How LeBron James and Cleveland Found Their Way Back to Each Other

The stadium scene.
July 11 2014 4:23 PM

The Redemption

How LeBron James and Cleveland found their way back to each other.

LeBron.
The prodigal king is returning.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Fumble. The Drive. The Shot. The Decision. Cleveland’s sporting history is so ignominious that you’ll have to forgive me for girding myself for another disappointment. I was completely prepared for The Tease to go down in history alongside all the others. But for once, Cleveland has pulled off a completely unexpected victory. LeBron James is coming home. I’m giddy.

Rachael Larimore Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

And, so by the looks of it, is every other Ohioan who shut off the television in disbelief, seconds after the words “talent” and “South Beach” were uttered, who stared glumly at photos of the giant Nike “Witness” billboard being disassembled in downtown Cleveland, who sent mean tweets to @KingJames complaining that he made her kids cry. (Guilty on all counts.) This, for example, is the Cleveland Plain Dealer cover for Saturday:

The Plain Dealer.

Image courtesy of the Plain Dealer

How did we get here?

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When James announced last month that he was opting out of his contract, it didn’t faze me. It was a business thing, maybe to help the Heat bring in some fresh legs. I jokingly emailed around the iconic clip from Say Anything of John Cusack trying to woo Ione Skye with his boom box. Jokingly. At that point, I would have predicted that the Cavs ranked 31st out of 30 NBA teams on James’ list.

What made the relationship between James and the Cavs so special was precisely what made the breakup so terrible.  We cared too much about LeBron, the Ohio native, assumed too blithely that he would bring us titles and play his entire career there. But owner Dan Gilbert never gave him the supporting cast he needed, and LeBron botched his entirely reasonable decision to sign with another team by breaking hearts on national television. (And then boasted that he would bring the Heat a minimum of eight titles.)

But then we learned that LeBron was seeking a max contract. His agent was meeting with the Cavs. Fans and sportswriters started murmuring that maybe it wasn’t so farfetched that LeBron would go back to Cleveland. Going to the Suns or the Mavericks or the Lakers would brand him as a title chaser. Staying with the Heat would mean crossing his fingers that Dwyane Wade had more life in his seemingly 45-year-old knees. Meanwhile, the Cavs had Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins.

At the same time it became apparent that Cleveland was a legitimate contender for LeBron and pundits like Chris Broussard (a former Cavs beat writer) were predicting he would choose the Cavs, truly outrageous rumors made the whole thing seem improbable (or maybe it was just the scar tissue of pessimism I’ve built up).  Programmers “discovering” that LeBron’s website had Cavs-colored pages, that he was flying to Ohio and then not flying to Ohio, or flying to Miami, or skipping Ohio and going straight from Vegas to Brazil for the World Cup final. I watched Twitter with my hands over my eyes, like a horror movie. This was not going to end well. This was Cleveland. It never ended well.

In the end, it didn’t matter what the psychic clam predicted, or whether he would take up Cedar Point on its offer to name a roller coaster after him. What matters is that both the Cavs and LeBron have come a long way in four years. The Cavs this week made an urgent trade to clear cap space for a max deal—showing LeBron the kind of savvy roster management they failed to pull off the first time around. And LeBron showed the maturity and reserve that had failed him during The Decision.

His letter, which my colleague Josh Levin has written more about, is remarkable. There is a genuine “You can take the man out of Ohio, but you can’t take Ohio out of the man” vibe to it. He wants a legacy to match his considerable talents. He brings up all the painful moments—Dan Gilbert’s letter, the jersey burning—and wipes them away. He understands the fans’ passion, even when it’s too much. He’s ready to shoulder that unfair burden we placed on his then-18-year-old shoulders when David Stern plucked the Cavs’ lottery ball out of the hopper and guaranteed that the greatest talent in a generation would be staying in Northeast Ohio.

Everyone looked bad four years ago. But now the Cavs have made their moves, and LeBron made his. It’s time for the fans to make theirs. Yes, we’re all happy. We’ve been given a second chance, and we’ve welcomed LeBron back with open arms. But we need to remember that he can’t fix Cleveland’s moribund economy or make it a top tourist destination. He wisely won’t even guarantee a championship—just that he will work hard to bring us one.

If that championship comes, it won’t have fallen into our laps. This time, LeBron chose us. For all the talk of how championships build legacies, the fact that the NBA’s best player wanted to be here—that he came back—is just as important. For Cleveland, in this moment, this is the biggest victory we could’ve asked for.

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

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