“I think it would be great. It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot of fun times in my seven years here.”
The speaker? None other than LeBron James, beginning the latest chapter of his never-ending quest for universal adoration. LeBron’s new team (the Heat) took on his old team (the Cavaliers) in Cleveland on Friday, and King James casually mentioned his newfound desire to return to his hometown team in the buildup to the game. And as hard as it may be for Ohioans to stomach, a return of LeBron would be the best-case scenario for the NBA.
Think about the aftermath of LeBron announcing on ESPN in July 2010 that he was taking his talents to South Beach. The Cavaliers’ home page was replaced by an open letter by owner Dan Gilbert, referring to LeBron’s departure as a “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal” and a “shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown ‘chosen one.’” SportsCenter devoted several minutes that night to clips of fans burning James jerseys, and the Heat threw a preseason victory party to introduce LeBron. And then the Heat lost in the Finals to the Mavericks, and fans in 49 states and Central Florida rejoiced. Now, suddenly, LeBron wants to go back to the team whose fans likened his departure to the move of the NFL’s Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
Well, if he wants to rebuild his reputation, that’s exactly what he needs to do. Before he announced his departure on national TV, LeBron was threatening to outshine Kobe Bryant in the galaxy of NBA stars. The perpetually moribund Cavaliers won 50, 50, 45, 66, and 61 games in his final five seasons, including a trip to the Finals in 2006-07. LeBron, not Kobe, was viewed as the “air” apparent to Michael Jordan.
Then he bolted for South Florida, earning public reprimands from His Airness as well as from Magic Johnson and NBA commissioner David Stern.
Returning to Cleveland won’t magically erase all of the ill will towards LeBron in the aftermath of his departure. It will, however, certainly go a long way towards reestablishing him as the face of the NBA, instead of an un-clutch performer who simply wanted to take the path of least resistance to a championship. However, this isn’t just about LeBron; this is about the league whose popularity he helped bring to a whole new level.
As I’ve written in this space before, the most pressing issue facing the NBA is its superstars’ desires to band together and form “super teams.” Sure, that sounds great if you live in New York or Los Angeles, but what about the fans in Orlando, who must once again brace for the impending departure of the Magic’s franchise player? Or supporters of the Hornets, who were forced to watch as star point guard Chris Paul forced his way into Tinseltown? John Wall provides the only incentive for anyone to watch the soon-to-be (again) Washington Bullets—but how long will he continue to wear the red, white, and blue?
Instead of treating fans in Ohio to the spectacle of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade taking on a bunch of scrubs who lost 63 of 82 games last season, let’s give them the chance to see LeBron face off against D-Wade. Let fans in Denver watch as Carmelo Anthony battles Amar’e Stoudemire, not watch as Carmelo Anthony battles Nuggets management for the chance to play alongside Amar’e Stoudemire.
More to the point, and with apologies to Kevin Durant, LeBron is the face of the NBA. Is it optimal for a league to have such a polarizing figure as its public face? Back in the 1990s, even if you lived in Portland or Utah, it was impossible not to admire Michael Jordan. The same used to be true of LeBron, and the only way he can begin to rebuild his reputation is with a mea culpa in the form of a return to the Rust Belt. It’s best for him, it’s best for the Cavaliers, and, above all, it’s best for the game.