This isn’t Brett Favre or Joe Montana, or any other over-the-hill star — insert your own favorite here — shopping teams and/or rosters in search of one last hurrah.
In the NBA, one supremely talented individual can make a world of difference. LeBron James proved as much by carrying his team into five of the last seven NBA Finals. What’s going to make this quest for a championship in Cleveland the best sports story out there for some time is that he’s committed to try and tip the balance of power by himself, if need be, to pay back all those folks who nurtured him from the start.
“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,” James said in a Sports Illustrated first-person story published Friday announcing his decision to return to the Cavaliers.
“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when,” he said.
Had James delayed the announcement much longer, the army of in-studio analysts and on-scene reporters deployed by every media outlet on the planet would need catheters to stay on the job. If nothing else, that part of our long national nightmare is over. So what’s worth saying after everything that’s already been said?
Just that the next chapter in James’ story will turn out to be worth every penny — if not quite every word — that’s been lavished on him.
Going back home to try and win a championship after what some of his neighbors put him through takes real guts. It’s what plenty of us wanted James to do the first time around: Behave like a real king: Dig in his heels and redouble his effort to patch the cracks in the foundation of a Cavaliers franchise that spent more than seven seasons and hundreds of millions trying to build him a throne.
That’s the way Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant got their championship rings. We even held out hope at the time that James might give the Cavs a hometown discount, taking less money than he was worth to free up cap space down the road, the way Tim Duncan has done more than once.
No disrespect to what James accomplished in Miami: two NBA titles, two Finals MVPs and two more regular-season MVPs, among others. But it will be even better when he wins another one this way.
“It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010,” he wrote in SI. “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.”
Parse the entire statement if you want. But everything you need to know is in those last two sentences.
When James announced the original decision in 2010, no athlete in history ever held so much sway over his sport without winning a title first. The only thing he could rightly claim to be the king of was hype, hypocrisy and stacking the deck by lighting out for South Beach to join superfriends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. A few of his tattoos — “Loyalty” and “330” (the Akron, Ohio, area code) — made a mockery of his words even as they spilled out of his mouth.
He’d been trying so hard to please the various constituencies he’d acquired since coming into the league that you wondered whether James even knew what he really wanted.
But the LBJ who returns four years later is a much different cat.
For all the grief he’s caught in the four years since, James has been a model citizen throughout — poised, polite, accessible, generous with his time and money, durable — and he plays hard every night. He went to Miami four years ago because it would be easier to win a title. He returns to Cleveland knowing exactly how hard it will be. If you want to call that maturity, and put that quality at the top of the list, you’ll get no argument here.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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