published Saturday, July 12th, 2014

Wiedmer: LeBron proves you can go home again

Poll
Did LeBron James make the right decision?

South Beach or South Russell? Bikinis or blankets? Surfboards or snow shovels?

For 99.9 percent of NBA basketball players, those aren't even choices. They're jokes. You're about to sign a four-year, $88 million max contract and you decide you'd rather earn it with the Cleveland Cavaliers than the Miami Heat?

Frosty the Snowman wouldn't leave the Heat for the Cavs. He'd just buy a lot of dry ice.

But LeBron James didn't grow up in the Sun Belt. He grew up in the Rust Belt of Akron, Ohio, where times have been tough for decades -- where, in his words, "Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."

So on Friday, a little more than four years after his televised and criticized "Decision" severed seven years with the Cavs to join the Heat in search of his first NBA championship ring -- James proved you can go home again.

And be financially rewarded for it.

And maybe make all these other sports superstars reconsider their obsession to place professional success above personal happiness by attempting to recreate the faux dynasty that King James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh forged in Miami.

This isn't to say James was wrong to go to Miami, however much the "Decision" momentarily damaged his good-guy image. Without Miami, James might have gone the way of Charles Barkley and Karl Malone -- brilliant and charismatic players who never won a ring.

James played for an NBA title each of his four seasons with the Heatles -- as the Big Three of Bosh, James and Wade were sometimes known -- won two and shredded any silly doubt that he deserves to be mentioned among the top three or four players ever to play his sport.

But he never really seemed happy in South Beach. The brutal criticism from the Cleveland fans and owner Dan Gilbert clearly hurt him. The nouveau riche Miami fans who left in droves near the end of regulation in the Heat's shocking Game 6 Finals win over San Antonio in 2013, an eventual overtime victory that allowed them to wrap up a second straight title a game later, disappointed him. Would the Cavs' fans have been so fickle toward a defending champ? No way.

Yet anyone who ever enjoyed a happy childhood without the disruption of a move -- or had a happy childhood wrecked by an uprooting -- also understands LeBron's words to Sports Illustrated: "Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. ... It holds a special place in my heart. ... People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I'm their son."

You either harbor such feelings for your home region or you don't. It's in you or it isn't. You can't fake devotion to a community.

I spent most of the first 13 years of my life in Hopkinsville, Ky., a town of less than 30,000 roughly 25 miles northwest of Clarksville, Tenn. We moved from there when I was in junior high, and I've never lived there again. But my mother had grown up there and I had several of the same teachers she'd had. It's where I caught tadpoles in the Little River. It's where I had the same friends from kindergarten forward, friends whose moms had been my mom's childhood friends. I learned to play football and basketball there, kissed my first girl there, got my first spanking from a principal there, rode on my only Christmas parade float as a member of Morningside Elementary school patrol.

How the whole thing didn't end up the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting I'll never know.

But more than 40 years after that move, Hoptown is still home in my mind, tugging at my heart and soul whenever I hear its name or learn of someone who once lived there, though I'm fairly certain I'll never return there again for more than brief visits.

That's also why James came home to Northeast Ohio. His extended family and childhood friends are still there. His roots are there. His dreams are there. It just took four years of fun in the sun to realize the gray and the cold best warmed his heart.

Does it change the NBA? Do you think? By Friday evening the Las Vegas Superbook had made the Cavs the outright favorites to win the 2015 NBA title at 3-1, while dropping the Heat's odds all the way down to 100-1.

Then there's the money angle. When James left the Cavs in 2010, their value dropped from $476 million to $329 million in just two years, according to Forbes. Conversely, the Heat rose from $364 million to $770 million during his four years in South Beach.

Moreover, James instantly makes Cleveland cool in a good way. The city that hasn't had a world champion since the NFL Browns in 1964 suddenly has "Johnny Football" Manziel with the Browns and LeBron recharging the Cavs. Not since the 1970s, when Steelers were controlling the NFL at the same time the Pirates were winning World Series, has a Rust Belt town had a chance to make multiple big noises from a small market.

Yet it's home that's the big winner here. As part of an excellent column Friday, ESPN.com's AJ Adande recalled the following conversation from "The Wizard of Oz" between the Scarecrow and Dorothy:

Scarecrow: "I cannot understand why you should wish to leave this beautiful country and go back to a dry, gray place you call Kansas."

Dorothy: "No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home."

Or as James told SI, "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."

And with that, at least in the eyes of Cleveland fans everywhere, the mistake by the lake no longer refers to their city, but rather James's one-time decision to leave it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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