It had already been intriguing to the point of tedium. Where would the multiple All Star — a two-time NBA champion vying for the ‘Greatest of All Time’ tag — end up for the 2014-15 season?
Would he stay in Miami and give it one last shot with his aging team-mates or would he go home to Ohio, returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers team and fans whose hearts he broke so publicly four years ago almost to the day.
As almost everybody knows by now, he opted for Cleveland, a move pitched — probably honestly — as a craved return home, a move he would leverage to help the communities around there and bring some excitement back to northeast Ohio.
Born in nearby Akron, his decision to forego the glitz of South Beach and head back to the formerly thriving northeast region of one of the rust belt states is a boost for both the local economy there as well as the all-round sporting mood.
If the shot in the arm the club itself is anything to go by, then it bodes very well for the multiple off shooting benefits sporting success can bring. In January, Forbes had the Cavaliers valued at €380 million, 19th among the 30 NBA outfits. The return of their prodigal son elevated them to a $1 billion (€736m) valuation, according to Bloomberg.
When you think of Cleveland — a city which boasts well supported teams in the three top American sports — there are many parallels to Mayo (I can never think of any other GAA team as downtrodden) but with a fanbase that is much more traumatised, far more sullied by bad luck, having been starved of the biggest prizes for a half century.
There hasn’t been a World Series win since 1948, no NFL title since 1964 and the furthest they’ve ever managed in the NBA is a 2007 Eastern Conference victory when LeBron dragged them through to the NBA finals only to be swept away by the San Antonio Spurs, 4-0.
The city’s fans have no choice but to draw some sort of dark humour from their almost daily disappointments.
There was a great story a couple of years back about how a recently deceased Cleveland Browns fan had requested that six of the team’s players carry his coffin so he could be let down one last time.
So while there was increasing optimism that James might take up the substantial offer available at the Cavaliers, no self-respecting, long-suffering Cleveland fan would ever dare think it was a done deal.
Which is why it must have been incredibly difficult for the select staff that knew at Sports Illustrated to keep secret the scoop they were working on. With so much speculation and one-upmanship swirling around the vacuum wonderfully constructed by the man himself, it was the grandest sports publications of them all which was given sole ownership.
James wrote thoughtfully with the help of Jenkins, explaining his reasons for leaving, his reasons for returning and his plain and simple desire to get to work with an incredibly young team which he will no doubt be instrumental in moulding.
Last time, he was slammed for telling the world he was taking his “talents to South Beach”. This time around, talent was evoked again but in a much more significant way as he spoke about his hopes that kids growing up in northeast Ohio would be confident 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.”
When this essay (not a press release!) landed so forcefully just before lunchtime Friday, sending everyone away for the weekend with almost everything resolved, it was immediately obvious that the whole episode was unprecedented.
The most powerful athlete in America had taken what was essentially a philanthropic direction in his career. He was potentially damaging his long-term legacy as a basketballer but assuring his status as a hometown hero no matter what happens.
Meanwhile, in sending his powerful message out to the public using the well renowned sports media outlet, he had eschewed the more controlled environment of his own website or even a Nike promotion, instead deciding that there was life in the old dog yet, giving Sports Illustrated a monumental exclusive at a time when the media couldn’t be more frayed.
It was reassuring on every level and it makes what happens next even more intriguing.
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