Let me be clear. I do not dislike LeBron James. I believe he is the most unjustly hated player the NBA has ever seen. Could his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami back in 2010 been handled better? Yes. Could he have not acted out the part of arrogant, self-entitled, macho basketball demigod during that first season in Miami? You bet. But he was young. These are moments where you wince and shake your head, maybe root against him so he will be brought back to earth. You do not curse him or burn him in effigy. It seemed like he took it upon himself to right those wrongs when he announced a return to Cleveland after his four year hiatus. The prodigal son had returned to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s all too open (and hypocritical) arms. Yet, Cleveland’s LeBron has not returned. Not fully. And after all he has been through, all he has put his hometown through, LeBron James owes Cleveland a full return.
When I say LeBron James has yet to return to Cleveland, I do not mean LeBron James the basketball player. That LeBron has been back. Even while he was fighting through injury, he still managed to lead his Cavaliers (and they are undoubtedly HIS Cavaliers) to the NBA Finals. He played fantastic basketball. Not flawless by any stretch of the imagination, but likely some of the best basketball in a losing effort you will ever see. Yes, he shot under 40% from the field, shot 31% from three, and under 70% from the foul line, but he nearly averaged a triple double and kept together a Cavs team that was without Kyrie Irving. This season he is healthy and playing his best basketball of the season down the stretch, being named Player of the Month in February and likely garnering the same award come the end of March. This is half of LeBron James Cleveland got. The other half has been replaced by a brooding, cryptic James we have never seen.
Since James and the Cavaliers made it to the 2007 NBA Finals, he has been the face of the league. No one felt disgruntled by that fact. No controversy surrounded James. The only questionable thing he ever did was refuse to take part in the All-Star Game his rookie season because he was not voted in, instead of being an injury replacement like he was asked. Even then, here was a 19 year old who simply wanted to earn his spot in the league, wanted nothing handed to him. But then he left, perhaps believing David Stern would be waiting for him to step off the plane in South Beach with the NBA Championship trophies for the next seven years in hand. Only two trophies came, however. The Return was supposed to be even more successful than the Decision. After all, who could challenge the Cavs? Certainly, people thought, the Spurs couldn’t keep up their age-defying magic trick. No way would there be another savvy group of veterans so perfectly melded together like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. Enter Steph Curry and Golden State.
I tried to make it through a whole piece without writing about the Warriors. I really did. But they have completely changed the landscape of the NBA and the outcome of the Return. This was LeBron’s league, until it wasn’t. This was the Cavs league, until it wasn’t. Fans are packing stadiums two hours before games not to see James, but a diminutive shooter named Steph Curry. Make no mistake about it, this irks James. Up until ten months ago, this was still James’s world. James does not like to take second. In anything. He likes attention. This sudden demotion has perhaps perpetuated the circus we have witnessed recently in Cleveland. Whether consciously or implicitly, LeBron has turned the public eye back to himself, doing so, however, at Cleveland’s expense.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said LeBron James was not demonstrating good leadership. He is exactly right. James has been in the news the last few weeks for unfollowing the Cavs organization on social media. He has sent out cryptic, perhaps passive aggressive tweets, he was seen joking with Dwayne Wade when his team was down 20 after halftime. He flew down on Cavalier off days to work out with Dwayne Wade. He has discussed the desire at the end of his career to team up with Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul. These were things that did not occur during his first stint in Cleveland. James offered plausible explanations for each one. They are simply not good enough. If you want to do a “social media blackout” to eliminate distractions for the impending playoffs, delete the app. This would be much more effective than unfollowing multiple accounts, especially the ones of your hometown team. If you want to work out and joke with friends, there is an off-season for that. If you want to play with certain people later in your career, talk to them about it when something can be done. Not when every single one is under contract with different teams. These distractions James has created can be damaging to his legacy and his team if they continue.
Like I said, I do not dislike LeBron James. I do, however, dislike, many of his decisions since his most famous one in 2010. He has time to rectify it. He needs to. He owes it to himself to make this homecoming something that will cement his legacy. He owes it to his childhood self, who wanted to bring a championship to his hometown more than anything. But most of all he owes it to Cleveland, a city who embraced him, turned on him when spurned, but welcomed him back with warmth and love when he decided he wanted to come back. LeBron James once again plays in Cleveland. But Cleveland is still waiting to welcome back its LeBron James.
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