It wasn’t just that he left, but the way he left that rankled — the made for TV spectacle, the complete lack of self-awareness, the ineptness of his management team, the kids used as a prop.
The reaction was intense. Fans burned his jersey. Kids cried. His boss wrote one of the most vitriolic letters you’ve ever read, burning every bridge there was to burn. Words like narcissistic, disloyal and cowardly will do that.
Return, while theoretically possible, seemed highly unlikely.
Four years later, everything is different. LeBron again kept us all on edge for 10 days as he decided where he wanted to play. This time, though, it was pitch perfect. No leaks. No spectacles. No parties or even press conferences. Just a classy, first-person article in Sports Illustrated, kept a complete secret until 12:13 p.m. EST when it published online.
This letter shows a new, humble, mature LeBron. He owned his previous mistakes and showed how he has grown. He gets that what he’s doing – returning to a hardscrabble area of the country that has been devoid of hope for so long – is bigger than basketball. It’s about that hope. It’s about showing the kids growing up the way he did that change is possible. It’s about the fans who haven’t seen a championship in half a century — and if you don’t think that matters to a city and a region in decline, just remember two of the biggest things that inspire groups of people to rally together around a common cause: sports and religion.
He grew up while he was away. And with that “college education” came an ability to forgive. He met with his once and future boss to hash out their differences. Many thought he wouldn’t get past The Letter, that such a public figure deserved nothing less than a full-on public repentance and even then, that might not be enough.
LeBron proved bigger than that. “Who am I to hold a grudge?” he said.
And so he’s coming home. He wants to bring a championship with him. He has the talent and now the experience to make it happen. It’s a fantastic story, the best outcome we could have hoped for as sports fans, as writers — really as anyone except Heat fans.
Don’t kid yourself — he’ll get his money, and he wouldn’t have done this if he didn’t think talent was there basketball-wise. But it’s still incredible. A local boy made good. Then he left and many thought he’d never return. Now that he’s back, just about everyone is rooting for LeBron.
America loves second chances. We’ll forgive just about anything as long as someone apologizes and works to make it right. It often makes an even better storyline – triumph means so much more when it comes after tragedy. Redemption always plays well.
It plays well because deep inside, in places we don’t like to talk about at parties, we each know we need redemption. Maybe our mistakes haven’t been as public as LeBron’s, but they still gnaw at us, unresolved, condemning, lingering. How do we fix ourselves? We don’t know, and so we’re glad when someone figures it out, when we see them made whole, returning home.