Would a LeBron James return to Cleveland be a Cinderella story or a fake sympathy play?


A few days ago for my weekly Monday Morning Realist, I made a case for why NBA Free Agency was becoming the most boring topic in all of sports. This was primarily because there was so much talk about it despite it not leading to any real results. Another reason for this is that everyone expects most of the free agents to resign with their respective teams.

Then, out of nowhere, a jolt of energy was inserted into free agency when several reports suggested that LeBron James was leaning towards a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. These reports suggested that everyone in his inner circle, from his wife to his agent, was pushing the King to reclaim his fallen throne in Cleveland.

And, remember that Dan Gilbert letter that was on the Cavs website that proclaimed that they’d win a title before the “self-titled former King” won one? Yea, that was removed from their website—even though they’re actually two years too late.

The news has taken a Miami Heat bounce lately with the signings of Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts in addition to LeBron supposedly leaning back towards signing with the Heat.

At this point, the probability of losing Chris Bosh to the Houston Rockets seems bigger than James bolting South Beach to go back home again as Bosh has been offered a max contract from Houston. It has also been speculated that no longer having Bosh on the books could free up Miami for a chance to create a “new” Big 3 (whatever that means) of LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony.

But, for the sake of argument (and good internet sports columns) let’s assume that LeBron James did indeed announce that he was taking his talents back to where they started…in Northeast Ohio.

In 2010, when LeBron announced his “Decision” on ESPN to join Bosh and Wade in Miami, Cleveland fans were going through a range of emotions from anger to sadness. Many even burned #23 LeBron James jerseys in Downtown Cleveland and a poster that covered up the entire side of a building in Cleveland with his likeness and a message saying “We Are All Witnesses” was taken down.

It was another case of sports heartbreak for a city that knows plenty about sports heartbreak. 

Fast forward to today—James has won two championships with Miami, but likely still has a soft spot for his hometown fans in Cleveland (he grew up in Akron). Remember, LeBron probably does not leave the Cavs if not for Dan Gilbert.

Many Cleveland Cavs fans unfairly put the blame on LeBron for bolting for rings with two of the other top 15 or 20 players in the NBA. The problem is that he basically won then division championships while in Cleveland by himself. In his seven years with the Cavaliers, he played on rosters that included a serviceable center in Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson and a Shaquille O’Neal who, at the time, didn’t belong anywhere near a basketball court.

LeBron James was a Batman with no Robin. A more apt analogy would be that he was a Lone Ranger.

2007 should have been the lightbulb that went off in Gilbert’s head in terms of putting players that could help LeBron out. That was the year when his Cavs were swept in the NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs, arguably the purest definition of “team” in the NBA in the post-Jordan era. This should have especially been true as there were questions of his future in Cleveland even going back that far.

Except, Gilbert’s lightbulb was always dim, and he never committed to signing key players that could help James and the Cavs win an NBA title. Remember, he’s not to blame for why he left Cleveland—Dan Gilbert is. Why haven’t the calls for him to sell the team been louder is one of life’s unsolved mysteries.

If LeBron were to return to Cleveland, he would be on a team that would include Andrew Wiggins who was just drafted this year, and a Kyrie Irving is has developed into one of the best young players in this league (underrated at that). There’s no doubt the Cavs are building talent. Signing a LeBron James (who still may want a max contract ala Bosh and Melo) may be what puts them over the top this time.

But how would it be received? Cinderella story of a great player returning to his hometown after spurning them four years earlier, or a story of someone who just wants some positive headlines in the papers?

There will still be a wide swath of Cavs fans who felt so jilted by “The Decision” on that summer evening in 2010 that they will never welcome him back to their city regardless of if he were to return to try to win a championship for the Cavaliers. Such a return would mean a shift in how he is viewed legacy wise.

LeBron James was much-maligned by sports pundits prior to “The Decision” for not being able to win “The Big One” even if that 2007 team might as well have been called “LeBron and Friends”. Now with two titles, the talk has shifted (idiotically, I might add) to if he’s chasing Michael Jordan.

As I’ve said on previous occasions, Michael Jordan is Michael Jordan and LeBron James is LeBron James. He does not need to chase His Airness in order to be remembered as an all-time great. He already is an all-time great and if the Basketball Hall of Fame isn’t working on his bust, they’re asleep on the job.

It would be his legacy in Cleveland as an all-time great figure in the realm of that city’s sports scene that would be well-scrutinized, especially by sports talk radio and television in that city. If he is able to lead the Cavaliers to an NBA Finals win, then it would complete a heck of a Cinderella story. That one championship alone will erase the sting of “The Decision” that cut like a knife.

Of course, there is always the possibility that him returning to his home state would be nothing more than a fraudulent local public relations play on his part. There’s no questioning that his PR has been hurt big time (even if unfairly) by his decision and its national telecast on ESPN. Even donating money to the Cleveland chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America couldn’t repair his PR image.

He unfairly went from hero to villain when he announced that he was signing with Wade and Bosh in Miami even though Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, three years earlier prior to the 2007-08 season practically did the same thing with the Boston Celtics in their hopes of winning a ring. The result—they dominated the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals that year. The only difference is that KG and Allen did not have their “Decisions” nationally televised on the four-letter network.

Also, if LeBron wants to return to Cleveland to make things right, he has to do it now. Cleveland has already been teased enough with its woeful sports history—one more tease is all they need.

In December, he’ll be 30 years old. Meaning even if he signs a short-term extension with the Miami Heat only to return to the Cavs a few years later, he’ll be signing with Cleveland not as an 18-year old phenom out of high school, but as a 32, 33, or 34 year old elder statesman who probably is no longer the same player he was in his Miami years—and no longer worth the reported max contract of $20-plus million he’s demanding this go-round with free agency.

At that point, it would be nothing more than a sympathy play, and also somewhat of an insult to Cleveland to rejoin them when he’s past his prime and inching closer to father time than title time.

I Rhyme.

In my opinion, a return to Cleveland ought to be better viewed as a Cinderella story than as a PR ploy at this point since it was the ineptitude of Dan Gilbert as Cavs GM and owner which drove LeBron from the Cavs in the first place. But given how he first left Cleveland, that’s why there are questions about if such a return will only be a plea for sympathy from hoops aficionados in his home state.

Oh, and you know if you’ve read my columns that I cannot do a full column like this without analyzing arguably the biggest wild card in this whole mess—ESPN.

In a sense, thanks to “The Decision”, ESPN practically built this Miami Heat team led by “The Big 3”. When they won championships in 2012 and 2013, Bristol did so many puff pieces featuring LeBron James you would think that his PR reps had hijacked the network.

ESPN has played a huge role in the villain-ization of King James since his 2010 decision to “take his talents to South Beach”, so there’s no question that a return of LeBron to his hometown will definitely be followed by days (and even weeks) of pieces portraying him as a “returning hero”, ready to do battle for his hometown once again.

Bristol controls the narrative of so many things involving sports in the United States, and that cannot be seen in a more obvious fashion than with the on-court and off-court exploits involving one #6.

Whatever LeBron James decides this time around, we’ll certainly have a reaction to it. If it is the Cleveland Cavaliers, some will say it’s the beginning of a Cinderella story and others will proclaim that it’s a PR sympathy play.

But what we really ought to be on the lookout for, is the note that Dan Gilbert posts on the Cavaliers website after that Decision.

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