The biggest news of the weekend came out on Friday afternoon with LeBron James’s announcement in Sports Illustrated that he’ll be returning to Cleveland next season, forsaking the Heat and the team he won two championships with. Even post-Decision, I always had a rooting interest in LeBron’s success because of the impossible expectations forced upon him from high school. That didn’t stop many people from condemning him for that awful TV special, which frankly, he deserved. But with his new decision, and more importantly the manner in which he articulated it, he’s put the first decision behind him. It’s not that it will be forgotten or forgiven, but it’s part of a broader narrative now, rather than a giant stain on however many championships or individual accomplishments he manages to accrue.
But let’s please focus on the letter before anything else. It’s clear that these were LeBron’s true feelings and intentions, despite what I’m sure was extensive assistance from Lee Jenkins/his agent/consultants/et al. Exhibit A is these three sentences: “I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio.” Read it out loud. It’s ridiculous right? It’s impossible for a sportswriter of Jenkins’s caliber to write that. It’s not that its content or style is that offensive to journalistic code, it’s that this sentence construction is anathema to anyone who goes through the ringer as a professional writer. They wouldn’t even conceive of writing something like that because they’d be sure the editor would laugh them out of the office. Their years of training and hard work would crush a style that radical out of them.
Now to substance. I found myself tremendously moved by LeBron’s words. Though Bill Simmons is a flawed writer, he usually gets the sentiment right, and this time was no exception. It was impressive that he was able to self-criticize much about the Decision without invalidating it completely or pandering. I remember watching his last few games with Cleveland and being stunned at the cast of players they put around him. Of course a great player chasing a championship would’ve seriously considered leaving and playing with two of the best in the league. It was his decision to make and we shouldn’t have looked down on him for the choice itself. But the manner in which he said it was outrageous. If our country falls apart anytime soon, historians somewhere will point to the party at American Airlines Arena and put it in the same category as Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But the Miami-as-college analogy (an experience LeBron never had) meant a lot to me as someone who left the place they had always known for school at a new one. Sometimes you have to leave so you can come back. It didn’t make up for what he’d done, but it made it into something we can more easily understand. Just like on the court, maybe his past failures will galvanize him to be even better.
I went into it expecting to be impressed, but not moved. I’ve followed the NBA and LeBron closely these past five years and I thought I knew all there was to know about him. I didn’t think anything he could say would surprise me at such a fundamental level. But it did. I love moments like this when something is able to overwhelm my default cynicism and defensive, analytical nature. It’s wonderful to feel something new – some idea or action or selection of words that can surprise and effect me in ways that are not immediately obvious. It really seems like LeBron is trying to be the best person he can be and not just the greatest basketball player of all time. He’s always been very conscious of his legacy, too conscious perhaps, but the fact that he’s trying to be the best he can be off the court is indicative of how much he cares about that part of how we remember him. Maybe the cliche of someone being “beyond basketball” isn’t so useless here after all. Call me a sap, but I find joy in that and I see no reason to deny myself that wonderful experience. Even if this was just one giant PR move orchestrated by LeBron years in advance, I don’t care right now. I don’t care because I don’t know that to be true and I’m not going to automatically assume the worst to be true without proof (contrary to my usual reactions to things). Either way he’s going back to a rough part of the country where his foundation has already made a difference and his presence and future years of work will mean so much more. We know he will make a real and positive difference in many lives. We know because people who live there are telling us this! And even if that weren’t the case we should believe in it anyway. What does it say about us if we can’t appreciate that?
Too infrequently we come into contact with stories that uplift us, and most of those are often so cheesy and manipulative that they make us quickly cynical about all such stories. It’s so easy and often more respectable to take the negative view on the events of the day (let’s face it, there are good reasons for that too). This may be a rare moment when we’re presented with a story that’s both real and powerful in good ways. We really have a choice (also rare) this time with how we take this. I’m going to seize it and enjoy with a lighter heart.
For more, read the incomparable Zach Lowe here and the carried away but enjoyable Andrew Sharp here. For a good narrative on Jenkins’s big scoop for SI, click here.