By Jason Keidel
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LeBron James, basketball player nonpareil, has become the de facto commissioner of the NBA, his every movement measured with a jeweler’s eye.
King James has reached that rare air of celebrity where every tentacle of American media has a stake in his stardom, from pundits to paparazzi. He has mutated into a seamless, crossover celebrity, an orbit so high perhaps only Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have taken such select breaths.
Kobe never got this big. Shaq had his film and hip-hop dalliances, but he was never as singular as LeBron, who has not only assumed the single-name sobriquet, but has also become a celebrity tsunami, with the ripples of his next landing felt all over the entire sport, if not pop culture.
And think about what we’re pondering — his next basketball deal, where and when he signs his name to a standard, NBA contract.
But as with everything LeBron, it morphs into a morality play, class warfare at its finest. It’s Miami versus Cleveland. South Beach vs Shaker Heights. Bonefish vs trout. Speedboats vs. squatting off Lake Erie. Palm trees and 80 degrees against the frostbitten corners of Cleveland, where “The First 48” can camp for months and find enough crime to fill endless rolls of film.
And then add the homecoming caveat, the returning hero, the icon-turned-traitor who spent his college years on the hot sand of South Beach and then decided to come home, leaving Pat Riley’s cash and cachet at the altar.
Think about the blowback for Miami. LeBron would leave the Georgio Armani of basketball, the eternal slick of Riley, the progenitor of Showtime, to play for an owner who put him on public blast when he initially migrated south.
Then there’s the “not two, not three, not four…” title bombast; the championship parade before the Big Three played their first game, and the idea that he’s a carpetbagger who only goes where the farm is most fertile, the ultimate mercenary.
Or is he just homesick?
Some serious players, like Chris Sheridan, say it’s done, that LeBron is going to the Cavaliers, to rescue the forlorn franchise he left aflame in his wake almost four years to the day he made that absurd assertion that he was taking his talents to South Beach — the fluff, gruff, and glib theater he put on that night, with Jim Gray providing the media lap dance.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. Good thing he stuck to fiction. Writing the greatest novel of the 20th Century will have to be enough, because sports have showed us that there are nothing but second chances in American life, particularly for the gifted, for those touched by the deity with divine limbs.
And for all his PR malfeasance, LeBron James has been a rather solid citizen, family man, and perfectly polished NBA ambassador. If you’re going to have a face of the sport, in the MTV, ADD-addled age of the instant highlight and two-second sound byte, you could do a lot worse than Mr. James.
What does his potential move mean, really? It will change the course of two teams, obviously, and it will strike a blow for the blue-collar ideal. No city could use a boost more than Cleveland, which has a reputation as perhaps the worst major city in the nation, little more than the white noise around the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a crime-plagued wasteland off I-80, where the world breezes by as quickly as possible.
Jim Brown was the last athlete to bring Cleveland a title, in 1964. Yes, 1964. And we’re not talking about some dustbowl with two minor-league teams. Cleveland is a major player on the sports landscape. The Indians have been around forever, last winning in 1948, coming oh-so-close in 1997. The Cavaliers made some noise with Mark Price and Brad Daugherty in the late ’80s and early ’90s, crashing first into the Pistons and then Jordan’s Bulls.
The Browns had the gall to leave Cleveland, making Art Modell the most hated man in history, at least until LeBron abandoned them, with the owner writing rather ornery letters in local papers, using his jersey as kindle for volcanic, public protests.
It was all ugly. The departure and the arrival. Maturity is hard to come by. You can’t buy it, measure it, or own it. Only life can dispense wisdom, and only after Mother Nature and Father Time apply their tag-team taxation on the soul.
If LeBron indeed returns to Ohio, it’s laced with maturity. It would be almost impossible to find fault with the move. Unless you live in Key Largo, of course. But Floridians can just take their frustrations out on a tarpon or jet ski or margarita. It’s a lot easier to feel sorry for the city with no titles in any sport in 50 years than the bejeweled retirement home for the rich, the eternal spring break oasis, and the home of Don Shula, where the water is even more fertile than the soil, and your biggest concern is which level of sunscreen to rub on your neck.
Cleveland is a hard place and LeBron is from the projects a few miles south, in Akron. You can say leaving home is easy, until it calls you back, calls you home. For better or worse, Cleveland is home for James, and their marriage is a Midwestern story, basketball glory, and an adjunct of the American Dream. The local kid made good. If this were New York City and LeBron were born and rasied in Brooklyn, we would be getting the confetti ready for his landing at LaGuardia.
But since Cleveland is some abstract, broken nook of flyover country, a grotesque invasion of commerce in the middle of farmland, then we simply see him as just a pricey gypsy, one of the lost souls west of the Hudson.
Look deeper. If LeBron James wanted the sun-soaked celebrity of either coast, he could pick his destination. Teams with no chance to sign him are brushing all kinds of cap space under their rugs. Some GMs would be better off playing Powerball than power broker to LeBron.
Unless you have a direct stake in where he plants his next flag, it just feels right to see LeBron fly back to Cleveland, taking the two young studs Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins under his wing.
LeBron is in his absolute prime. He can see the world from his ethereal perch as a pop culture king, and would be a perfect mentor to talented kids who are lost in the conflicting impulses of youth and wealth, trying to develop their lives, their game, and their personal brands.
Another renowned writer said you can’t go home again. LeBron can prove that wrong, along with all our assertions that he’s a basketball brat who can’t handle the heat.
And if James does come home, to Cleveland, it will mean he really has grown up.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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