By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) He has fame. He has riches. And he even has championship rings.
What LeBron James doesn’t yet have is the basketball legacy that he desires – and, honestly, the one that an NBA player of his caliber probably deserves.
But, you know, that’s his own fault.
Because if James hadn’t been so arrogant and tone-deaf in 2010 when he humiliated his hometown area of Cleveland on national television via “The Decision,” America might view him in a far different light today.
The good news for James, however, is that here in 2014 he now has an opportunity to redeem both himself and his legacy. All he has to do is go home to Cleveland – and, of course, win a championship there.
That’s easier said than done in a city where no team has won a title in any sport since the Browns captured the 1964 NFL crown in the pre-Super Bowl era. But with a core of talented young players now on the Cavaliers roster, a championship could happen if James returns to where it all began.
And I believe he should do just that.
With all the backlash that James has endured since taking his talents to South Beach four years ago, it can be difficult to now recall just how beloved he was prior to donning a Miami Heat jersey. He, of course, very much was.
Enormously talented, generally likable and promoted heavily since he was in high school, James didn’t draw anyone’s ire until “The Chosen One” chose to give people a reason for dislike with his foolish ESPN-fueled smackdown of Cleveland. Had he instead held a humble press conference in 2010 thanking Cleveland for his years in town and announcing that he was signing with the Heat to chase a championship with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it’s likely that many Cavaliers fans would have still been angry and upset. But I’m not sure that the nation as a whole would have become so overwhelmingly anti-LeBron.
After all, most people could understand the reason why he left Cleveland for Miami – he wanted to win immediately. What they couldn’t understand was the disrespectful way in which he did it.
Even today, I don’t think we still fully understand the reasons for that. And in hindsight, I wonder if James himself even does. Rather than being celebrated on national TV, which is how he believed “The Decision” would play to the public, James instead ended up casting himself as a heel in a turn that was worthy of the Monday Night Raw – even if the villainous twist was unintentional, which I think it was.
The role of the bad guy remains one to which James has never seemed fully suited. When he was first struggling during his initial adjustment period in Miami, I wrote that, “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.”
In that regard, I was wrong about James. Because he has thrived in South Beach, reaching the NBA Finals in each of his four seasons with the Heat and winning the title twice while also capturing a pair of MVP trophies. However, his public image has also suffered greatly as a result of the way he switched teams, and I’m not sure that he’s ever seemed truly joyous in Miami – even with the shiny hardware and the balmy weather.
Those dark storm clouds from Cleveland still loom over him, and only he can make them go away.
Back during the summer of 2010, just one week after James announced that he was leaving for Miami, I was visiting a friend in Cleveland. And as we sat in his condo near Lake Erie with the city’s emotions still very raw from his departure, I brought up a potential future scenario.
What, I asked, if once James’ contract in Miami 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” and that he’s sorry? What if he says that he now wants to finally make things right by coming home to win a championship in Cleveland?
My buddy, who isn’t an Ohio native but was still hot about James’ betrayal, pondered that scenario for a moment and then acknowledged that if James indeed did all that, the city likely would embrace his return.
I too suspect that it would, even with all the nasty things that Clevelanders – and most notably, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert – have said about James over the past few years. He’s still their prodigal son. And this week, as rumors swirl that James is indeed open to a return to the Cavaliers, it makes all the sense in the world for him to do it.
That’s because while James has little to prove as a basketball player, he still has plenty to prove as a man.
The only way James will ever be able to truly rehabilitate his reputation and transform his national image is by heading back home to right wrongs, whether they be real or simply perceived, and to make his home state proud of him again. In terms of legacy and legend, winning just one ring in Cleveland could be worth more than winning another four in Miami – or anywhere else.
If James does head back home, it will make for one heck of a feel-good story from a guy who generated a lot of bad feelings four years ago.
And in historical terms, he’d be wise to write it.