Puskas: A different LeBron returns home

An epic — though not altogether unexpected — reunion finally took place on Friday when LeBron James let everyone know he was on his way home.

James’ announcement, via a first-person story told to Lee Jenkins on SI.com, proved you can go home again — even when it appears the bridge has been burned at both ends.

It didn’t seem possible four years ago that James would ever again wear a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform. The breakup between James and the team was that bad. Most of it had to do with “The Decision,” a ridiculous primetime TV show in which James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert made it even worse with his infamous “Comic Sans” letter, in which he ripped James and made promises he couldn’t keep to stunned and saddened fans. The letter might have been cathartic at the time, but Gilbert eventually grew to wish he’d never written it.

The breakup between James and most of northeastern Ohio might have been worse. Some here still recognized James as one of the best players in NBA history, but others couldn’t see past what they felt was a betrayal on national television.

The backlash was instantaneous and deep. The scope of it seemed to shock James, who was just 25 then. He was a 6-foot-8, 250-pound kid who made a mistake. He wasn’t used to being a villain and it showed. People who once cheered his every move were now burning his jerseys in the streets of Cleveland and his hometown of Akron. Even those outside Ohio saw him in a different light.

It was the ugly result of a huge miscalculation by James and those in his circle.

LeBron eventually admitted he could have handled his first foray into free agency better. And amazingly, not long into his stay with the Miami Heat, some close to the NBA’s best player began floating the idea of an eventual return to the Cavaliers. James even talked about the possibility in 2012.

Wait. What?

I didn’t see it happening without the Cavaliers doing some major restructuring, Gilbert offering up a major mea culpa and James growing up.

It took four years, but each of those things happened and now northeastern Ohio is celebrating.

The key — as I predicted in this space Sunday — was Gilbert and James getting together to decide if they could work together. It turns out they can. Money and maturity on both sides helped.

On Friday, James demonstrated what he learned from The Decision and the four years since.

It was a humble, appreciative James who penned — with Jenkins’ help — a love letter to the fans he walked away from in 2010.

James need not have done that to regain their acceptance. Fans in northeastern Ohio had spent the last two weeks, and especially the last few days, giddy with the thought of its prodigal basketball son coming home to stay. They would have been just as happy if he’d faxed Gilbert, “I’m back!”

James made everyone wait for an announcement that was first supposed to come Wednesday and then Thursday. The tension was palpable as fans and sportswriters alike tried to determine if each passing minute or new source meant one thing or another.

But the wait was worth it for Cavaliers fans, who spent the last four years watching the team put one forgettable quintet after another on the floor while James and the Heat were making four straight NBA Finals appearances.

The wait also was worth it for Cleveland, which again becomes the center of the NBA universe and will benefit from James’ incalculable financial impact on its downtown businesses. One of them, not all that coincidentally, is a Gilbert-owned casino.

The King has returned. For a city and a region so used to bitter, unhappy endings and always expecting the worst, James’ homecoming promises something different.

LeBron bolted for South Beach as an oversized kid who was unaware of the impact his departure would have on those he left behind. He returns a man who understands what he means to northeastern Ohio.

And a man who came to realize at some point just what northeastern Ohio means to him.

Write Vindicator Sports Editor Ed Puskas at epuskas@vindy.com and follow him on Twitter, @EdPuskas_Vindy.

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