LeBron made things right at home

Editor's note: ESPN.com Cleveland Browns reporter Pat McManamon is a Cleveland native who covered and wrote about LeBron James as a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal.

CLEVELAND -- LeBron James didn't just return to Cleveland on Friday. He reached out and gave the entire Northeast Ohio community a great big bear hug.

And when the community read and heard what James had to say, the number of people in the hug got bigger and bigger by the second.

It wasn't supposed to be this easy. James was not supposed to follow the yellow brick road back to Cleveland. Feelings were going to be strained. Skepticism, doubt, even some lingering anger would remain. The passion was too strong four years ago for everything to simply ... disappear.

Remarkably, though, it seems as though that's just what has happened.

Cleveland has had a collective cleansing, a purging -- and it wasn't simply because James brought his considerable basketball talents to Lake Erie (not that folks aren't happy about that).

The way James handled this decision (no longer a bad word in Cleveland) means so much. His essay on SI.com, candid and true, conveyed more than anyone could have expected.

It led to celebration in Cleveland, and it led a relative and longtime NBA fan from Massachusetts to write after reading James' words, "I'm not mad at him anymore."

"The letter is perfect," said Dave Burnett of Westlake, a suburb of Cleveland. "Rebuilds his image everywhere, not just in Northeast Ohio."

Four years ago, the hostile feelings were real when James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, and they were real especially because of the way it all happened.

But combined with disappointment and anger was a healthy sense of disbelief. Disbelief that a kid who grew up in Akron and spent his entire career in Cleveland could do what he did. The TV show, the spectacle in Miami's American Airlines Arena, the flameout in the final series against Boston -- the behavior was not the guy Cleveland and Akron had come to know.

There are many who know (and knew) James better than I, many who had been around him longer. But in the time I knew him, he was polite, friendly and considerate. I've communicated for several years with a gentleman from Akron who said over and over that James understood the impact of what happened and understood especially the impact on kids.

That was the one question I always wanted to ask James, and it was the question I was going to ask when I had the microphone at the news conference after his first game back in Cleveland: "What do you say to the kids of Cleveland? Adults should be able to handle this, but these kids grew up with you. What do you say?"

The question never was asked; the news conference ended with me holding the proverbial mike.

Friday, though, James addressed that very issue in a heartfelt, open and genuine letter on SI.com.

He addressed the kids. He addressed his mistakes. He addressed the mistakes of others (Dan Gilbert's letter). And he addressed what it means to be home.

That one word ... home ... hit home to Cleveland, which has had to deal with so much negativity over the years. Home.

When James left the Cavs, he said he was taking his talents to South Beach.

This time, he simply said he was "coming home."

That he called it home means something in this city, means something to these people. That James no longer quibbled about a difference between Akron and Cleveland and called himself a Northeast Ohio kid mattered.

"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," he wrote. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

He did not hide from the fact that he enjoyed Miami, that he needed to get away. He called it his "college," and said it helped him grow up.

Based on his essay, which without a doubt has his voice, he has grown up.

He said he'd still leave for Miami, but he'd certainly handle it differently. He did not hide from the reality that he enjoyed Miami (who at his age and income level wouldn't?). He bypassed the "not four ..." routine to honestly say he was not promising a championship.

He admitted it hurt greatly to see his jersey burned in Cleveland, to read Gilbert's letter. But he said he forgave, that he and Gilbert talked it out "man-to-man."

"Who am I to hold a grudge?" he wrote.

He said it would have been easy to forget the Cavs, but for the kids.

"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?" he wrote.

He said he has a responsibility to lead, and he can make a huge difference in Northeast Ohio. In ways that are not always mentioned, he has already. As painful as "The Decision" was, the Boys and Girls Clubs in Northeast Ohio happily will detail how money raised from the show helped them.

Modern sports breeds cynicism. It's easy, I suppose, to say that James was brilliant and eloquent when he made the choice to play for the city where I grew up. That James returned for the max contract. If that's your feeling, so be it.

I was plenty angry at James when he left. I wrote some angry things, but I always tried to respect that he was a man who made the decision he thought was best for him, his career and his family.

To say it didn't hurt was denying reality, though.

To say that James didn't go there and back again to make his feelings known and thoughts clear with his statement today is equally absurd.

He's back, he's home, and he's proud of both.