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July 2014

A Promise Delivered

in NBA by
NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Miami Heat

Like a lot of folks, once I heard the rumors that LeBron James was going to announce his free agency decision on his website, I spent a lot of time refreshing just so that I could say that I saw the news first. Several times I questioned what I was doing, but I always figured that it wasn’t much worse than refreshing my Twitter feed incessantly.

Of course, it wasn’t necessary. LeBron ended up letting the world know he was returning to Cleveland with a tearjerker of an essay published with the help of Sports Illustrated, and the people that went as far as to strip code from his website for any clues on his decision ended up being disappointed. I still enjoyed the anticipation of a surprise, though, and I became particularly interested in something that was prominently displayed on the site: LeBron’s I PROMISE bands.

The more and more I looked at them and after I read about their purpose, I began to think about LeBron and the premise of promises and I started to believe that coming home was his plan all along. I started to think that LeBron made a promise to himself the day that he left Cleveland – or, perhaps, once he fully realized the impact his departure had – that he would come back to the city and redeem himself for ripping out its collective heart and stomping on it back in 2010.

LeBron had to leave Cleveland back then. I think even Cavaliers fans would admit that now. James had proven himself as one of the greatest athletes and talents the game had ever seen during his seven years in Cleveland, but the team simply couldn’t provide him with the supporting cast that he needed to vault himself into the legendary company that he sits in today.

Nobody can describe what his time with the Heat meant to LeBron more better can than he did. He said going off to Miami for four years was to him as college is to regular kids, which, of course, LeBron never had a chance to experience as the most hyped high school athlete of all-time. It’s such a symmetrical and spot on analogy.

LeBron choosing the Heat was literally the first time he was ever able to get away from home, and with the move came the ability to decompress and evolve without the pressure that comes along with momma’s cooking. I think most people would agree that the pressure to succeed in school and to bring home A’s was infinitely higher in high school than it was in college because our parents were always on top of us. But even if our GPAs were lower in college, I wouldn’t doubt that’s where we learned more, because the focus wasn’t on books or standardized tests, the focus was on finding ourselves.

And that’s what LeBron did in Miami. He’s matured so much since he went down there. The turning point for James was after those 2011 Finals, when he finally collapsed under the immense and unprecedented pressure that was weighing down on his broad shoulders. Right after the decisive game of that series, he used the NBA’s press pedestal to proclaim his superiority over the blue collar folks, or the kind of people that define the city of Cleveland.

But then he went into hibernation for the summer. He stayed away from everybody and even off the court for a while. Then he got to work on his game and he emerged the following season as a humbled man and a more complete basketball beast. He steamrolled through the Thunder in the Finals, smashing the only player in the league left standing as a peer, and rode a Ray Allen miracle shot to a second title before the dominant, legendary and respectable Spurs got revenge this season.

And now he’s back. He had to leave because he needed to win – and he did. Now he’s returned with a chance to bring a title back to the city of Cleveland, something that would make far more than a legendary basketball player. To win a championship in the most downtrodden sports city in America, just a half-hour away from where he grew up, would make him one of the most iconic sports figures of all-time. Whatever is a step beyond giving someone a key to the city, that’s what LeBron is going to get. They may elect him mayor of the city off write-in votes alone.

LeBron has known this all along. He would have stayed in Cleveland and had four more cracks at delivering a championship to the city over the past few years if he could have, but as one of the smartest men in sports, LeBron was all too aware that the Cavs weren’t equipped for a championship, and he knew that he couldn’t risk four prime seasons betting on the Cavs getting him better second and third options than Mo Williams and over the hill Antawn Jamison.

He couldn’t have handled the way he left better, for sure, but if his return didn’t atone for that TV special in and of itself, the essay he wrote about what the city means to him should end all of the bad blood. My mom starting choking up after reading the first few lines of that letter; my mom is a die hard San Antonio Spurs fan from Corpus Christi, Texas. I asked her why it made her cry. “It’s just the things he says,” she replied, not quite sure how to put it into words.

But that’s exactly what LeBron did in that letter. He succinctly summarized everything he has been thinking for the past four years without holding anything back. The way he speaks about the area, saying that “our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time” in regards to winning it all, how he says that he wants to raise his kids in the same place that he was raised, there’s an obvious bond there that was never truly broken no matter how much The Decision hurt both sides.

For all of the questions about LeBron’s loyalty from four years ago, this move proves that he’s always held a special place in his heart for the Cavaliers, not only because he had to get past that hurtful attack by Dan Gilbert, but because he’s passed up greener pastures for rolling hills of Ohio. Without a doubt, Cleveland gives LeBron a great shot at winning championships (mostly because they have LeBron), probably at better odds than the Heat would have. But there were other situations out there that made more sense if his sole purpose was to rack up as many rings as possible to aid his chase the ghost of Michael Jordan. Instead, he’s prioritized getting just one more in the city of Cleveland, showing a touch of humanity that Jordan could never uncover.

That’s why I think LeBron had promised himself this day would come, the day that he returned home for a chance to earn the crown that he was bestowed upon him back when he was a lanky teenager at St. Vincent–St. Mary. Read here for the latest reviews. I think he promised himself that he would return for redemption and forgiveness. I think he promised himself that he would give the final leg of his prime and the fleeting years of his career back to the city that made him who he is. I think he promised himself that he would set an example for his kids about values, maturity and the importance of home while raising them in his backyard.

I think he promised himself that he would make Cleveland proud to call him their own again.

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