Cleveland sports fans let out a collective sigh of relief and whooped it up when LeBron James announced that he was returning to the local basketball team the Cavaliers, four years after he infuriated his adoring fans here with his grandiose departure. This was much bigger news than that the Republican party had picked the city for its 2016 convention. The Plain Dealer celebrated his return in Saturday’s edition with a 20-page supplement full of color photographs documenting his life. This in an era when they have cut back on print issue deliveries (it now delivers just four days a week) and reduced the size of the paper and its reporting staff.
His latest announcement was in the low-key form of an as-told-to essay under his name in Sport Illustrated. Commentators reacted positively to the humble and apologetic tone of the article, saying that he had matured and was no longer the arrogant and spoiled person of yore and had learned his lesson.
But what exactly had he learned? Drew Magary is more cynical and says that what James has learned is what it takes to ingratiate yourself with the fans while disguising the fact that this decision was, just like the one before, all about looking out for his own best interests that just so happened to coincide with what the Cleveland fans wanted.
While narratives change a lot, people tend to remain the same, and I would wager that the only thing about LeBron James that has changed since The Decision back in 2010 is that he now knows precisely what kind of horseshit sports fans and sportswriters want, and how to deliver that horseshit. It should be humble, it should be understated, and it should turn up in tasteful prose in a tasteful magazine. Read that essay in SI and you see LeBron touch on every possible item in the great American psychic lunchpail.
After checking off the list of pandering items that James dutifully hit, Magary summarizes what we can learn from his successful performance.
That’s how easy it is to change a narrative. Stay off the television, pose for a tasteful photograph, write a letter, and play to the fancy of a few influential people who like the idea of the Midwest a whole lot more than they like the reality of it, and you go from selfish to TEBOW in no time. LeBron James wasn’t aware of this game four years ago. He sure as hell is now.
I share Magary’s cynicism. James has been told from an early age that he was the greatest and acted like he believed it. Such an attitude is not changed easily and usually only when the person encounters some major setback or tragedy, neither of which happened here. But none of it will matter to the sports fans here who will forgive and forget his past actions and embrace him to their bosom again as quickly as they turned against him when he proved himself earlier to be a viper. The only thing that will sour the relationship is if he fails to deliver a national championship to the city.