Jun 11, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James speaks to the media prior to practice before game four of the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James: Rewriting his legacy in Cleveland

“I don’t know. I think it would be great. It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot fun times in my seven years here here. You can’t predict the future and hopefully I continue to stay healthy. I’m here as a Miami Heat player, and I’m happy where I am now, but I don’t rule that out in no sense. And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me.”

Those comments were made by LeBron James two-and-a-half years ago, not long after a Heat practice at Quicken Loans Arena. It was when I began to seriously suspect — expect, almost — that LeBron would one day return to the team that drafted him.

For the record: The comments didn’t surprise me. Northeast Ohio holds a special place in LeBron’s heart. Born and raised in Akron, he never hesitates to remind us of his roots — remember his “I’m LeBron James from Akron, Ohio…I’m blessed” speech moments after he won his second NBA Finals?

LeBron, for all of the foolish and immature mistakes he’s committed, has always deeply valued his personal relationships. Read his book, Shooting Stars, or watch his movie, More than a Game. Both follow LeBron’s journey from childhood through high school with his four best friends, and both make it abundantly clear that LeBron’s love for his best friends went much deeper than chasing a national championship.

Not coincidentally, LeBron lives his life the same way he plays basketball: unselfishly. His relationship with Northeast Ohio — which, in his letter published on SI.com Friday, he calls “bigger than basketball” — is no different than the relationship he shared (and still shares) with the Fab Five. He wants to be looked at as an inspiration, as a source of hope, by the people of Northeast Ohio. He never felt comfortable being the villain.

Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) shoots against San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

So, no, it didn’t surprise me that LeBron was hinting at a possible Cleveland return. To me, it made perfect sense.

What did surprise me was the reaction — or lack thereof — to the comments. LeBron wasn’t promising a return, but this was still a HUGE hint. I couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t more attention given to it. The national media covered it like a regular news story. Social media hardly said a word.

Why would LeBron, fresh off of ripping the heart out of Cleveland, even dare to hint at a return if he hadn’t already given it serious consideration? He wouldn’t. Not him. Not LeBron. Everything LeBron says, everything he does, is calculated

To be clear: I don’t believe that LeBron’s decision to return to Cleveland was finalized in 2012. But I do sense it was premeditated.

So why, when I read LeBron’s “I’m Coming Home” letter on Friday, was I in disbelief? (It’s true, by the way. I was at a loss for words.) I spent more than 24 hours trying to answer that question.

At some point Saturday night, it hit me: The letter felt, at least at first, too good to be true. Four years removed from so shamelessly embarrassing the city of Cleveland with The Decision, the same man was announcing his return and handling it like a true professional. The letter was perfect: it was genuine, introspective, apologetic, and mature. It was everything The Decision was not. It was like something out of a fairy tale, only it was better.

The letter has already flipped the script for LeBron, morphing him from Northeast Ohio’s worst villain into its savior. Fans in Cleveland have spent the days since LeBron’s announcement celebrating and even began wearing “Forgiveness” t-shirts days before his return was made official.

The letter has also created for him an opportunity to cement one of the greatest basketball legacies ever. He understands how one championship in Cleveland — a city with zero championships since 1964 — would carry more weight than six titles in Miami.

But the impact returning to Cleveland can have on LeBron’s legacy goes beyond the fact that Northeast Ohio is home, and it goes beyond the fact that Cleveland has had such tough luck the past 50 years.

(LeBron) understands how one championship in Cleveland would carry more weight than six titles in Miami.

LeBron can build something special with the Cavaliers, and he can build it on his own.

The main critique LeBron faced when he fled Cleveland for Miami was simple: rather than beating Dwyane Wade to win a championship, he was joining him. None of the all-time greats — not Jordan, not Magic, not Bird — had to team up with another star to win their rings.

The Heat were Wade’s team when LeBron tagged along and the Big Three era was Pat Riley’s project. LeBron was only a piece to the puzzle, even if he was by far the most valuable piece.

In Cleveland, there will be no Dwyane Wade and there will be no Pat Riley. The Cavaliers, who won only 33 games a season ago, will be LeBron’s project. If we’re strictly talking legacy, you can’t overestimate the importance of that.

LeBron discussed it in the letter:

“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic.It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. I’m going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. I will be the old head. But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates.”

Reading it, I loved how open LeBron was about the rebuilding process and the role he expects to have in creating a contender. The Cavs — as currently constituted — aren’t good enough to win a championship. The East, maybe. A championship, no.

But I’d be willing to bet anything that the Cavaliers hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy before LeBron is out of his prime. Maybe it’ll happen as soon as next season, with players already lining up to play in Cleveland (yes, you read that correctly) for the chance to team up with LeBron. Several media outlets have reported that the Cavaliers are pursuing both Mike Miller and Ray Allen, and ESPN’s Marc Stein reported last week that Kevin Love — perhaps Cleveland’s missing link to a championship — is intrigued by the Cavs and would commit long-term.

That’s the power of LeBron James, who on NBA TV in 2010 in said he “wouldn’t stop” until he reached his goal of bringing an NBA championship to Cleveland. He was heavily mocked and ridiculed for those comments when he departed just months later from the Cavaliers and landed in Miami.

Now, LeBron is back in Cleveland and readier than ever to accomplish the goal he left unfinished four years ago.

Welcome home, King James.

Tags: Cleveland Cavaliers Lebron James NBA

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