By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Late Wednesday night, moments after the Thunder had vanquished San Antonio to power their way into the NBA Finals, the raucous fans at Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena managed to accomplish something the Spurs could not.
They stopped Kevin Durant short.
At midcourt, just as TNT’s Ernie Johnson was beginning to interview the Thunder’s 23-year-old superstar – whose series performance may have cemented him as the best player in the game – Durant was interrupted when the crowd began chanting, “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
And as the waves of fan adoration showered down upon him, I couldn’t help but think that Kevin Durant is what LeBron James could have been.
If LeBron had stayed in Cleveland.
Of course, as we all know, “The Chosen One” instead made “The Decision” to “take his talents to South Beach”, a move that drastically shifted the sands of power throughout the NBA and altered LeBron James’ image in ways that he clearly never imagined.
Prior to bolting town, LeBron – much like Durant in Oklahoma City – was the absolute toast of Cleveland.
These days, however, he’s just toast.
But could LeBron be embraced once again by the fanbase that he forsook?
I suspect that he could be. And if I were advising James, I’d suggest that if this whole Miami thing doesn’t work out – and, right now, it’s not looking good – he should give a move back home some serious thought.
Last year when the Heat were struggling through a stretch of the regular season, I wrote about James: “Not every athlete is cut out to wear the black hat. Not all jocks are comfy behind Darth Vader’s mask. And very – very – few sports superstars can continue to thrive as one after they’ve also assumed the role of sports villain.
“Barry Bonds could. LeBron James, on the other hand, cannot.”
And while the national venom toward LeBron did lessen this season – at least, until the playoffs began – I still don’t think that the guy is at all comfortable, or particularly happy, down in Miami.
No matter how balmy the weather might be.
He and Dwyane Wade can’t quite figure out who’s leading the team – or when. The pressure on them is intense. And the blame that’s heaped upon LeBron’s shoulders with every misstep and missed shot is absolutely crushing and, at times, even unfair.
Back in January, Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio wrote in a blog that, “there is talk that James is less-than-thrilled with certain aspects of the Heat organization. Sources in Miami say that while James still thoroughly enjoys playing alongside fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he doesn’t particularly care for the heavy-handed and disciplined style of team president Pat Riley.”
In his piece, Amico pointed out that James can opt out of his contract at the end of the 2013-14 season when he’s still just 29 years old, “and speculation is he will strongly consider it if Riley remains in his current role.”
Amico’s source for the information was “those close to the situation” – so, take that for what it’s worth – but he also wrote that if James were to opt out of his deal, the team he would reportedly be eyeballing most in free agency is the Cavs.
Now, some might call that a pipe dream for Cleveland. But I suspect that such a notion might not be so farfetched.
Back during the summer of 2010, just a week after LeBron announced he was leaving or Miami, I was visiting a friend in Cleveland. And while we sat in his condo near Lake Erie, I brought up a potential scenario:
What, I asked, if LeBron goes to Miami and fails to win a championship? And what if after his contract with the Heat expires, he comes back to Cleveland on bended knee and admits that he made a mistake? What if he says that he never should have done “The Decision,” that he never should have left and that he’s sorry?
What if he says that he now wants to make things right – and win a championship in Cleveland?
My buddy – who isn’t an Ohio native, but was still hot about LeBron’s betrayal – pondered my scenario for a moment. He then acknowledged that if LeBron did all that, the city likely would embrace his return.
I suspect that it would. And if LeBron doesn’t win a ring in Miami – or even if he does – I also suspect that the only way he will ever be able to rehab his national image and truly establish his greatness is by heading back home to right his wrongs and make his home state proud of him again. In terms of legacy and legend, one ring in Cleveland would be worth six in Miami.
If LeBron did go home, it would make for one heck of a story – a feel-good one at that, which, these days, is the opposite of all things LBJ.
Don’t think that LeBron hasn’t thought about it. And if he does fail to win in Miami this season and next, don’t be stunned if such a story unfolds. In my book, LeBron would be wise to author it.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.