Forgiveness is not one of my strong suits, so the idea that LeBron James would go back to Cleveland was unfathomable, even with Miami’s limitations.
On the other hand, post-Donald Sterling, I have become an enthusiastic advocate of players wringing every nickel out of ownership. No givebacks, no pay cuts. In that respect, I was pleased to see Carmelo Anthony make Phil Jackson and the Knicks sweat before agreeing to return for a fat contract.
But while Anthony’s decision was no doubt determined largely by dollars, James’ decision to return to Cleveland is an intriguing, emotional gambit. James is either coldly pragmatic or more of an altruist than I could have imagined.
The images from 2010 are still emblazoned in my mind: Cleveland fans burning James’ replica jersey just because he was leaving for a better opportunity in Miami. Nationally televised images of James’ likeness being torn down and dumped in garbage cans.
The so-called leader of the franchise, Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner, fanned the flames and played to the crowd by writing a scathing letter publicly disparaging James as “our former hero” and describing his move as a “cowardly betrayal.”
James, in his statement on Sports Illustrated’s website, implied that forgiveness and understanding formed the basis of his decision to return to Ohio.
“It was easy to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again,’” he said. “But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?”
James said he and Gilbert met “face-to-face, man-to-man.”
“We’ve talked it out,” James said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
On Friday, I reached out to William Cutter, a professor of literature and human relations at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. How heavily did he think forgiveness figured into James’ decision? We met about three years ago and often debate the theological and philosophical underpinnings of sports. In the case of Gilbert and James, Cutter said that forgiveness was a two-way street.
“A piece of forgiveness in the classic Jewish tradition is forgiving the person, and the person joining the act by an act of repentance,” he said. “Not only repentance, but pledging not to do it again.”
Was giving James a big contract Gilbert’s version of repentance?
“I’m wondering if this isn’t just what James Burns of Williams College once called transactional,” Cutter said. “Is there anything spiritual in this, or is it purely transactional?”
Cutter did allow for the complexity of James’ situation.
“I think often people have mixed motives,” he said. “Yes, there’s more money; yes, he is from Cleveland; and yes, he may have felt in exile. You can be in exile even if geographically you’re not in exile.”
Of all the rationales for James’ homecoming, a sense of feeling exiled seems plausible. As much as I was convinced that James would stay in Miami — for the milder climate, for what appeared to be a more upscale, high-profile lifestyle — there never was a sense that he was of Miami.
“You can be in exile from yourself,” Cutter said.
In this case LeBron could say, “I felt in exile.”
The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, compared James’ departure and return to the New Testament story of the prodigal son.
“He set out to achieve something, made a radical break at home,” Butts said of James. “People were angry and hurt. He won his rings, but maybe there was something missing in his life. He didn’t find it in Miami, not in LA, not in New York. He said, ‘I have to go back home,’ and they welcome him with open arms.”
One of the most surprising responses to James’ return to Cleveland came from my longtime friend Mike Brown, who has deep roots in coaching. Brown was an assistant coach at Seton Hall under P.J. Carlesimo, an assistant at Vermont, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Kansas and Mississippi State; head coach at Central Connecticut State and Hunter College; and associate coach at Fordham. By no stretch of the imagination could he be called romantic or sentimental when it comes to the business of basketball.
Yet Brown said he was moved by James’ letter, especially the part when James said: “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”
Brown said James’ statement “brought tears to my eyes.”
“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “I thought to myself: ‘Finally a black athlete who gets it. Finally a black athlete who is taking responsibility for being someone who can and does make a difference in the lives of his people.’”
Brown acknowledged that James may simply have expressed those sentiments “to make it easier to leave Miami.”
“But if just a shred of what he said was honest and from the heart,” Brown added, “he now joins Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson in a class of black athletes who understood their responsibility to their people and their communities. ”
Time will tell.
Time will tell whether James was sincere, whether Gilbert is repentant and whether Cleveland fans appreciate the significance of James’ return, above and beyond the championship he may or may not bring.
“For today,” Brown said, “he elevated himself to the pantheon of athletes who understand that it’s not just about how many shoes you sell or endorsements you have. It’s about how many people you help, how many lives you change, and the hope you give people.’’
And while Anthony didn’t give Knicks fans hope, just assurances that the ship won’t be sinking, there is plenty of hope and good will in Cleveland at the moment.
It’s summertime. There’s dancing in the street. Many of the dancers are the same ones who burned James’ jersey and cheered Gilbert’s letter. They will be the ones throwing darts at James if Cleveland isn’t in the NBA finals in two to three seasons.
For the time being, though, spirits are high and optimism is soaring, almost as if the events of 2010 never happened.
The Cavaliers will spend a small fortune to bring back their prodigal son. Cleveland is eager to make him a hero.
This may be an instance where it’s best for everyone to forgive and, more important, to forget.