The most talented and impactful athlete in America is going home. His decision creates a tectonic shift in the balance of power in the NBA. Cleveland immediately becomes a 3-1 favorite in Las Vegas to win the NBA title. Other free agents will line up to play for the Cavaliers. Powerhouse Miami is weakened. More importantly, James’ explanation in a SI.com story sets a sterling example that transcends sports. He clearly has made his love for Northern Ohio (Cleveland and Akron) the central factor in his choice. He acknowledges the power that sports and athletes can have in positively impacting a community and makes clear his understanding of the potential for inspiration and caring an athlete can deliver.
Money, greed, and lack of loyalty are the principals that contemporary sports are imparting to the public. LeBron himself was held up as the epitome of narcissism in his decision to go to Miami and abandon Cleveland four years ago. With all his athletic success and ubiquitous marketing imagery, James has never had the love and affection of the majority of fans. Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, used a thesaurus full of pejorative adjectives in a letter only recently removed from the team’s website. Fans burned LeBron James jerseys in the streets. Fans found it difficult to know who LeBron really is, other than nonstop marketing and money. That all changed today. James opened his heart and explained every aspect of his decision making. He admitted mistakes and talked about his own maturation and growth prospects. He made a decision to overlook the antipathy of the past to achieve a higher goal – the economic and educational health of the area he loves.
In evaluating the free agency process, it is critical that an athlete focuses on his own priorities. Many years ago I was helping All-Pro Safety, Tim McDonald, decide which of numerous free agent suitor in the NFL was his best choice. Tim was able to identify a team that wins and was closer to his family in California as the top factors that would fulfill him. When the San Francisco 49ers expressed interest, they clearly fulfilled the criteria. Tim was able to instruct me to ignore the other interested teams and get the best possible deal from San Francisco. LeBron’s choosing of his heart over any other factor may set an example for other athletes to follow. Ultimate happiness should be the goal – non-economic considerations need to be identified.
Since 1975 I have urged athletes to be aware of their enormous power in making an impact off the field. Having athletes retrace their roots and setting up scholarships and programs at the high school, collegiate, and professional level can impact the quality of life in those communities. LeBron has realized what a major responsibility and opportunity he has to lead a resurrection of education and commerce in his home area. He is a larger than life figure who can get through, especially to kids, in a powerful way. Cleveland will benefit in multiple ways from his return. May this be an example to athletes everywhere.