Last weekend marked one year since LeBron James announced he was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers. After spending four days in Las Vegas for a Nike-sponsored camp bearing his name, a letter written by James and Sports Illustrated‘s Lee Jenkins appeared on the magazine’s website around 11:30 a.m. ET on July 11, setting off frenzied celebrations back in Northeast Ohio. Fans gathered outside James’ house in a swanky Akron suburb and at spots in and around Downtown Cleveland, and the Homecoming King was the lead story on every sportscast — and on many newscasts, too.
From bitter public breakup to sweet redemption, James knew his return would provide his native state an emotional and financial boost. He knew, too, that he’d make the Cavaliers an instant NBA title contender.
But at a price. A steep, steep price.
A year later, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is about to not only foot the bill for the highest-salaried team in NBA history, but Gilbert again sees James atop the organizational structure. When you pay for James, you get a healthy return on investment, must-see TV and seasons that extend deep into June.
You also play by The King’s rules. James gets input on everything — authority in some places, a voice in others — and, really, why wouldn’t he? He’s the best basketball player on the planet, still very much in his prime at 30 years old. After 12 NBA seasons, he’s the face not only of an organization that was largely faceless without him, but probably the most powerful and influential active player in NBA history. Sure, he needs care and attention and resources, but for an organization and a city chasing a championship and looking to shake years of bad teams, bad luck and just generally bad vibes, he’s more than a hometown hero, a multi-positional dictator or a guy worthy of MVP discussion even after taking a mid-season vacation and leading a team that was rebuilt on the fly and finished second in the NBA’s weaker conference.
James is worth every penny, every bit of uncertainty and every bit of drama. Gilbert knew all of this — knew it all when he wrote his own letter in July 2010, presumably had come to terms with it by the time he came face-to-face with James and his people in what was supposed to be a secret meeting last summer — and smartly was willing to sign up for it all again last year. We might never know what was said by either side when Team LeBron and Gilbert met and presumably cleared the air regarding The Decision and the hurt feelings and awful teams left behind, but we know Northeast Ohio, the Cavaliers and the NBA as a whole changed on July 11, 2014, and the words James chose in announcing his return to Cleveland after four seasons with the Miami Heat mended at least some of the scars.