LeBron James is going home
Cleveland and its hero overcome their history
Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.
LeBron James took the last walk of the season from the visitor’s locker room in Oakland, California’s, Oracle Arena to the team’s charter bus Sunday night. It came almost two hours after the game against the Golden State Warriors had ended. He had already cried on camera, explained his emotions on the podium, sprayed champagne with his teammates, kissed and held his three children and posed for pictures with the MVP and championship trophies.
Now, he hopped up the front steps of the bus, the last man on board. His teammates and coaches roared until the noise reached a crescendo. James held out his arms, palms open, acknowledging that, finally, he had delivered the city 40 minutes north of his birthplace its first major sports title in 52 years.
“Cleveland!!!” he bellowed.
And they hugged and celebrated all over again, point guard Kyrie Irving catching him midway down the aisle. Small forward J.R. Smith clasping hands, pulling his teammate in closer. They kept embracing, as if wanting to ensure that what just happened was real.
“Those emotions came out of me, just leading 14 guys and understanding …what our city’s been through over the last 50-plus years since Jim Brown,” James said, referring to the Cleveland Browns NFL title in 1964, the city’s last major sports championship. “Then, also, people just counting me out. Throughout my 13-year career, I’ve done nothing but be true to the game, give everything I’ve got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I’m capable of doing.”
Two years ago, one of the most interesting sports stories of this millennium unfolded with yet another surprise decision from the world’s greatest basketball player. James had decided to return to the Cavaliers, the franchise he had left four years earlier for the Miami Heat.
James had made the worst public relations move of his career in 2010, failing to tell his current employer he was leaving before he went public in The Decision, a made-for-TV clunker that did more to damage his reputation than any incredulous, who-shot-me look toward an official while begging for a call.
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert responded with a scorned-lover of an email to angry and depressed Cavs fans, of which Gilbert was perhaps the most angry and depressed.
Both parties hadn’t merely burned bridges — they detonated them. Northeast Ohio’s favorite son, the kid who grew up in poverty and fatherless in nearby Akron and was drafted No. 1 right out of high school by the Cavaliers, was suddenly Cleveland’s mortal enemy.
For anyone who’s grown up in a certain area and made that trek homeward, it’s easy to feel constrained or even imprisoned by the journey. You know the people too well — their flaws, their idioms, their annoying traits. It’s often why the most gifted professionals in almost every pursuit — athletics, arts, business — go where the white, hot lights shine the brightest.
That’s where the LeBron James story forks. Rather than be caught up in the emotionally wounded souls who torched his jersey in the street after leaving for Miami, he chose to believe in the better angels of Cleveland and the cursed sports town that was never supposed to win the big one.
And Sunday night, he and the Cavaliers defeated the greatest regular-season team in the annals of the National Basketball Association, a team that hadn’t lost three games in a row all season and had what appeared to be an insurmountable 3 to 1 lead in the series just a week ago.
When the white nylon was taken down from the rim in the arena and placed around James’ neck, it was clear …
All net. All forgiven.
“Social media today — the way people are judged for their last word, their last sentence, the last thing that they did — can be discouraging for young people because they’re under such scrutiny that I don’t think any of us were under growing up,” Gilbert told me on the court Sunday night, trying to explain how he, James, and Cleveland could put everything behind them and move on after 2010.
“So for them to see people have failed – I’ve made mistakes and failed, LeBron did, the team did – that you can learn from that, is big. Even in the series, being down 3-1, there were some mistakes that were made. It doesn’t mean the end of the world because there is a mistake or failure. In fact, that’s the only way to get there.”
Let’s be clear: The Cavaliers looked done in this series after the first two games in Oakland and again after falling behind 3-1 in Game 4. Going into Game 5 in Oakland, the only crack in the door seemed to be the suspension of Draymond Green for that one game. James and Irving jumped through that opening, going for 41 points each in their first of three straight elimination games.
After an emotional Game 6, where Steph Curry and the Warriors finally cracked amid foul calls and frustration, the table was set for the last game, one which had 14 lead changes, nine ties and the loudest crowd in the NBA doing everything to will its team to its second straight title.
They couldn’t stop James, either. Not on this night.
The defining play of this virtuoso series for him came with less than two minutes left, game tied at 89, title in the balance. The Warriors’ Andre Igoudala began a 2-on-1 break with Curry, getting the ball back for a sure layup on the right side. James was across the key on the left side, two steps behind the free throw line, maybe 10 feet from Iguodala.
He makes up ground and, in one fantastic leap, nearly pins Iguodala’s ball against the glass. The layup and the lead for Golden State never happened.
Moments later, Irving knocked down the most important 3-pointer of his life over … Curry. Steph had been Steph-ed, and the Oracle went dead quiet.
A few seconds later, it was over and James’ decision to come back to Cleveland had been validated in the most euphoric of ways. He burst into tears, which kept coming and coming, all the way through the championship trophy presentation. Smith wept. Tyronn Lue, the Cavs coach, put his hands on his head on the bench and lost it as well. Grown men, millionaires, were bawling over the great goal they accomplished together.
“That’s the reason he came back, to cement his legacy with a city that he only lives 40 minutes down the road from,” said Damon Jones, his former teammate the first time around in Cleveland and now a Cavs assistant. “It means more to him just because of how the first seven or eight years happened. You win two championships in Miami and then to come back, put the organization on his back … ”
Said Lue: “Just to come back to the state of Ohio just shows you who he is. The biggest thing about LeBron, why he deserves this, is the person that he is. He’s a giver. He’s all about trying to take care of people and be nice to everyone. And he made a promise and he delivered that promise. The best thing you can do is keep your word.”
He came home. He kept his word.
Wolfe’s novel is about a man who writes a tell-all bestseller about his quaint little town. He suffers backlash from the citizenry, who don’t quite see the town the same way, and he realizes that attempts to relive his childhood memories are never as fulfilling as they were when they were created.
George Webber, the main character in You Can’t Go Home Again, eventually comes to a realization: “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
You can’t go home again. Unless you’re LeBron James. And as the crowds encircle him in Northeast Ohio, he will find out that the childhood memories he created are even more fulfilling when realized as a grown man in the city so close to where he was born.
As James was walking down the aisle of the team bus on Sunday night, congratulating everyone for helping him deliver the dream home, a middle-aged woman in a LeBron James jersey, who had sneaked past security, raised her right arm toward the vehicle before it pulled away.
She said just one word, the only word for this moment on this night: