The Return of the King: What Lebron James’ Letter Really Says

(A special thanks to Scott for allowing me to invade his blog space for this guest post.)

I won’t get into a lot of what’s already been talked about in this LeBron discussion, concerning salaries (Scott has done that well enough here) or from an X’s and O’s standpoint. There are people much more qualified than me to make those arguments.

Instead, I’d rather discuss a different question. Debate has already raged over which city is really better for James’ historical image, so we have to ask ourselves, “What does this iteration of The Decision” say about Lebron right now?

To answer that question, we need to travel back even further than four years ago, back to Lebron’s first stint with the Cavaliers.

From the outset, it appeared James was destined to play out his whole career in Cleveland. A young talent from Ohio, he entered the NBA straight out of high school to historical fanfare. This was the next Michael Jordan, people proclaimed, the savior of basketball, and the one chosen to bring a championship to a city that hadn’t seen a professional title since 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL crown.

James accomplished a lot in his seven year tenure as a Cav. He took the team to the playoffs five times, including a trip to the NBA Finals, and won two MVP awards. But in spite of all that success, James still showed signs of immaturity. In the 2009 playoffs, James walked off the court after losing in the conference finals to the Magic without shaking hands. Throughout his tenure, he also refused to take part in the NBA dunk contest. The dunk contest may seem trivial, but the reason for his absence was easy enough to discern: James would be shamed by any loss in such a competition, and rather than face the challenge, Lebron shied away.

Then came 2010, and with it James’ first shot at free agency, and The Decision. The entire nation sat and watched as Lebron James took an hour to destroy everything he had ever built, deconstructing seven years of hard work in the space of sixty minutes. James threw his away his title as King James and basketball’s savior for the role of a mercenary; he cast aside his crown to don the mask of a villain.

But the villain was a role that James never settled into, not really. He tried to play it off, acting as if he took the hate and criticism thrown at him in stride, but it was obvious the harsh words got to him. His attempts to dismiss it came across as petulant. If anything, his responses to the shots fired only served to strengthen the growing tide of animosity towards him.

All of this culminated in the 2011 Finals. First, there was Cough Gate, the video of James and Wade mocking Dirk Nowitzki. Then came the disappearing act James pulled in Game 4, managing only eight points the entire game. And, finally, the post-Game 6 press conference comments lashing out at those who celebrated his failure. James was trying to disarm his critics; instead, he simply handed them more ammunition.

But this is where something changed. Without being inside of Lebron’s mind, it’s hard to know exactly what drove the change. Maybe he found smarter counsel to listen to; maybe he got tired of coming up short; or maybe he just got tired of playing dress up and decided he wanted to dump his supervillain clothes. Whatever the reason, when the Heat took the court for the 2011-12 season, it was with a Lebron driven by a new sense of purpose, and, more important, one who wasn’t out to show everyone that he could play the bad guy.

The Heat won the title that year with Lebron as the MVP. But that wasn’t the most telling sign of James’ growing up. For that, you had to wait a few more months. After leading the US team to a gold medal in the Summer Olympics, James stepped aside for a postgame interview, where he was asked what this victory meant for him and his legacy. James could have easily taken the bait (a younger version of him might have) but instead Lebron simply dismissed the personal achievement, remarking how great it was to get a win for the country.

Two years, two more Finals appearances, and one more title later, we found ourselves in the same place as we were four years ago, awaiting The Decision II. You had to wonder what exactly to expect, and not just where James was going. For this moment, where he went was just as important as how he said it. And how he said it spoke louder than any one hour television special ever could have.

James’ letter (if you haven’t read it yet, you can still find it here) was the antithesis of The Decision, a simple, honest conversation piece in place of a self-absorbed spectacle. It was neither showy nor vindictive. It answered all the questions surrounding his departure and his Cleveland hiatus and his return. In a word, the letter was perfect, a symbol of James’ transformation from a talented-but-self-absorbed superstar to a true leader.

If you want to see James’ transformation, look no further than his own reference to The Decision. “I’m not having a press conference or a party,” the letter says. “After this, it’s time to get to work.”

James acknowledged that taking Cleveland from a lottery team to a champion will take time, and he’s committed to the city for the long haul. Critics will attack the two-year contract, but that should be taken with a grain of salt. The NBA salary cap is expected to make an enormous leap in two years, which will give James the chance to earn a salary more in line after what he’s worth, which is more than fair. After all, it’s laughable that James should be paid less than Bosh, and the boost he’ll give to the Cavs’ revenue stream will more than justify a pay hike. Besides, if James simply played out two years in Cleveland and then jumped ship, he’d immediately turn himself back into the villain that he played so poorly before.

Maybe James won’t ever match Jordan in titles, but if he’s able to bring one home to Cleveland, that may mean more. It’s something that will be fun to watch. After all, even if James matured in Miami, it was still harder to cheer for him there. He’s the best basketball player in the world, and a two-time champion. But now we’re going to see what he can really do.

If you read between the lines, you can see that James is saying more than that he’s simply coming home. He’s saying that he’s ready to lead; he’s ready to bring a championship to Cleveland. He’s ready to wear the crown that for so long sat too heavy atop his head.

At long last, the King has returned.

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