We evaluate athletes as much on their self-presentations as their statistics. Whether this involves an apology for taking performance-enhancing drugs and impugning the ethics of a urine collector, an apology for cheating on your wife with everyone in the greater Orlando area, or a loud postgame boast about the wisdom of “try[ing] me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree,” we want star players to say the right thing, and we want them to say it in the exact right way. When LeBron James left Cleveland in 2010, he enraged Cavaliers fans who wanted him to stay in Ohio for his entire career. But his bigger crime was one of public relations: He announced it in a one-hour television special in which he somehow managed to talk about his “talents” in the third person.
It doesn’t make sense that we expect the people who are the best in the world at stuffing a ball through a hoop to be world champions of persuasive speaking. But that’s how the world works, and the NBA’s best player was not a master of self-presentation in 2010. He is now. On Friday, he announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an as-told-to story published online by Sports Illustrated. The headline: “I’m Coming Home.” In that essay, James explains, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left.” His decision to go to Miami wasn’t a mistake. “The Decision” was.
There’s some irony in the fact that LeBron has been burdened by high expectations since he was a high school junior, when he was labeled “The Chosen One” … on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This time around, James tells SI that his four years in Miami “helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man.” He could’ve added that he’s become a savvier man. The Essay is a smart, calculated PR volley precisely because it’s so sincere. It is, crucially, everything The Decision was not: sincere, heartfelt, and not on television.
More than anything else, it is emotionally intelligent. The essay prioritizes James’ own feelings but also acknowledges that others may feel differently. He is contrite about hurting Cavaliers fans, but unapologetic about leaving for Miami back in 2010. He is thankful to his Heat teammates and his coach Erik Spoelstra, but notes that he feels a calling to return to Ohio, to show kids “that there’s no better place to grow up.” He notes the concerns of his family, who he says haven’t forgotten Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s unhinged letter, which referred to LeBron’s “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal.” “I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man,” James explains in Sports Illustrated. “We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
James comes off well here, in part, because this is the decision that’s easiest to explain. If he stayed in Miami, he would’ve been accused of leading Cleveland on, of yanking a knife out of the city’s back just to plunge it into its heart. I believe that James sincerely wanted to go back to Cleveland. I also believe that the coming-home redemption narrative he’s crafted here—the story he’s telling to himself and to fans—is a huge reason why this move is so appealing. James knew that he would have to explain himself, and he knew that the wrong kind of explanation could tarnish the self-image that he’d spent so many years rebuilding. In a culture where, rightly or wrongly, self-presentation is as important as statistics, these things matter.
In his essay, James explains that he “wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland.” That makes sense when you think about the three criticisms he faced after “The Decision.” The first was that, irrespective of where he’d chosen to go, he acted like a bozo on national television. He righted that wrong by making his 2014 announcement in a magazine piece, with Jim Gray nowhere in the vicinity. The second was that he’d ditched Cleveland. He righted that wrong in 2014 by—well, you know.
The third and final criticism was that James wanted a championship but refused to do the hard work to get it—that, in Gilbert’s immortal words, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” He righted that wrong in 2014 by ignoring Nate Silver’s advice and refusing to consider teams like the Rockets and Suns that would’ve afforded him a smoother path to an NBA title. “When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission,” James tells SI. “I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
To win that trophy, he’ll have to work for it, but he’ll have an easier path to another ring in Ohio than he would have in Florida. The Cavs, like the Heat, are in the weaker Eastern Conference—even with Cleveland’s inexperienced roster, it wouldn’t be shocking if they made the Finals in 2015. The Cavaliers, due mostly to stinking so badly that they fell backward in to three overall No. 1 picks in the last four years, have far more young talent than the Heat. The best Miami president Pat Riley could do this offseason was sign middle-aged, mid-tier free agents Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, players who would do little to take the strain off of James’ aging body. Rather than struggling through another year with Chris Bosh, the rapidly decaying Dwyane Wade, and a cast of elderly role players, James will now have the young legs of All-Star Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, and Tristan Thompson to help carry him through the regular season.
And while the Heat would have very minimal flexibility to improve their roster, the Cavaliers could still try to engineer a trade for Kevin Love or another top free agent to play alongside James and Irving. (They could also pursue noted LeBron co-conspirators Mike Miller and Ray Allen.) It’s telling that James mentions Irving, Waiters, Thompson, and Anderson Varejao in his letter but not much-heralded newcomer Andrew Wiggins. Could this be a sign that Wiggins, the Cavs’ most-enticing trade chip, won’t be in Cleveland when the season starts? He also writes that he “can help elevate” Thompson and Waiters—perhaps a spur to those relatively callow players that they need to improve or they'll be shipped out of town.*
James isn't just putting faith in the Cavaliers' untested talent. He'll also be playing for a coach, David Blatt, who has proven himself in the Euroleague but never been an NBA head man. Just as important, he'll be placing his trust in a franchise that has a proven track record—in the front office and in the owner's suite—of poor decisions and mismanagement. The only time the Cavs were good in recent memory was when James was in town, and the only reason they got him was that they happened to be terrible in a year when LeBron went No. 1 in the draft. This is a team that has done little right except be located in the same state where the best player of his generation was born.
That James is willing to put those concerns aside is the strongest evidence of his sincerity in wanting to bring a title to Cleveland. LeBron says in SI that he’s “not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”
Cleveland fans will expect that championship, of course. Ever since he was a high schooler, everyone has assumed that James would win multiple NBA titles. He didn't make it easier for himself when he went to Miami and declared that he wasn’t there to win one, or two, or three, or four, or five, or six, or seven championships. But now, for the first time in his career, James has succeeded in lowering the bar and buying himself some time. By going back to Cleveland, he’s hitting the reset button, starting over on Level 1: The Midwest. By going back the way he did, in the medium he did, using the words he did, he’s earned a huge amount of goodwill. And if he doesn’t win a championship in the next three years, he’ll still be a total bum. Good luck in Cleveland, LeBron!
Correction, July 11, 2014: This story originally misquoted LeBron James’ comments about Cavaliers players Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. He said he “can help elevate” them, not that he “can help evaluate” them. (Return.)
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