Just as the World Cup is dwindling down, another sports story has taken over your Twitter feed: the free agency of LeBron James, the best and most famous basketball player in the world. Four years ago James became a national villain after the saga of his first free agency culminated in a one-hour television special, but he has reversed the role today by choosing to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Let's set the stage for the truly uninitiated amongst you: in 2010, LeBron James—already a two-time MVP at that point—shocked the country by leaving the Cavs for the Miami Heat. James is from Akron, just 45 minutes south of Cleveland, and was accepted as a hometown hero, a prodigiously talented player who was certainly going to end Cleveland's city-wide championship drought of over 50 years. But that didn't happen: in LeBron's final five years in Cleveland, the Cavs only made the NBA Finals once and even then were wiped out in four games. The final two seasons in particular were painful, with the Cavs racking up the best record in their conference before bowing out to lesser competition. Our last current image of James on the Cavs is him yanking off his jersey after a rather pathetic loss to the Boston Celtics.
So James bolted for Miami, which combined LeBron—the clear-cut best basketball player in the world—with his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, both perennial all-stars. That James left Cleveland at the height of his career without winning a title was bad enough for most Cavs fans and even many objective observers. But worse was the way in which he did it: a one-hour live special on ESPN called The Decision that treated James' decision to switch basketball teams with the overblown pomp and importance of a televised singing competition. Many Cavs fans burned his jersey in the streets of Cleveland, and the team's owner Dan Gilbert penned an infamous letter in Comic Sans in which he mocked James and called him a "coward." LeBron was suddenly the face of everything—selfishness, disloyalty, hubris—America purports to stand against. Scott Raab, an Esquire writer from Cleveland, authored a book titled The Whore of Akron.
LeBron's four seasons in Miami were mostly a success. His time there was bookended by two bitter defeats in the NBA Finals, but years two and three were punctuated by James' first ever titles as a professional. He won two more MVP awards, and combined with those two championships, sports fans and commentators began to debate if he might even be better than Michael Jordan, the unattainable god of sports. It seemed as if James would be in Miami for the indefinite future: the team was good, he was playing with his friends, and his exceptional play had mostly done enough to wipe away the memory of his messy exit from Cleveland.
But the 2014 season ended especially poorly for the Heat. They made their fourth straight NBA Finals—a nearly unprecedented feat—but were beaten badly by the San Antonio Spurs. The Heat looked old and worn down. James was more or less the only Heat player, out of a dozen, that had what could be described as a "good" series. The Heat had looked unbeatable and ferocious for nearly three straight years, playing a version of basketball centered around James' unique talents that had the glint of a revolution. But now it suddenly appeared as if time had passed them by.
Back when James, Wade, and Bosh united in 2010, they structured their contracts so that they weren't locked into what could have been a misguided experiment. They each signed six-year contracts, but in the contracts were clauses that allowed each player to "opt out" after the 2014 season and become free agents, skipping the last two years of their deals.
LeBron chose to exercise that option in June, and both Wade and Bosh followed suit. It was not unexpected—after the Heat's shortcomings this past season, it would have been a logical way for them to restructure their salaries, allowing the Heat to retool the roster and add more talent around its three stars. But when LeBron opted out first, on his own, it indicated something might possibly be awry.
After weeks of speculation and enough conspiracy theories and thinly-sourced reporting to make Us Weekly look like the New York Times, James announced today that he was returning to Cleveland. Given the way he left Cleveland, and his triumphs in Miami, it seemed impossible as recently as even a month ago that this would be his next Decision. But in a letter posted today on SI.com, James proved himself to be more or less everything his critics once said he wasn't.
When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn't had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what's most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.
It is mostly unprecedented in the history of American sports for a player of James' caliber—he is undoubtedly one of the very few best to ever bounce a basketball—to twice switch teams voluntarily at the height of his power. But the fervor over LeBron's future goes beyond merely that: a player this important has never left and returned to his "home" city this quickly and dramatically, and that home city has never been Cleveland, a town that has been beaten down equally by its sports teams and the passage of time. This is why people in Cleveland didn't first believe the announcement was real. This is why, even amongst some of the NBA's most plugged-in observers, the reaction to today's news looked something like this:
It would be easy to call both of James' decisions one-in-a-lifetime events, but the entire sport of basketball moves at his whim, and it's hard not to feel like both his shocking exit and triumphant return may be setting a precedent.