It became the biggest sports story in the country, even bigger than the biggest sports event in the world. It finally and mercifully ended last week when LeBron James announced that he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team with which he started his NBA career.
Immediately after that announcement – which, thankfully, wasn’t made this time on an overly-hyped special television broadcast – the same sportswriters and broadcasters who fell all over themselves reporting this story before it even happened, started gushing about how wonderful it was that James was returning to his roots. After all, who doesn’t love a good, prodigal son story?
And James fueled that good-time feeling in his announcement, when he talked about how much Cleveland and all of northeast Ohio means to him and how he always visualized coming back to finish his career and lead his hometown team to glory.
It all sounds good, but we’re not buying it. Sure, James is happy to return home and the Cleveland fans – who burned him in effigy when he left for Miami four years ago – are happy to have him back. But don’t think for a second that this homecoming is about home – it’s all about LeBron James’ legacy. And James knows he needs more championship rings to be considered the equal of all-time greats like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
That’s James’ focus now and that’s why he’s back with the Cavaliers. James is like another possibly-best-of-all-time athlete, Tiger Woods. Neither is judged by how much money they make or how well they play in the regular season, but for how many major championships they win. For Woods, that means the four majors – the British Open, PGA Championship, Masters and U.S. Open. Winning those major titles is Woods’ priority now, and it doesn’t matter how many times he wins the Shell Houston Open or the FedEx St. Jude Classic if he doesn’t win one of the Big Four championships.
It’s the same for LeBron James. His legacy won’t be about how many games he wins in the regular season or how many division championships he wins or how many times he leads the league in scoring or even how many times he’s named as the NBA’s MVP. For him, it’s all about the rings.
That’s why he’s back in Cleveland, and not because he likes to sail on Lake Erie or visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. James knew he wasn’t going to win anymore championships in Miami, and if he didn’t know it before, he certainly did after the Heat were humbled by the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
The Heat roster is getting older and James’ main sidekick in Miami, Dwyane Wade, is literally limping toward the finish line of his Hall of Fame career. The Heat had to nurse Wade through the regular season so he could be healthy enough for the playoffs, and at his age – 32 — things tend to get worse, not better. Plus the Heats’ aging supporting cast was thoroughly outplayed by the Spurs’ bench, another bad omen for the future.
Now, contrast that with the Cavaliers, who are talented and young. It starts with point guard Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 overall pick three years ago, continues with forward Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick last year, and finishes with Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 overall pick this year. That gives the Cavs the top player in three out of the last four drafts. Plus Cleveland has two other recent Top 5 picks on its roster — Texas forward Tristan Thompson (No. 4 overall in 2011) and Syracuse guard Dion Waiters (No. 4 overall in 2012).
That’s a lot of young talent that will get better and better. Plus, James knows his presence will lure other quality free agents, some of whom will be willing to take less money for a better chance to win a championship. That happened in Miami and it will happen in Cleveland, too.
And that’s why James has returned to Cleveland. He left an aging, descending team for a fresh, ascending one, and that just proves – in case there was any doubt – that LeBron James is a smart man as well as a superior athlete.