The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

July 13, 2014

A Rob Oller column: LeBron proves he’s a real winner

Any superstar can convince you that he is deserving of sports royalty if he has the rings and riches to prove it.

 But a changed King James returns to his castle in Cleveland as someone more respected than a mere ruler of basketball.

Four years after giving it lip service, LeBron James finally resembles a real leader.

The cynics, and at times we all have deserved that label regarding Cleveland sports in general and James in particular, will roll their eyes and crack wise. But taking him at his word — and that is the only fair way to analyze James’ essay on SI.com, Sports Illustrated’s website, in which he explains why he is leaving Miami to return to the Cavaliers — shows he has moved beyond hyphenation.

The man-child had become an adult.

The petulant LeBron, who showed a callous cluelessness four years ago with The Decision to take his talents to South Beach, has matured into a more thoughtful LeBron, beginning with how he broke the news of his lower-case decision Friday.

“I’m not having a press conference or a party,” he wrote, explaining that putting words to paper allowed him to “explain myself uninterrupted.

Even the suspicious among us, who wonder whether this actually was James talking or someone from his management team, must admit that if nothing else, he shows increased awareness in having hired advisers who “get it.” This was no staged TV show with Jim Gray asking alley-oop questions for James to slam home. This time, James expressed himself honestly and eloquently, making sure to disappoint Miami Heat fans with the proper mix of diplomacy and decorum.

The meat of the new maturity, however, is found in what LeBron said, more than how he said it.

“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver,” he said. “We’re not ready right now. No way.”

What? The reason Cleveland fans are willing to forgive James is because the city is desperate for a championship. But instead of feeding that frenzied beast of expectation, James essentially is saying, “Let’s take this thing slowly.” Dessert comes later. Being all grown up now, he knows to begin with the salad.

But James’ new leadership look goes beyond the quest for titles. After winning two championships with Miami, James realizes that color is not the biggest difference between a home and away jersey. The city on the front matters much more than the nickname. When James wrote in his essay, “I’m coming home,” he was talking about Cleveland, not the Cavaliers.

“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” he said. “I have a responsibility to lead. ... My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.”

Finally, there is with James an integrity that seemed lacking when he left four years ago. Time will tell, of course. The player who seemed to quit against Boston in Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals might still be hiding inside that 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame.

But 2014 LeBron is mature enough to entertain that possibility without feeling threatened. He looks in the mirror and sees flaws, which explains why he is willing to play for Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who in 2010 wrote a caustic letter that demeaned James as a cowardly betrayer.

“I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out,” James said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes, as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”

In the end, Cleveland need not have worried about James being offended by his No. 23 Cavaliers jersey being burned in effigy, or by Gilbert’s letter or by whether the roster was up to snuff. Ultimately, the King made his decision for the good of the kingdom.

“I want to give them hope when I can,” he said. “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.”

Good for Cleveland.

Even better for LeBron.

Oller is a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch. Reach him at roller@dispatch.com.

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