The letter in Sports Illustrated was super sweet. Had a writer’s touch. Really nice. Perfect, really. So perfect. Too perfect, if you are cynical and embittered and hurt.
And the fairy-tale story itself might even be somehow better than that. Conquering hero returns home, to rebuild the shattered place. It was all spun so well that even the Cleveland people who were burning his jersey and urinating on cakes of his face in public restrooms developed the inconsistent amnesia necessary to overlook the conquering hero’s hand in shattering the place he now returns to rebuild. Such a thin line in sports between Thank You and F--- You.
The American sports fan can applaud this move because anyone understands a pull to go back to your roots and your love and your home. Forgiveness and redemption are warm. The American sports fan can also applaud this move because it was taken away from greedy, gluttonous, loud and bejeweled Miami, and now the feel-good hope can be shared by more cities in a sport that is almost always lopsided. Jealousy and hatred are cold.
If you were in the public relations business, which Sports Illustrated usually isn’t, this is exactly the way you massage all of this to get the worship and mythology that purifies the polarizing image of a global icon who rented Miami for championships. Get the premier and most reputable sports publication in America to tell the tale about going home for you. Those kids in the entourage of LeBron James are smart.
The embittered might also point out that, um, just like four years ago, James bailed and took what looks like the easier path. Younger roster. Smaller expectations. It is going to be very, very difficult to catch the six titles of Michael Jordan now, in Miami or Cleveland or anywhere, but James no longer has to be championship-or-bust every year the way it would have been in Miami forevermore.
Cleveland, a life-long loser in sports, is grateful to merely have him back, so grateful, and even in that perfect letter James admits that all he’s chasing now for Cleveland is “not two, not three, not four, not five …” but merely one. Make it about going home and forgiveness and redemption instead of about Dwyane Wade’s cruel aging and the problems your entourage had with Pat Riley, and the applause is loud enough to drown out that idea of “easier.” That letter put in print, in his words, the lowering of expectations in a much quieter way than that pep rally four years ago in Miami raised them.
That’s how many of the embittered are seeing it on this day, but he deserves better than this. Sorry. I know many of you feel sick and haunted and betrayed right now in a way that is unreasonable and irrational and so very sports, but all I feel is gratitude. I know you don’t much want to hear about that when you are grieving and coping and lashing out, this hungover feeling somewhere between sickness and depression. But I’ve been working in this weird and wonderful world for a quarter century now, and I know that I have not ever seen anything like the past four years in this city, and I know that I will never see anything like it again.
I'm grateful for that. So grateful. It is OK to mourn that loss. But all I feel is gratitude for having had it to lose. South Florida lost him the same way South Florida got him. There is some justice in that.
Sports, man. So personal. So emotional. So cool. The investment is insane. You care about where a famous millionaire works in a way that feels like an awful break-up in Miami. You have trouble sleeping Friday night and hurt upon rising while Cleveland awakes jubilant and buoyant, like with new love. Never mind in entertainment. There isn’t much that feels like this anywhere in life. Sports, man.
James is better at basketball than any of us will ever be at anything, and it was a joy for four consecutive years that he shared that with us, with our city’s name on his uniform. He arrived in Miami as the best player in the world, and somehow got a lot better every single year. He fulfilled the terms of his contract, was underpaid and gave you everything in him throughout his time here. You can yell about him reuniting with owner Dan Gilbert if you like, because you have to put the blame for this feel-bad somewhere, but if LeBron can somehow forgive the things Gilbert said about him, shouldn’t you, too?
I know. I know. Not now. Perspective and healing is for later. Let you wail in peace. But the feel-bad of him taking his talents away from South Beach can’t and won’t and shouldn’t erase the four years of feel-good. That’s rational and reasonable and sane. It is also so very not sports. But you’ll see and feel it in time, when the wound isn’t quite this fresh and you are back to sleeping normally and you realize that you’ll never feel the insanity of the past four years again.
But what a cool story for Cleveland. Who knows if this is even possible if the last three games of Miami’s season play out differently? Who knows if that 1.7 percent chance Cleveland had to get Andrew Wiggins (who can now be turned into Kevin Love in a city where James is still going to have trouble luring free agents, never mind discounted ones) is the reason this happened? Those are some bad numbers for South Florida, but not quite as awful as these odds: Few people ever in any walk of life happily move from the city of Miami to the city of Cleveland, but the one who chooses to do it has to be the best basketball player in the world?
For four consecutive years unlike South Florida has ever seen, he made us totally and impossibly crazy.
And that’s how he left us, too.
Thank you for that, LeBron.
All of it.