The Bible tells a story about The Prodigal Son, a young man who decides to take his inheritance and leave home only to come crawling back when he has blown his fortune. Prodigal is word derived from the Latin term prodigus, meaning “to drive away or squander”. Instead of telling his offspring “I told you so” the boy’s father instead welcomes his child back into the family with open arms. It is a story of forgiveness. It is a story of redemption. It is a story of humility. It is a story of grace.
Few people outside of the city of Cleveland, OH have been as hard on NBA superstar LeBron James as myself. I am not nearly as passionate in my fandom of professional basketball as I am when it comes to other sports and have never really had a favorite team. I preferred the Lakers over the Celtics in the 80’s (more about that some other time), loved Dr. J., and like most young men of my generation thought Michael Jordan was the greatest player to ever dribble & dunk (I still do). I am a sucker for the underdog, so when James was drafted #1 overall straight out of high school by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 I thought it was a nice story. It helped that the hapless Cavs hadn’t been much more than mediocre for most of their three decades of existence before James’ arrival. Unlike so many “franchise saviors” whose hype far exceeds tangible results LeBron James was everything he was said to be and more, carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers almost singlehandedly on his back to 5 playoff runs in 7 years, including a trip to the Finals in 2007.
But then he tossed it all away in 2010. He “took his talents to South Beach”, forming a “Big Three” alongside Dwayne Wade & Chris Bosh for the Miami Heat. And I hated it. I hated the way players were now conspiring to form super teams instead of allowing coaches & general managers to build teams organically the old fashioned way. I hated the TV spectacle that was The Decision. I hated the pep rally in Miami where this new Big Three promised “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five…” NBA titles. I hated seeing a guy spit in the face of his home town in just about the most obnoxious way possible. I hated the fact that Cleveland was pretty much screwed because let’s face it…big time free agents, no matter what sport is involved, are almost always going to choose sexier destinations like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, & Dallas.
Over the next four seasons I delighted not in cheering for any particular NBA team but in rooting against the evil Miami Heat. I was ecstatic in 2011 & 2014 when they lost the championship series (to the Dallas Mavericks & San Antonio Spurs respectively), and was bitterly disappointed in 2012 & 2013 when the Heat won back-to-back titles. Most people would probably be kind and say that The Big Three fulfilled their mission, but I gleefully opine that they missed the mark and severely underachieved. Yes four NBA Finals in four years and two championships in that time is impressive, but I would submit to you that it is the bare minimum of what was expected, potential that was elevated to a virtual fever pitch of entitled assumption by the PR machine and the powers-that-be in Miami.
In the course of those four years a few things have occurred. First, after nearly four decades of the NBA focusing its marketing on individual stars…Bird, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, ‘Melo…there seems to have been an awakening that basketball is a team game and none of those players achieved success on an island. The San Antonio Spurs certainly have their stars, but they were able to win the title this year and damn near won it in 2013 because they had an overall better, deeper team than the Heat. An NBA roster has 13 players. Your top 2 or 3 guys might be better than mine, but if my bench is far superior than I’ve got a fighting chance. Secondly, there are some factors that cannot be defeated by any team no matter how talented they may be. No one has ever beaten Father Time (except maybe Tim Duncan). In sports players & teams can decline quickly…almost overnight…due to injury & age. Miami’s Big Three didn’t seem nearly as intimidating in 2014 as they did four years earlier. And LeBron James himself seems to have changed, which is really the crux of my whole point here today.
We see celebrities every day. We see them on TV & in movies, download their music, read about them on The Internet, and watch their games in the case of professional athletes. We like to think that we know them. We form opinions about whether someone is a nice guy, a vapid airhead, or a total jerk. In many cases we are likely on the right track, but sometimes we may misjudge.
I, along with many people, was disgusted with the way LeBron James handled his departure from Cleveland four years ago. What we didn’t realize until now was that James himself at some point looked back in disgust as well. Like The Prodigal Son he has been humbled. No he isn’t crawling back to Cleveland broken & destitute. Far from it. But he seems to have realized that in the long run winning championships in Miami wasn’t all that much easier than attempting to do so in Cleveland. He seemingly understands that following the money to New York or Los Angeles or even adding another couple of rings in Miami wasn’t going to be nearly as satisfying as being able to put together a championship team in his home town. LeBron James has matured. He has gained perspective. He has grown in wisdom. Do I sound surprised?? Yes I suppose I do.
Rather than repeat The Decision James instead opted to announce his return to Cleveland via a rather classy & well-written essay on the Sports Illustrated website. He speaks wistfully about his childhood in Akron, OH, but what really caught my attention was what he says about Miami, and I feel stupid for never having considered the point before. You see, LeBron James was drafted into the NBA from high school, a practice that is now forbidden by league rules. LeBron went from high school in Akron to pro basketball in Cleveland…less than an hour away. He never went to college. Sure that was his choice and a smart move financially. However, for me college was the best four years of my life. I didn’t venture too far away from home (about 3 hours), but I got far enough away that I was able to do some stupid things, meet some awesome people, learn how to be independent, and figure out life from a slightly different angle. The four years LeBron James spent in Miami were his college years, the difference being that he didn’t have to take math classes he’ll never use, he probably never had to stand outside at 3am on a cold January night after some drunken jackass thought it’d be funny to pull the fire alarm in the dorm, and I am quite sure he has no student loan debt. He had his fun. He has two championship rings and probably had his share of good times in South Florida. But now he has graduated to the next phase just like the rest of us. For me that means drinking skim milk instead of Jagermeister and it means that if I am up past midnight I’m either reading a book or writing a piece for The Manofesto rather than hanging out at a bar playing darts and listening to Brown-Eyed Girl. For LeBron James it means that winning another ring for himself isn’t as meaningful as winning for his family, friends, and the place where he “walked, ran, cried, & bled” throughout his life.
The story of The Prodigal Son has a few layers. There is the son who discovers that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side and humbly comes home. There is the father who not only welcomes the son back but celebrates his return. And there is the older brother, a killjoy who is understandably a bit resentful. There will be those who will transfer their hatred of the Miami Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers simply because they decided 4 years ago that LeBron James is a prick and they aren’t changing their mind. So be it. I can appreciate the sentiment. But I choose…for whatever little it is worth in the grand scheme of life…to be merciful & gracious. Plus I am just glad that imbecile Johnny Manziel has been knocked off the sports page headlines for atleast a few days.