LeBron James continues to evolve

LeBron James' move back to Cleveland is well-timed and well executed, and shoulnd't have been a surprise.
LeBron James’ move back to Cleveland is well timed and well executed, and shouldn’t have been a surprise.

by Paul West

With the buildup to LeBron’s second momentous “Decision,” the sports world waited with bated breath. Many expected that the Big Three were conspiring to help the Heat reconfigure and continue their dominant run. There was widespread speculation about LeBron and Melo joining forces in New York, Miami and other places. There were jokes about LeBron making everyone sit around and wait, only to publicly give Cleveland “the Heisman” yet again.

But really, there were only two reasonable options, and with his “coming home” announcement, LeBron chose the one that we probably should have known to see coming.

LeBron James, it bears noting, might be the youngest de facto player-coach in NBA history. Despite being unfairly hammered for not being ‘clutch’ because he sometimes chose to pass with the clock winding down, astute observers–and, increasingly, casual observers–noticed his general inclination to choose an intelligent ‘basketball play’ over defending his basketball ego by jacking up a buzzer-beater. When he joined the Heat, he played with people whom he could trust as more likely to make a buzzer-beater than he was–and he continued to make the wise decision, letting all-time sharpshooters like Dwayne Wade and Ray Allen deliver the dagger while he, himself, bore sidelong gazes. Always more Magic than Jordan at heart, he went to the Heat and, in his early years, whose to be a united and facilitator instead of shot-happy assassin. Meanwhile, he worked on his game–and his jump shot. Eventually, his outside shooting got to the point where he as as dangerous from outside as from the paint or on the fly. And then he began to be the one who fired the final arrow. Even his detractors had to acknowledge that as much as anyone perhaps in history, LeBron James worked on the totality of his game instead of resting on the laurels of absurd talent and athleticism. Yes, he was chasing titles. But he was also chasing perfection. This was reflected in his decision to pass up shots earlier in his career, as much as his ability to make any shot on the floor as of his late twenties. The greatest combination of talent, skill and athleticism in the league was also blessed with the desire for self-improvement, and the urge to be well-rounded.

This last part is instructive, and was reflected in other aspects of his basketball and public life.

LeBron James handled “The Decision” badly. Very badly. He didn’t deserve the bitter, childish, ignorant (and, yes, in some instances, racist at heart) reactions that ensued. But he did deserve to be ridiculed and even disliked for how he handled his exit from Cleveland. But let’s remember that LeBron, at the time, was still quite a young man. Moreover, he was in many ways quite a sheltered young man. He was wise beyond his years in a basketball sense, and in his ability to unite and facilitate among his teammates. But when he behaved narcissistically, foolishly and thoughtlessly toward his hometown fans, it really wasn’t that inconsistent with other aspects of a personality that, in many ways, was younger than his years.

But all the while, it turns out, he was pushing himself to evolve off the court as much as on it.

One thing that was widely agreed upon, even among his detractors, was that LeBron James was a pretty nice guy who generally meant well. He was friendly with opposing players, gracious in victory and defeat, and didn’t win with the caustic, cutthroat meanness that characterized historically psychotic competitors like Jordan or Bird. He won, he competed, but he was always pretty nice about it. He married his sweetheart, stayed out of trouble, and got involved with a wide range of engagements off the court. There was always the undeniable sense that, even if you believed he was a title-chasing mercenary on the court, he was hard to really dislike as a person.

Still, those who remembered the absurdity that was “The Decision” couldn’t have been blamed for speculating that in this past week, he was just stringing everyone along again, so he could make yet another title-grab in yet another city. A lot of people–myself included–wouldn’t have necessarily blamed him for permanently dodging the fans who burned his jersey, called him horrendous things, attacked him in ways well beyond the scope of his transgression. Players who behave far more dishonorably, who disgrace their sport far more prolifically, who play their games with apparent intent to injure and/or humiliate their opponents, aren’t treated to such abuse as was the kid who was stupid, shameful and narcissistic for a week but had also gotten his franchise closer to glory than it had been in countless years.

But again, if you really think about it, there were only two ways this could have gone.

On one hand, LeBron could have stayed in Miami and allowed the team to rebuild around him. Wade had gradually ceded his status as head of the triumvirate, and LeBron has already become the primary engine of the Heat. On the other hand, LeBron could have returned to Cleveland and allowed the team to rebuild around him. Still in his prime, with young talent accumulating, he could have continued to expand upon his history of being a player-coach type, leading and facilitating and uniting even though he more often opted to take the game’s final shot.

And then he wrote the letter. And it all made sense.

“If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but…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.”

LeBron James went to Miami to take his lumps, grow as a player and a person, and succeed in ways that he probably wouldn’t have in Cleveland, at that point in his career. Graciously, he thanks his teammates for their contributions. And then he says, “I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.” Work to improve, as he’s always done. LeBron also addresses the obvious, looming matter of his nasty breakup with his hometown fans–and what it will take to repair the relationship.

“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?”

“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. 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.”

The kind of humility and grace displayed in LeBron’s latest announcement are the logical conclusion of his efforts, mistakes, tribulations, embarrassments, and successes over the past half-decade. They’re also consistent with the majority of what he’s shown us since entering the league. It shouldn’t have really been such a big a surprise to us. And it couldn’t have been much more well played.

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