close games or deep into the playoffs. Those questions still persist in faint whispers from loons on the fringe, but maybe they were partially right. James never could seem to close the door on Cleveland and on Friday, the most important gift James provided Cleveland Cavaliers fans with was closure. Only a Larry O'Brien could trump this bounty.

In an eloquently-worded letter published on Sports Illustrated's website with the aid of writer Lee Jenkins, James announced that after much deliberation he was (re-)signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers. We know Jenkins didn’t ghostwrite it, because Iit's doubtful “old head" is in his everyday vocabulary.

For the “Chosen One” to choose Cleveland is a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the downtrodden city.

Not just for the Cavs franchise that was plagued by infighting, literally and figuratively or team owner Dan Gilbert, but for the region and the community as a whole.

It’s bad enough that Cleveland was Michael Jordans’s punching bag.

The Decision was Cleveland's Icarus moment. After seven years of flying too close to the sun, their wax wings were melted by the Miami Heat. Cleveland plummeted to the Earth and hasn't risen since. Until Friday's announcement.

James’ departure didn’t just create a crater in the Cavaliers roster and sink championship hopes. It plunged the economy in downtown Cleveland. The NBA’s media guide doesn’t measure how great James impact really was.

James has fans in Miami, but he has a cult following in Cleveland. Call it Jamestown.

Cleveland and other Rust Belt cities with sports franchises have always been plagued by an inferiority complex that was exacerbated when James flew to Miami. Cleveland has been a dump in terms of professional sports. James is Gotham’s Bruce Wayne donning the cowl and cape after eight years.

James' return to Cleveland is a glint of hope for every black woman worried the brotha she’s with will get on and leave her for a white girl or Buffalo Bills fans who are sitting on pins and needles wondering whether their franchise will be crossing the Northern border into Toronto in six years or any Midwestern MLB fan dubiously eyeing the Red Sox and Yankees.

Here’s what I wrote about the toxic climate back in February before Browns receiver Josh Gordon began his implosion, but before the Cavs stole the 2014 No. 1 overall pick like Nicholas Cage swipes historical artifacts.

Via The Shadow League:

Cleveland is a Bermuda Triangle for pro sports franchises without the tropical weather.  Yet somehow the situation has deteriorated to hazardous levels in The Forest City in the past 12 months. I can’t tell which environment is more toxic these days between the Winter Olympics in Sochi or the pro sports experience in Cleveland.

The Browns and Cavs are analogous to those Soch-ity double toilet stalls located inside of Russia’s Olympic venues. Basically, their fans are watching the equivalent of soiled diapers sizzling under a hot sun.

Whenever something transcendent sprouts in a small media market, they usually put it in their rear view mirror and relocate to a metropolis with soaring skyscrapers and better opportunities.

James spent his entire life in Northeast Ohio. After leaping straight from the preps to pros, the Miami Heat were the four years of college, most 18-year-olds relish.

Being joined in tropical South Beach by his frat brothers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was his National Lampoon’s Animal House: NBA Edition.

Two titles in four years isn’t indicative of an NBA dynasty, but that was never going to be the defining chapter in his legacy.  

One title in Cleveland would be worth as much to his legacy as three in Miami would have. Yet, a title isn’t what’s first and foremost on his mind right now.

But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.

That’s not to say that James regrets signing with Miami four years ago. The growth he showed in Miami couldn’t have happened if he was the veteran on a shoddy roster. This time around, James is the mentor with championship experience to Irving that Wade was for him.

I always had an inkling that James would return to Cleveland once he got the monkey of his back in Miami. He’s married to his high school sweetheart, his high school boys represent him and the management firm that he’s signed with (aliong with Johnny Manziel) is based in Cleveland.

James alluded to this homesickness in his SI essay.

After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. 

When video of James and Wade deep in conversation on an airstrip after landing in Miami emerged, it didn’t take a body language expert to figure out that it wasn’t a celebratory moment.

It looked more like an amicable parting of ways after college graduation. If that’s what you guessed, you were right.

Wade’s staying in town to get his masters and LeBron is moving back home.

Inevitably, the subject of Dan Gilbert must be broached.

In October, I imagined a scenario in which Dan Gilbert drunk dialed James at 3 am begging for his return.

According to Yahoo Sports’ Agent 007 Adrian Wojnarowski, that’s not exactly how it went down.

According to Wojnarowski, James’ agent Rich Paul and Maverick Carter facilitated the reconciliation during their covert meeting in Miami on Sunday. That was the day, media outlets found egg on their faces tracking Gilbert’s plane on its route to South Beach, for what many believed was a meeting between the two, only for Gilbert to deny it.

The media was redeemed, but we weren't alone in regaining our composure.

Soon after Gilbert’s Comic Sans letter blasting James hit the net and made headlines, it was viewed as more than just the official burning of a bridge. Jesse Jackson dropped a flash grenade into a crowd when he called Gilbert's letter the personification of a slave master mentality.

The slave owner prefix attributed to Gilbert’s letter was too myopic and never aligned with reality. 

For one, not many slave owners responded to escaped slaves by penning letters. Secondly, you can’t correlate Gilbert’s spontaneous, rash letter to slave ownership without making the same comparison for George Steinbrenner, who hired a goon named Howard Spira to spy on Dave Winfield. It aso attempts to derive information about Gilbert's views on race from one vitriolic letter from a boss to a former employee. It's ridiculous and doesn't even deserve mention.

Evidence points to Gilbert's misdirected anger whittling down to Midwestern roots, not James' race. Gilbert has been purchasing buildings in downtown Detroit over the years in an attempt to aid the revitalization of the city that time forgot.

This morning, before The Essay was published, The New York Times profiled his efforts in Detroit, which is ridiculed as the butt of jokes almost as often as Cleveland is.

When LeBron left, Gilbert viewed it as the most talented basketball player on the planet abandoning the grind and a city known derogatively as the “Mistake By The Lake”.

It was a violation of Gilbert's ethos. That James made his announcement on national television without informing him beforehand was somewhat unprofessional in most observers eyes and personal for Gilbert. It was analogous to dropping on one knee in front of your girl on the Jumbotron during halftime of an NBA Finals clash and breaking up with her.

However, the stars aligned for James, Gilbert and the Cavs in the four years since their hostile breakup. The conspiracy theorists will pinpoint the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery as the moment this was set in motion. To the skeptics, Cleveland beating astronomical odds to secure the first overall pick in a loaded draft after flubbing the pick a year earlier was either divine intervention by the basketball gods or Commissioner Silver's frozen envelope moment. Stern went through all the trouble of allowing Cleveland to draft James. Silver wasn't going to let his predecessor's work go unfinished, hypothetically.

Nobody expected the Cavaliers to have a pair of franchise cornerstones waiting in the wings to welcome James home. 

I’m talking of course about Andrew Wiggins and Kyrie Irving. However, Wiggins’ name was noticeably absent from the section of James’ letter, in which he spoke jubilantly about the anticipation of playing with his new teammates.

I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.

That’s because Minnesota’s Kevin Love, the 6th man of 2014 free agency and hottest expiring contract on the market is open to playing with James in Cleveland as the new lighter-skinned Bosh for No. 6. While Wiggins’ upside is higher, Love is a finished product whose passing ability and inside-outside scoring fits with James’ skillset.

It’s ironic because days before James opted to part ways with Cleveland in 2010, he made a last ditch effort to lure Bosh to Cleveland. Bosh immediately rebuffed James and skipped down to South Beach. James soon followed.

During this free agent cycle, everything was backwards as Bosh waited on James’ decision before deciding on his own future.

Whether they trade for Love or not, you can be assured that there will be no spectacle this time around. Ray Allen, Mike Miller are veteran options that are interested in following James wherever he plays, but this won’t be as cut and dry as the Big 3 were four years ago because of the Cavs youth. They’re the bizarro Heat in that sense.

I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.

Besides, lifting Jay Bilas' trademark Twitter phrase, this was clearly an attempt to make his annoucement as differently from The Decision as possible.

This time, there won’t be an ostentatious display touting their expectations for the future. SI released his essay and James will soon escape the cacophony of opinions and depart for Brazil where they care more about Messi’s reign over football than King James’ return to Cleveland.

There have been two great letters published in SI by Cleveland athletes in the last 53 years. The aforementioned letter by James and the letter Ohio State’s Jerry Lucas wrote to inform fans of why he was turning pro and spurning the established NBA for the ABL’s Cleveland Pipers.

Ultimately, the Steinbrenner-owned Pipers deal for NBA entry turned to ashes and Cleveland lost again when Lucas was snatched up by the Cincinnati Royals. Hopefully, LeBron redux turns out a little better than the abbreviated Lucas era for Cleveland.  

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