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Hartnett: LeBron, Cleveland’s Prodigal Son, Out To Settle Unfinished Business

LeBron James leads the Cavs during the 2009 playoffs. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

LeBron James leads the Cavs during the 2009 playoffs. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

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By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

NBA superstar LeBron James has made decision No. 2, reversing his ill-received made-for-TV announcement in 2010, when he revealed his intentions to sign with the Miami Heat.

On Friday afternoon, LeBron, who gave Sports Illustrated the exclusive,  posted to his official Instagram account a photo of himself in a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey with the message: “I’m coming home.”

King James has opted to repair his fractured relationship with the jilted city of Cleveland, where his luminous professional career initially took flight.

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To Clevelanders, the painful image of James turning his back on the city is still burned deep in their memories. LeBron trading his No. 23 jersey for a 6 with Miami could only be compared to Anakin Skywalker rejecting the light side of “The Force” to follow the lure of the dark side. James accepted Darth Vader’s cape to lead Armani-clad executive Pat Riley’s “Evil Empire.”

Fairly or unfairly, “The Decision” was deemed the ultimate betrayal by the city that had embraced Akron’s favorite son as its basketball savior.

“The Heatles” — or whatever else you would prefer to call the trio of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — became universally despised outside the disinterested shores of South Beach.

Miami fans earned nationwide ridicule when they exited AmericanAirlines Arena en masse late in the fourth quarter Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, before the Heat completed a thrilling comeback victory. The magnificent LeBron never belonged in Miami. The Heat uniform was merely a rented tux that he wore to four consecutive proms. King James was named Finals MVP in 2012 and 2013, but he was doing so in a uniform that was borrowed.

His crowning achievements barely registered a buzz in South Beach. Miami’s successive NBA titles were met with a collective indifference from the city notorious for its genuine apathy toward sports. Scarcely gathered crowds attended the Heat’s championship parades. Even in times of unprecedented glory, hoops fans were predictably M.I.A. in MIA.

Now in 2014, the prodigal son has finally returned home. James can no longer be painted as the villain who spurned an opportunity to bring joy to the streets of Cleveland. That goal is back on LeBron’s agenda. Should King James lead the Cavs to their first-ever NBA title, it will symbolize something deeply historic and meaningful to championship-starved Clevelanders.

For the past 50 years, the blue-collar city of Cleveland has been the most tortured sports city in America. Half a century has passed since the ardently loyal fans living alongside the Cuyahoga River have tasted a title. No American city has endured more sporting misfortune than the city sometimes harshly described as “The Mistake on the Lake.”

Buffalo and San Diego can certainly claim hard-luck status, but Cleveland’s sporting misery is shouldered equally by its three eternally forlorn teams in the Cavs, Indians and Browns. This sporting curse has hovered over Cleveland like a black cloud that never fails to dissipate. With every title-barren year that passes, these clouds turn darker and more voluminous.

The 1964 Browns were the last Cleveland-based professional sports franchise to capture a championship when Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown led Cleveland to a pre-Super Bowl era NFL title over Johnny Unitas and the highly favored Baltimore Colts. It was a moment of fleeting glory. Brown, the greatest running back who ever lived suddenly walked away from the gridiron in 1966 at the youthful age of 29.

In the 1986 AFC Championship game, the hapless Browns defense could not prevent John Elway’s unforgettable 98-yard fourth-quarter drive. Denver eventually won the AFC championship on an overtime field goal. “The Drive” of ’86 was followed by the cruelest irony one year later in an AFC Championship rematch, when Browns running back Earnest Byner was stripped by the Broncos at the 2-yard line on what should have been a game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Once again, the Broncos triumphed over the Browns. Then, of course, owner Art Modell moved the original Browns to Baltimore in 1996, where the franchise rebranded itself as the Ravens. Baltimore has since celebrated two Super Bowl titles. The reincarnated Browns have only made the playoffs once since their return season in 1999.

Reliever Jose Mesa’s blown save and second baseman Tony Fernandez’s 11th-inning error doomed the Indians to a dramatic, series-ending Game 7 defeat to the Marlins in the 1997 World Series. It was the second World Series-losing appearance in three years for the Tribe.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Michael Jordan tormented the Cavs during the playoffs. Most memorable was Jordan’s buzzer-beating jump shot from the foul line to eliminate the Cavs in 1989. Jordan would later replicate his series-winning heroics over Cleveland in Game 4 of the 1993 Eastern Conference semifinals with a similar buzzer-beater.

And it all circles back to LeBron and the Cavs. His 2007 NBA Finals defeat during his first stint in Cleveland feels like ancient history. The present day Cavs are a much different team that is loaded with potential – having drafted Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins. There are rumblings that Ray Allen, Mike Miller and James Jones could join James in Cleveland. An intriguing scenario for Cavs fans is the possibility of general manager David Griffin packaging some of that youth in a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves to pair LeBron with Kevin Love.

Sports and destiny have a way of intertwining. Now, it’s LeBron’s time to fulfill his fate and carry the tortured city of Cleveland to a long-awaited championship.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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