CRAWFORD | James homecoming evokes powerful themes
"When time passes, it's the people who knew you whom you want to see; they're the ones you can talk to. When enough time passes, what's it matter what they did to you?"
-- John Irving, The Cider House Rules
"But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again."
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- We're immediately drawn to the narrative of returning home in LeBron James' decision to return to play basketball for the Cleveland Cavaliers. And in this case, I believe some literary license is not out of line.
The storylines here are bound in cords of memory, the theme one of the oldest in American life and even literature. So many of us have watched him since childhood. So many of us have our own experiences with going home.
I remember LeBron James thrilling the gymnasium at the ABCD camp at Fairleigh-Dickinson University in a 2001 duel with fellow phenom Lenny Cooke, and strolling through the same gym a year later to murmurs because he wore a Nike headband with his adidas shoes. He was King James even then, if a young king. Don't believe it? The jersey they left for him on his bed when he got into town told him so.
Four years ago, James disgusted the nation with, "The Decision," an ill-conceived, ego-driven production that continued when he arrived in Miami and promised, "not one, not two, not three . . . " and you know the rest.
But in reality, that bout of self, which came at a relatively young age, is about all the baggage anyone can lay on James.
There are no arrests. No embarrassing off-the-court incidents that you must shield from your children. Yes, James reacted badly to his detractors after his decision to leave Cleveland, even lashed out at them afterward. But who of us hasn't? They burned his jerseys. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert called his departure a "cowardly betrayal" and said his disloyalty was the opposite of what people in Cleveland wanted modeled for their children. Who of us wouldn't respond negatively to that?
People grow. They change. Contrast the nature of this decision, to come home, with "The Decision" to leave.
The New York Times and others have weighed in with a bit of criticism for how Sports Illustrated handled itself in becoming the outlet that broke the news of James' announcement. But it's important to note that it wouldn't have happened in the way it did -- in an as-told-to essay by SI's Lee Jenkins from James and under James' byline -- had James not wanted it that way. And James' way this time around was far more understated.
"I'm not having a press conference or a party," James said, after his showy departure from Miami and the big introductory party he had there.
"Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids," James said in SI. "These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man."
And we can believe that. James was never a bad guy. But he made some bad decisions in his departure. Nobody begrudged him the chance to go chasing a title. They just didn't like the way he did it. Nothing speaks to James' heart in this matter more than his willingness to sit down with Gilbert, the Cleveland Cavaliers owner who posted a scathing letter about James that remained on the team's website until this week, and to forget all that had transpired.
"The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned -- seeing all that was hard for (my family)," James said in SI. "My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, 'OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.' But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge."
They are the words of a mature man. "I'm not promising a championship," he said, and again draw the contrasts with his arrival in Miami. For all these things, James deserves credit.
James could have built a basketball legacy anywhere. It's only in Cleveland and Northern Ohio where he can do something more than that, where he can become a part of the landscape, and establish things that outlast his own life.
"I feel my calling here goes above basketball," James himself said in his SI essay. "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."
James has never been a villain. Though many have rooted against him, that was more the price of his excellence than any truly disappointing thing he'd done on the court or off.
"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald said.
But there are. The curtain is rising on Act 2 for LeBron James.