You Can No Longer Hate LeBron James

Chasing the youthful teams. Can’t win without a great #2. Classless. Disloyal. Traitor. He’s still a peasant.

Those were the type of reactions heard last Friday when LeBron announced his Decision Part Deux to return home to Cleveland. He did so in a wonderfully thought out, brilliantly insightful, and selflessly humble letter in Sports Illustrated. The contrast of this year’s choice compared to that of four years ago is stark, emphasized by the irony LeBron employed – you have to think it was purposeful – when writing a letter to announce his homecoming, because of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s seething rebuke following The First Decision.

And, four years ago, Gilbert had every right to be angry.

On a beautiful summer afternoon I sat inside the stuffy living room of a small, Maine cottage  with a group of friends, waiting on That Decision. After commercials, five grueling minutes of Jim Gray during the interview, and more commercials we finally found out: he was taking his talents to South Beach. The whole thing stank. The TV special, the ads, the obnoxious hinting and overuse of the word ‘decision’ throughout the question-and-answer left us all with an overpowering, sour taste in our mouths. Those of us not in Florida hated it. And said so. Rancor cankers. Even the self-centered phrasing of “Taking my talents to South Beach” seemed awkward. He only made it worse by holding parties in Florida and bragging about their impending dominance before any of The Big Three had played a minute of court-time together.

Before LeBron left Cleveland, he was beloved by the NBA and its fan base. The pre-emptive conversation in 2010 was: “Who is the league’s best player? LeBron or Kobe?” not about his tainted legacy. He was a kid who grew up in Ohio, represented his upbringing, his city, well, and played hard for the family. Certainly, a few disliked him, but no one hated the guy.

After the Decision, totally different story.

Cleveland fans…well, they didn’t take the absconding so well. They burned jerseys – James in effigy – and used his bobblehead as urinal cakes.

I sat in the living room of that cottage, outraged he would leave. (Hypocritically, because I’m a Celtics fan, I hated the idea of players dictating rosters and teaming up in “Big Three” scenarios.) Part of my frustration was that evidently LeBron didn’t think he could win on his own. This was a guy who could be an all-time great – in the conversation with Jordan – and he took the “easy” way out. He thought only about winning basketball games now; neither his future legacy nor his past roots.

When he faded in the 2011 Finals in fourth quarter after fourth quarter, social media unleashed a relentless barrage of malice. Sport’s most popular villain had fallen in his quest for world (OK, NBA) dominance, and the country could not have been happier. Anyone who was not a fan of the Miami Heat felt spurred into vocal opposition against LeBron. He tried to soil the integrity of the game by joining forces with friends, but he was thwarted by ready-made protagonist Dirk Nowitzki, a one-team lifer.

Then he won two championships and, fine, the sports world decided, we can still hate him for winning. When the Spurs avenged their 2013 Finals loss the next season by humiliating the Heat in incredible fashion every non-Heat fan maniacally laughed in glee. LeBron was vanquished yet again.

Besides for immediately increasing record sales for Diddy’s track “I’m Coming Home,” in which Skylar Grey sings the hook, LeBron made the PR turn-around of his life when he went back to the Cavaliers. But, just like the biblical anecdote of the Prodigal Son, James was welcomed back home with adulation and joy by his father city. All past grievances were forgotten. My roommate at Syracuse this fall is from Cleveland and he texted me when the alert went out about the return simply, “Strangers hugging in McDonalds”.

In fact, my father, on business in Cleveland that day, went to an Indians game and saw many people in plain, orange tee-shirts, emblazoned with a simple word that held so much significance: Forgiveness. It, seemed to be the open arms of the city, ready to embrace their hero, but also LeBron’s decision to be the bigger man. He saw his hometown burn his jersey, read the rancor in Gilbert’s letter, heard the city cheer his every stumble. Yet, LeBron forgave Cleveland as much as they forgave him.

In his classy letter, LeBron says that coming home is not a basketball decision, but a personal one. How can you hate LeBron now? That decision alone distances himself from Michael Jordan. In Bill Simmons’ phenomenal column about why LeBron left, he points to a conversation he had with Doug Collins. Michael Jordan made every decision based around basketball. He wanted to win all the time, no matter the cost. He used to grimace towards the bench, indicating to his coach to get a certain teammate “The F out of there” because he couldn’t be trusted. LeBron’s decision to go home wasn’t about amassing championships; it was about trying to bring just one to his title-starved home. Quality trumps quantity. People conveniently forget about how Michael tried to extend his career in basketball with the Wizards, crucifying LeBron for chasing winning basketball when His Airness did too. MJ was always about me, this decision by LeBron is about a city. LeBron isn’t chasing rings to see who has the most by teaming up with other greats any longer.

LeBron made a personal decision within basketball, not one about basketball personnel.

You can’t hate him for choosing something that helps others. He doesn’t have the money on his mind, and it’s for the good of everyone.

LeBron has unequivocally righted his wrongs by owning up to the Heat debacle and the Decision disaster from four years ago. This time, he met with all owners, unlike in 2010 when he left Cleveland without a word to Gilbert, and said nothing the entire time. No leaks, no “here’s what LeBron wants if you want to win the lottery”. He kept it quiet and decided within his inner circle. He’s matured. Keeping in mind that LeBron went directly from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School (Akron, OH) at 18-years old to the face of an NBA franchise, he fascinatingly pointed out in his letter that Miami was like college for him. He grew up. Now that he’s matured, his experience has better prepared him to lead his hometown team.

This is good for basketball for so many reasons. They now have the redemption story of LeBron going home to a small-market team in a situation where it’s not about the money. The league-wide feelings for the Cavs isn’t, like Miami, disdain, it’s generally empathetic. After seeing the Spurs play so well for so long, it’s evident a team needs more than three Superstars in a riches and rags roster, but they need depth. San Antonio, not Miami, is the paradigm for success. It also signifies the end of the “Big 3” era, which started with the Celtics.

The Eastern Conference is opened up to provide more competitive playoffs, as well. That helps the NBA fan, too. There’s a balance in the teams, there are no more player-dictated rosters. The NBA and its fans also benefit from the new jerseys to buy (silly Cleveland, shouldn’t have burned them) with diversified plotlines and a general consensus of an unknown NBA hierarchy with LeBron in Cleveland.

It’s good for non-NBA fans, who no longer have to watch SportsCenter – um, I mean LeBron-Carmelo Watch 2K14 – and get text updates from ESPN, frantically alerting you LeBron’s son just caught a fish and the video is on Instagram. That’s the part I despise: the suffocating coverage. It’s not LeBron’s fault that he’s hounded about a decision which he can, justifiably, take weeks to contemplate. It’s ESPNs over-blown coverage and constant updates that make people sick of the NBA. Non-NBA fans will also see less Heat gear this fall.

It’s good for Dan Gilbert and Cleveland because the man gets to keep his job and the city doesn’t have to excommunicate him for his bullish actions costing them a chance at their hero. The city also will undoubtedly grow economically; according to Forbes, around $100 million. Plus, now, Cleveland, good news! LeBron cannot leave. He can’t. If he did, the world would implode from anti-LeBron propaganda and Cleveland’s rage.

It’s good for Andrew Wiggins because he will have a healthy locker-room with which to mature and the best mentor possible in the game; hard to imagine typing that even six months ago.

Anderson Varejao – LeBron has said about 242542 times that he loves Varejao as a teammate, “one of his favorites,” so that means: job for life.

It’s good for Miami because…OK, maybe it’s not great for everyone. But it’s really good for most people. Plus, Miami still has their great weather, beautiful beaches, and good-looking women. It’s tough to feel bad for them.

He even gave them a meeting, a luxury he didn’t afford Cleveland four years ago.

So as LeBron James goes back to try and win “Not four…not three…not two” but just one championship for the city of Cleveland, it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Here’s a player, sacrificing individual awards to make the city that raised him proud. And if Cleveland fans don’t hate him any longer, neither can you.


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