LeBron James shocked the world by returning to a place that at one point had hated him most of all. With Friday's announcement of his move came an elegant, introspective explanation of his motives to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated.
The return to Cleveland is a staggering comeback tale, an earthquake to the NBA’s ecosystem. So it’s a bit surprising to see James offer humble expectations along with a decision so epic. “I’m not promising a championship,” he says in his explanation letter. “I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way.”
Before the Cleveland rumors started, the consensus opinion was that James would choose whatever situation offered him the best chance at winning -- which Miami did in 2010. Four years later, he is explicitly saying that this route home is about something else entirely. Given the language James is using, he’s on a mission far larger than winning mere titles:
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. 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.”
Claiming that you aren’t ready to win a championship might seem unambitious, but despite that disclaimer, consider the scope of what James is aspiring to. Ohio’s communities have been hit especially hard by the decline in manufacturing over the decades. Cleveland once had roughly three times the population it claims today. Akron has been losing residents since the 1960s. James is far from the only person to abandon his northeast Ohio home for opportunities elsewhere -- he’s just the most notable to try it.
But James wants to reverse a massive socio-economic phenomenon that’s been going strong for a half-century. By coming home, he wants to make Ohio whole again. Michael Jordan might be the greatest of all time, but he didn’t dare leverage basketball into something far greater than commerce. LeBron doesn’t just want to change the game -- he wants to change the economy.
There are more prosaic reasons for why this is happening, too. As James explains, leaving home can give you perspective on what you left behind and how much you miss it. Time can heal wounds, as evidenced by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and James patching things up after an ugly divorce. James said leaving for Miami was the college experience he never had. Many of us can relate to how finding some separation makes the allure of home that much more appealing.
For now, Cleveland is indeed short on championship-ready players. It's long on so much else, though. The future is murky, and the past was ugly, but today, the most compelling sports story lives in northeast Ohio.