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Feb. 28, 2013

Bringin LeBron back: can the King come home?

Let him reign in Cleveland

By Patrick Elder

LeBron in Cleveland

LeBron James’ relationship with Cleveland seeps into almost every story about the Cleveland Cavaliers. Whether it be local or national media, a story about a recent trade or a love letter to Kyrie Irving, it almost always finds its way to LeBron. It’s pervasive and at times seemingly ridiculous. That’s simply what happens, though, when a city’s most beloved, greatest athlete abandons his devoted fans for warmer waters.

After LeBron and the Miami Heat won the NBA Finals last year, tensions appeared to cool down. The far-fetched but tantalizing dream of fulfilling Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s rash promise to win a title before James’ Heat squad was put to bed. Irving emerged as a budding superstar, winning game after game in the fourth quarter with his unpredictable, unstoppable handles and finishing ability.

Irving’s quickly-rising star soon became fuel for the fire that is LeBron’s relationship with Cleveland. A rumor quickly grew surrounding LeBron’s ability to opt-out of his contract at the end of the 2013-14 season. His potential free agency just so happens to coincide with a projected windfall of cap space for the Cavaliers, a team with young talent and a glaring hole at small forward. General Manager Chris Grant has deftly managed the team’s cap situation, saving space to sign valuable free agents while stockpiling assets in the form of draft picks.

Many wish to ignore these rumors. After all, how likely is it that the most hated man in Cleveland sports for the past two years would come back to ground zero of his detractors?

Actually, it’s not that far-fetched. LeBron obviously did not consider the ramifications of his ill-conceived TV special, “The Decision.” He should have known how Cleveland would react to having their hopes crushed by him on national TV. He should have known how we would take it when he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh strutted across a stage, basking in the attention and the accolades. While his former teammates in Cleveland experienced the aftermath of a team built around the best basketball player in the world being deprived of its fulcrum, he led his team to the Finals in its first year.

Then he choked. Whether or not you ascribe it to wilting under pressure or simply a bad stretch of games at the worst time, LeBron’s performance in the 2011 Finals against the Dallas Mavericks fed a narrative from which there was only one escape: winning.

That’s when LeBron changed. Sure, his numbers didn’t dramatically alter, but the way he handled himself with the media, his demeanor on the court — it all showed growth in maturity. He seemed to finally understand why much of the world hated him for his first year with the Heat. He finally utilized his potential on defense to maximum effect and developed the postgame every analyst had expected would come for years.

As a native Clevelander and avid Cavs fan, I was distraught when LeBron left. I hated him. I cursed his name and dwelled on the bad times — mostly his final games as a Cavalier against Boston in 2010. But as I watched his first game back in Cleveland in a room full of people rendered awestruck by the hate directed his way, I realized that it wasn’t worth it anymore. We’d made our point. He knew we hated him.

Mostly, though, I loved basketball too much to continue hating one of the greatest to ever play the game. I would watch him play and recall some of my fondest memories, like watching him dismantle the Pistons in game five of their 2007 playoff series for 29 of the Cavs’ last 30 points. When I think about him playing with our young core of Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson I get shivers. It’s not even a question that bringing LeBron back would be the best basketball move for the Cavs, regardless of its feasibility.

And it is feasible. LeBron’s closest advisers are reportedly pushing for a return to Cleveland. LeBron still makes his home in Akron. The Cavaliers are a young, talented, up-and-coming team. LeBron has been effusive in his praise of Irving. Most of all, though, this would spell redemption for LeBron. By returning, the prodigal son could finally make good on his promise of a championship for the city of Cleveland. The more who realize that his return is our greatest chance for that elusive prize, the more will come to accept him.