LeBron’s Homecoming All About Image, Big Business

It is beautifully reassuring, in this era of egomaniacal athletes forgetting their roots and their peeps and even what day it is, that LeBron James is returning to Cleveland. We will call it The Revision, a much smarter approach to a career move than The Decision, which reeked of superagents and Big TV and all things antithetical to Akron, Ohio. As a business tour de force who someday will leave sports as a fully vested billionaire, LeBron Inc. could have set up shop anywhere. James chose to flip back to northeast Ohio, his home region, the place he spurned for Miami four years ago in a bloodletting that led to burned jerseys, hard feelings and a hysterical letter from Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cavaliers, accusing James of everything but mass murder.

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,’’ James said/wrote in a first-person Sports Illustrated essay, revealing his choice from his brain to our eyes without media-middleman interference. “It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.’’

All of which is nice. But realistically, how much of The Revision is about heart, home and family — and how much is about having zero chance of winning titles in Miami and looking for the easiest escape hatch for him, his family and, perhaps most importantly, his image? I don’t wish to be cynical, but having watched LeBron’s business power-plays this month and throughout his career, I must be sensible about his motives. This is one of the biggest brand fix jobs in American sports history, and having a chance to polish up The Decision residue — not only in Cleveland, but across America and Planet Earth — is made all the more convenient by a closed championship door with the Heat.

It wasn’t long ago when James was defining himself by the numbers of championships he won. “I want to be the greatest of all time, and that’s my motivation. It’s that simple,’’ he said last fall. It wasn’t long ago when James said he wanted to be on a basketball Mount Rushmore, among the four elite players ever. Hell, it wasn’t long ago when James stood on a stage at American Airlines Arena, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and rattled off the number of NBA titles he planned on winning: “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven … And when I say that, I really believe it. I’m not just up here blowing smoke for these fans. Because that’s not what I’m about. I’m about business.’’

Turns out the business plan lasted four years, with two championships and two losses in the Finals. It was an impressive run, but not historic in the context of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, the Lakers and Celtics of the 1980s and the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich Spurs of the last 15 years. LeBron’s grand design of a South Beach dynasty was blown to pieces in the NBA Finals by those Spurs. And once he realized Wade was breaking down physically, Bosh wasn’t capable of joining him as a consistent alpha dog, and that Pat Riley couldn’t sign Kyle Lowry or Marcin Gortat beyond financial commitments to the Big Three, James knew he couldn’t win anymore in Miami and only would suffer annual agony. If he stayed with inferior teams, he ran the risk of looking like a loser who couldn’t fulfill his promise.

So, he took the escape hatch and ran home. This way, it cushions the blow of another mercenary sea change, while the accompanying heartwarming feel — who goes home again? — heals whatever image cracks remained. That is the intent, anyway. LeBron has a very smart business team that was pushing for this all along. He also has a mother and wife who were pushing for this all along. I just have to chuckle when he says he no longer cares as much about titles but is following a higher “calling.’’ Just months ago, he wanted to be the greatest ever and wanted to max out his championships — and now he doesn’t care about championships as much as becoming a community leader in northeast Ohio?

“I feel my calling here goes above basketball,’’ he said/wrote. “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.’’

Again, all very sweet. But how much of that is a smokescreen for the horrific ending in Miami, with three ignominious losses to the state-of-the-art Spurs? If the Heat had won the series, would LeBron be waxing poetic about helping northeast Ohio? It smacks of a convenient justification, the first words of which were uttered on the eve of Game 5, when he talked about life being bigger than basketball. Sounded to me like he couldn’t bear the thought of failing again.

He’s the one who vowed to be the best of all time. Fact is, he can’t be. Michael Jordan went to six NBA Finals, won all six and was MVP in all six. Who is going to touch that, in our lifetime and beyond? Anyone? It is no disgrace that James has won two, but can we please stop this LeBron vs. Michael idiocy? There is no comparison. James is not going to be the best of all time. Stop tweeting.

What he can be, I hope, is a man who remains in Cleveland for the rest of his career and doesn’t — ugh — opt out in three years. There will be a window that allows him to make more money when the league’s salary cap increases, but he shouldn’t use that opportunity to launch LeBronageddon III and take us for another annoying ride. That could happen if the Cavaliers don’t win championships. And sorry to disrupt the party in Cleveland, but they aren’t winning championships anytime soon. They have a coach, David Blatt, who never has spoken to James, never has coached in the NBA and has spent two decades overseas. They have a new general manager, David Griffin, who barely knows James. The talent is promising — Kyrie Irving, a budding superstar at point guard, and presumably Andrew Wiggins, the raw but gifted rookie. But Irving, who always has been the alpha dog, will have to adjust to being the sidekick who dishes James the ball, which was easy for Wade to do in his 30s but not for a 22-year-old who was MVP in the All-Star Game. And what if Wiggins struggles? James will need two or three years as a babysitter, at least, and there are no guarantees he will win another title. At least he knows the challenge ahead.

“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver,’’ he said/wrote, more or less admitting he shouldn’t have made the seven-title suggestion. “We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.’’

He doesn’t mention Wiggins, perhaps because the rookie could be packaged in a deal with Minnesota for the league’s ultimate double-double machine, Kevin Love. Which brings us to the other bizarre twist, James’ relationship with Glibert. You remember the letter Gilbert wrote to Cleveland fans after LeBron’s departure, ripping James as “a former hero’’ for his “cowardly betrayal’’ and “narcissistic, self-promotional’’ TV stunt. You remember how it infuriated Cleveland fans, to the point extra police were summoned every time James returned with the Heat or even to his suburban mansion. Now, suddenly, all is forgiven?

That’s what LeBron said/wrote: “To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough. The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned — seeing all that was hard for them. 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?’’

But it’s more than a letter. When James left, Gilbert seethed at the thought that a sexy, high-resources franchise in Miami could form a superteam, making titles more difficult for a team in the Rust Belt. Now, ironically, it is Gilbert who is trying to acquire Love to create a superteam with James and Irving. And it is Riley, in south Florida, whose empire just crumbled, a cruel blow for a mammoth NBA figure since the 1980s. He immediately threw money at Bosh, who will get $118 million for five years, but unless Riley has a miracle card up his sleeve, the reign is over.

Does breaking bread with James make Gilbert a hypocrite? Sure. But it’s not against the law to be a hypocrite, or James would be joining the Cavs’ owner in the slammer. Wasn’t it just yesterday when he spoke of being lifelong teammates and pals with Wade and Bosh? “The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys,” James said/wrote. “I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished.”

Is it a matter of LeBron simply maturing in the four years since The Decision? Or is this just part of the smooth public-relations campaign, centered around coming home? I choose the latter, contrary to the blather that James is “a genius,’’ something only a fanboy like Bill Simmons could conjure up while ignoring the big business at hand. “Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, This is really tough,’’ James said/wrote. “I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.’’

So he went to Phi Slamma Heat, won twice, lost twice and got his degree. That’s the narrative, and he’s sticking to it. “When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission,’’ he said/wrote. “I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.

“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.’’

Good. Whatever makes LeBron happy makes me happy. It’s just that I can’t imagine him accepting TWO as the final championship number. And I can’t believe it took him weeks to announce what was apparent last month.

The absurdity of it all crystallized on Day 10 of The LeBronathon, unless it was Day 11. That is when the TV network that has helped make his latest career decision drama an exercise in absurdity declared that it is indeed an exercise in absurdity. Michael Wilbon was the one who said so on ESPN, along with Bob Ryan, and through it all, LeBron had to be laughing his ass off before handing off the story to ESPN’s rivals at SI.com.

By keeping the world waiting for a second full week, James seemed to be exacting The Revenge. Maybe it was payback for being destroyed by the media after The Decision, for being scrutinized in the social media era like few athletes. Maybe it was a way of making Cleveland appreciate his sincerity and loyalty when he did decide to return. Maybe he also was tweaking the man who brought him to Miami, Riley, who chose strong words last month when he challenged James to remain with the Heat: “You’ve got to stay together if you’ve got the guts, and you don’t find the first door and run out of it if you have an opportunity.’’

He ran out the door.

All along, LeBron was the one in complete command with all the power, causing billionaire owners to sweat, accomplished basketball executives to scream, clueless media people to look wrong with their guessing-game reporting. Clearly, no one ever has toyed with the sports machine quite like LeBron James, CEO of LeBron Inc., and he really should thank the late Curt Flood, whose life was ruined in the 1970s when he fought for the right to free agency and won. It is Flood who made it possible for James and Carmelo Anthony to have their fun and freedom while making us look like fools for being breathlessly intrigued.

I trust you had something better to do on these summer days and nights than a 24/7 monitoring of the James Watch. ESPN was a victim of its own smothering of the story, painfully trotting out analysts who had no information. At least reporter Brian Windhorst should be applauded for refusing to guess where James was headed. “Not my role,’’ he said on SportsCenter.

It wasn’t my role, either, though I will say James’ options weren’t great anywhere. Per Cleveland, does he really want to babysit for two or three years in his early 30s, losing opportunities to add to the ring haul that will define him? If the Cavs get Love, it changes the story dramatically. Short of that ploy, LeBron’s June nights will be free.

At least he stayed true to his home region. A river once burned in Cleveland, but that would be mere smoke compared to the inferno of James burning that city twice. Even a mercenary has a heart. It seemed inconceivable James would be so cruel, leaving me to at least wonder if he would end his four-year Miami vacation to go home. Gilbert, while never apologizing to James, did say he was wrong. “Looking back now, that probably was not the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. And he did tweet with great excitement when James made his announcement, saying his young son now had permission to wear James’ jersey again.

People are writing that LeBron James is the heir to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. That is b.s. Johnson played for one team his entire career, as did Bird. Jordan wanted to stay in Chicago his entire career, but left prematurely because the cheapass owner didn’t want to keep the band together.

LeBron is an opportunist who has succeeded wildly in some ways, failed miserably in others. He is not Magic or Larry. Certainly, he is not Michael.

He’s just a 21st-century mercenary who found an opportune getaway scheme. Nike, Coca-Cola, Samsung, McDonald’s and the other companies who line his pockets with $42 million a year — they’ll all love the Coming Home narrative, pure or otherwise.