LeBron James returns home: Credit fans and Tim Duncan (wait. Tim Duncan?)

BY CLYDE HUGHES

If you would have asked me on Thursday if LeBron James would stay in Miami to play with the Heat or return to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, I would have laughed at you for asking me such a silly question. Miami, of course.

Consider this?

James years in Cleveland: No NBA titles.
James years in Miami: Four straight trips to the NBA finals and two world championships.

February weather in Cleveland: Freezing and lake-effect snow.
February weather in Miami: Sunny and in the 70s.

Best free agents he played with in Cleveland: Shaquille O’Neal at the end of his career.
Best free agents he played with in Miami: Future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with plenty in the tank.

It just goes to show you that James’ return to the Cavaliers on Friday (July 11) goes beyond the obvious. I would submit that you can credit two things to James’ decision – Cleveland fans and Tim Duncan.

Alright, you may say, I get the Cleveland fans but what does Tim Duncan have to do with this? Give me a second to hear me out and I’ll explain.

As a writer at the Toledo Blade, I remember James nearly selling out Savage Hall at the University of Toledo when his high school team played a playoff game there. James is indeed a self-proclaimed son of Northeast Ohio, but the entire state embraced him as one of their own while he was still attending proms and learning how to drive.

That connection was real. But how real? When James left Cleveland to go to Miami in the middle of self-created media circus, it crushed his most loyal fans and friends. It wasn’t until Friday that fans knew just how much it affected James personally.

“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart,” James said in the opening of his essay in Sports Illustrated Friday announcing his return.

“People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

In the finals of this year’s NBA championship against the San Antonio Spurs, you could almost see something was amiss. James was doing what he does as the world’s best player yet the Spurs crushed the Heat in the four games they won in a 4-1 series rout. We very well may not be talking about this moment if Miami had actually won that series. Here’s where my Tim Duncan theory comes in.

Duncan has been with the Spurs for 17 years and, like James, is one of, if not, the most beloved figures in San Antonio. Duncan’s loyalty is equally as great, routinely turning down bigger money to play in bigger, more media-hyped markets to stay in San Antonio to win championships with a fan base that covets the ground he walks on.

It’s hard to imagine after the final buzzer of Game 5, that James did not look around, saw the adulation for Duncan and the Spurs and think, “Wow, this is what I had in Cleveland. Why can’t we do this in Cleveland the way they did it in San Antonio?”

Shortly afterward, Duncan signed another contract with the Spurs, again signing for millions less to ensure that finishes his career with the team. Is it really just a coincidence that this would happen and merely weeks later James would return to Cleveland?

Even if the James-Duncan connection does sound far-fetched, so did the prospects of James returning to Cleveland at that time, where the Cavaliers finished a distant 33-49 in the Central Division this past season and hadn’t been close to making the playoffs since he departed.

There is hope. The Cavaliers have the best young point guard in the NBA in Kyrie Irving. It just drafted a potential league superstar in Andrew Wiggins with the first pick in the NBA draft. If they are able to bring in another strong veteran, the Cavs could challenge for the Eastern Conference title this upcoming season.

James is on the record that this is not just a feel-good move. He wants to bring an NBA title to Cleveland. Even Johnny Manziel’s on board (probably because this gets him off the front pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer).

James said he is not promising any immediate championships, but wanted to make it clear that he’s coming back on his terms and his terms alone.

“I’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted,” James wrote. “I don’t want anyone thinking: He and Erik Spoelstra didn’t get along. … He and Riles (Miami Heat president Pat Riley) didn’t get along. … The Heat couldn’t put the right team together. That’s absolutely not true. I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.”

And work he will have to do.

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