After reading LeBron James’s essay announcing his return to Cleveland on Friday, I was immediately struck by the eloquence and openness of the words. He touched on everything from basketball to family and personal growth to civic duty. James’s essay displayed perspective that we normally only see in Hall of Fame speeches made by much older men who are far removed from their playing careers and have the benefit of years of hindsight. It was as well-measured and self-aware as any speech or statement that I have ever seen from an athlete.
Once the emotion and awe of the moment wore off, I began to notice something else. Over the last four years, James has transformed from the kid whose naiveté allowed the Decision to happen into a two-time champion whose maturity and media savvy are constantly on full display.
By simply choosing an essay as his forum, James gave himself the opportunity to have the first and last word about his decision to return to Cleveland. He can now sit back and watch the media reaction for a few days, allowing him to anticipate and prepare for any issues that may arise when he finally speaks to the media in a question and answer format.
"I’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted."
He also demonstrated that he has learned from the mistakes of the Decision and the infamous "not one, not two, not three…" pep rally in Miami, emphasizing that substance is more important than flare at this point in his career, a sentiment that the people of Northeast Ohio certainly appreciate.
"I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work."
The essay provided some candid insight into James’s personal growth as well. Perhaps more importantly, it provided a subtle reminder that he has come of age in the midst of media scrutiny that is unfathomable to most of the fans who follow him. Because he is a ten-time NBA All-Star and has been a major public figure for over a decade, it is easy to forget that he is still not yet thirty years old. He hasn’t had the benefit of making his mistakes in the privacy of a dorm room or inside the protective bubble provided by a college campus. He went straight from high school to being the face of an NBA franchise, and despite being a multi-millionaire by the age of nineteen, he never had the opportunity to live more than an hour from his home town until he left to join the Heat.
"If I had to do [the Decision] all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man."
Like many young people across the country, moving away during his mid-twenties gave James the perspective to see that home is where he really wanted to be all along. However, because he is the best basketball player on the planet and a worldwide celebrity, we somehow expected him to possess wisdom far beyond his years without first exploring a change of scenery.
"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now."
Perhaps the most impressive single portion of the essay was the way the he handled the giant elephant in the room. With just twenty-five words, he addressed Dan Gilbert’s letter, acknowledged the issue, took the high road, and cleverly put the matter to rest with a brief and succinct statement. He also paved the way for Cleveland fans to forgive the hubris of the Decision. If James can forgive Dan Gilbert’s personal attack, certainly fans can forgive the lack of self-awareness displayed by a frustrated twenty-five year-old four years ago.
"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?"
On the basketball side of things, he wisely tempered expectations, making sure that no one confuses this year’s Cleveland team for the just-add-water championship contender that Wade, Bosh, and James put together seemingly overnight in 2010.
"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."
James also protected his future legacy by noting that a return to Cleveland may cost him in terms of total career titles, and he implied that his career should be judged based on his loyalty to Northeast Ohio and the sacrifice required to focus his efforts on bringing a title to Cleveland at the expense of building his own resume.
"My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important to me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."
Finally, he underscored that his return to the Cavaliers is about more than just basketball. It is about fulfilling a sense of civic duty and being a role model for children who come from the same background that he did.
"But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously."
Further, he reminded fans that his words have been echoed by his actions. While he may not have been playing for the local team the last four seasons, he has continued to be an active participant in the Northeast Ohio community.
"I want kinds in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."
The last four seasons and his essay show that, both on and off the court, the child prodigy from Northeast Ohio has fully come into his own. Now, he’s coming home too.
"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept that challenge. I’m coming home"