Can LeBron James go home again?

Thomas Wolfe wrote a famous novel by the title You Can’t Go Home Again.  Supposedly, it comes from a conversation he had with another writer, Ella Winter, who asked Wolfe, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?”  By now, it is unlikely you have not heard the news that LeBron James, an NBA free agent, is going to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers, making the announcement in a letter to Sports Illustrated.

In reading LeBron’s letter, there did appear to be a deep sense of attachment to his home of Akron, and to northeastern Ohio.  It is a letter that spells out his case for leaving Cleveland, and his reasons for coming back.  The letter acknowledges the vitriol and anger present in Cleveland at his leaving.  It references the letter by owner Dan Gilbert, and his appreciation for the Miami Heat.

But can LeBron James go home again?  I must confess at the outset I do not know many Cleveland Cavaliers fans.  Okay, I know two, maybe three.  (I am not sure whether the third person I know from Cleveland is actually a Cavaliers fan.)  After LeBron’s departure four years ago, with a tremendously hyped build up to an hour long ESPN show to announce he was going to South Beach, there was tremendous and understandable anger.

I shared it.  I felt that if LeBron James wanted to enter the arena of “elite” NBA players, he should have carried the Cavaliers to a championship.  But it is hard to blame what was a young man for wanting a NBA championship.  They are not easy to attain.

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And I was not alone in my anger.  In his letter, Dan Gilbert used these words: narcissistic, self-promotional, cowardly betrayal, dreaded spell and bad karma.  And of course his promise, filled with bravado:

“I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”

It was clear that Gilbert felt betrayed.  It is understandable that LeBron would feel hurt.  The tremendous hype leading up to the decision was bound to be expressed with deep anger when the disappointing announcement was made to Cleveland fans.

But can LeBron go home again?  Has four years healed the anger?  Only time will tell of course.  It remains to be seen if the letter by LeBron was written from the heart, or by a slick PR company.  It remains to be seen how badly LeBron wanted to go back home.  Was this his desire alone, or the desire of his family?  Hard to say.

Everyone needs the opportunity to grow up.  Everyone needs the opportunity to make mistakes, and life cannot stop when we do.  There are compelling stories of second chances, and perhaps LeBron and Cleveland will get one.  But LeBron has quite the task ahead of him.

Last year Cleveland finished 33-49.  The previous season they were 24-58.  In the LeBron-less era they went 97-215, for a .311 winning percentage. To be fair, they were getting better, building with young talent.  The average age of the club is 24, with LeBron the second oldest member of the team.  The oldest is 31.

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And with LeBron’s signing with the Cavaliers, the likelihood of attracting someone like Kevin Love dramatically increases.  He, like LeBron four years ago, wants to play for a winner.  LeBron’s playoff experience can only serve to make him more effective, both as a player and a leader.

But going home does not come simply with writing a nice letter, and trying to let the past be the past.  There will be a tremendous amount of pressure on LeBron.  But Cleveland is ready.  Cleveland will forgive.  After all, the Indians have not won the World Series since 1948, the Browns have never won a Super Bowl (though they won the NFL title in 1964), and the Cavaliers have never won an NBA Championship.  Only San Diego (won an AFL title in 1963) has gone longer than Cleveland among US cities waiting for a major sports championship (having already won one).

So, perhaps, LeBron, you can go home.  You’ve certainly given Cleveland reason to hope again.

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