It's the emotions we remember most—the images of flame-engulfed jerseys and shredded "Witness" placards, the faces of anguish and rage. LeBron James decides, and the world reacts with fury.
Four years ago, James crushed spirits across Ohio when he took his talents to South Beach. On Friday, James inverted the storyline, ditching Miami for Cleveland, mending millions of broken hearts with a simple, three-word headline on Sports Illustrated's website:
"I'm coming home."
The first-person essay was eloquent and heartfelt—as much a love letter to James' hometown as a policy statement. James wasn't just taking his talents back to Cleveland, he was reasserting his identity, as "a kid from Northeast Ohio."
"It's where I walked," James wrote. "It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart."
It is the emotions we will remember most about The Decision 2.0—the profound affinity James showed for his birthplace, and for the people he left behind when he fled to South Florida in search of championships.
It was impossible not to be moved reading his essay, to appreciate the self-reflection, the earnestness, the emotional maturity, the evolution of James as a man. If The Decision was an act of betrayal, this decision was about forgiveness, with Cavs fans re-embracing James, and James setting aside the taunts and insults and threats that followed his move.
There was forgiveness, too, for Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers' tempestuous owner, who debased himself and embarrassed the league with his infamous letter ripping James four years ago. "Heartless," Gilbert called James, as well as callous, disloyal and selfish—"the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn."
What the children of Ohio learned Friday is that forgiveness is always possible, that every relationship can be repaired. That lesson alone is worth celebrating, no matter which team you root for.
"Everybody makes mistakes," James wrote. "I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?"
The Decision of 2010 was purely a business transaction. James needed championship rings to build a legacy, and he needed better teammates to get them. Winning trumped all—loyalty, emotion, sentiment, even money (James took a slight pay cut to join the Heat). Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were the perfect business partners, as well as friends.
This time, sentiment trumped all. James left a team that just made four straight NBA Finals, and won two championships, for a 33-win squad that hasn't made the playoffs since he left. In the near term, at least, James had a better chance of adding to his ring collection with the Heat than with the callow Cavaliers.
Kyrie Irving is a talented scorer, but far from a complete player. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters are intriguing, but unreliable. Andrew Wiggins is just 19 and will need years of development.
Even James noted, quite accurately, that the Cavaliers are not ready to contend ("No way," he wrote).
Breaking up the Heatles partnership meant putting James' legacy-building on hold, even as he burnished his reputation as a role model—thoughtful, reflective, empathetic, self-aware.
"I feel my calling here goes above basketball," he wrote. "I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously."
And yet basketball considerations surely played a vital role here, too. Would James have so readily returned to the Cavaliers without a promising roster? Would he have so readily left South Beach if Wade were still a top-five player, as he was in 2010? Could he have turned his back on the Heat if they had won a third title last month, instead of getting steamrolled by the San Antonio Spurs?
It seems unlikely. The Cavaliers paved the way for this return by gradually assembling a solid core of young talent. The Heat opened the door for James' departure by letting the supporting cast wither.
And still, this was a bold decision, one that could have exposed James to as much scorn and vitriol as he triggered four years ago. Superstars aren't supposed to be mercenaries, or so we're told. They're not supposed to choose their own teammates, either, even if their franchise has failed miserably in acquiring supporting talent, as the Cavaliers had in his first seven seasons.
This is James' parallel legacy—the audacity to choose his own path, to write his own story, his way, without regard for unwritten rules of superstar decorum. When James saw a path to championships, he took it. When that path reached its logical end, he bulldozed a new path, scripting a career narrative like no other.
So many stars are passive players in their own careers, allowing general managers and team owners to dictate their fate by the draft choices they make (or blow), the free agents they sign (or fail to sign) and the budgets they set. Stars are prisoners of someone else's competency.
James refused to leave his fate in someone else's hands. He seized his opportunity in 2010, and that decision, however controversial, was vindicated with two championship rings.
Having reached this crossroads, James again had to choose whom to trust with his career. Pat Riley has a brilliant record as a team executive and all-around winner, but his options were limited. So James took charge of his fate once more, assuming all of the risks that come with it.
Free agency is a valuable tool and, really, a superstar's only tool for directing his career. Players are drafted by teams they did not choose, to live in cities they did not choose. They can be traded anywhere, at any time.
No one rips the backup point guard for changing teams, but superstars are irrationally held to some other, mythical standard. James refused to abide by these antiquarian conventions, blazing his own path—twice.
Four years ago, LeBron James chose winning over simplistic notions of loyalty. This time, he was guided by more personal motives, a complex web of emotional impulses and affections. He was right, both times.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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