The King is going home – and it’s the decision that transforms the career arc of Andrew Wiggins and the other young Canadians on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Whether the return of LeBron James to Cleveland shoots that arc skyward – or ratchets it to the hinterlands of basketball – remains, for now, unclear.
James captivated the basketball world this week: the obsessed tracked the private plane of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, parsed the computer code of James’s website, watched for moving vans in Miami, all of it played out in a dragging digital drama online.
When The Decision Part 2 emerged Friday at high noon, in an essay in Sports Illustrated, joy burst forth in woebegone Northeast Ohio. It was an instant lunchtime party, the citizenry celebrating in a bereft region that was so ruthlessly spurned four years ago.
For Canadian hoops fans, the week of parsing that concluded for most people began anew. In James’s essay, he wrote of teammates he was excited to work with, Toronto’s promising Tristan Thompson among them, as well as Dion Waiters, shooting guard – the position Wiggins would play on the James-led team. Wiggins, and last year’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, were not mentioned.
It wasn’t an accidental omission. Alongside the chatter this week of James heading back to Cleveland was another piece in a moving puzzle: a talked-about trade with Minnesota for the force of Kevin Love. Cleveland, even with James, is not an instant contender. Add Love and they are. To get Love, Cleveland would have to give up a lot.
ESPN floated a proposed deal Friday afternoon: Waiters, Bennett, and a first-round pick for Love. Cleveland does not want to hand over Wiggins. They may have to – but if Cleveland can manage to acquire Love and keep Wiggins after bringing home James, the makings of a champion, a Miami Heat North, is set.
For Wiggins, a raw 19-year-old rookie, such a scenario would be an extraordinary win. The arrival of one of the greats exempts the kid from the usual slog of top picks on poor teams. James becomes an instant trampoline for Wiggins and his budding brand empire.
Basketball banishment, however, looms. The Minnesota Timberwolves exist on the figurative and physical fringes of professional hoops. The team has not made the playoffs a decade. An optimist can cite a steadily improved recent record, up to going 40-42 this past season in the tough Western Conference. But subtract Love and: whoa.
Wiggins and/or Bennett would arrive in a place where young talent would be feasted on in the West. This is the typical trial for No. 1 picks: several years of awful losing as they learn their trade in the furnace of pro sports. Just ask the young Edmonton Oilers.
While the futures of Canada’s prospects bounce in limbo, Cleveland rejoices. Four years ago, the agony on Lake Erie was acute, when James at age 25 abandoned his home in search of a better shot at his first NBA title and, in a classless spectacle, took his talents to Miami. It worked: four championship appearances in four seasons, with two victories.
Back in Cleveland, the Cavaliers without James crumbed into a basketball wasteland. The hurt did not heal. It was only a few days ago that the Cavaliers removed owner Gilbert’s epic and unhinged rant penned when James left from their website. Published in the ridiculous Comic Sans typeface, Gilbert lashed out at James and declared, in capital letters, a personal guarantee of a Cavs championship before James won his first.
For James, it is no longer about five rings, six rings. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan can brag about their fistful of titles, never mind, of course, Bill Russell and his 11. James has finished his work in Miami. It is in Cleveland where James can cement his legend, the greater glory of unfinished business.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” said James. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
James made it to the finals once in Cleveland, at age 22 in 2007, when he carried the Cavs to their first, and only, NBA final, where the team was swept by San Antonio. The Cavs never made it back. Today, he returns to a team he can again carry, though with less of a singular burden on one man’s shoulders. The wasteland James left behind produced a harvest at the draft, starting with 2011 No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving at point guard.
In the broader, less concrete realm of psychic pain, it may only be sports but James’s departure hurt Cleveland so much because life in Northeast Ohio is marked not by joy and brightness but by grey and bleakness. James was hope – and his leaving was as severe a sports rejection as there can be. James grew up poor in Akron, 40 minutes south of Cleveland. A bit farther east is Youngstown. This dark triangle of the Rust Belt lost half its manufacturing jobs through the second half of the 20th Century. “Here in Youngstown,” sang Bruce Springsteen in a particularly dark 1995 song, “My sweet Jenny I’m sinkin’ down.”
“I want,” said James, “kids in northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”
Away from the shuttered factories, and inside the arenas and stadiums, it has been little better. The last professional championship was 50 years ago, the 1964 Cleveland Browns, before the modern era of Super Bowls. Go farther back and there’s the Cleveland Indians and the 1948 World Series. James was a sports saviour – until he wasn’t.
Cleveland is not a city that can afford to hold a grudge, and so it opens its arms. The local paper, The Plain Dealer, published a special section, fronted by the full-page image of James as a Basketball Jesus. The King is coming home. The gutting pain is over and all is forgiven. As James forges the next part of what has become one of the more extraordinary stories in North American sports history, there is work left to do. “In Northeast Ohio,” he concluded in SI, “nothing is given. Everything is earned.”