Seldom has a potential legacy attached itself so far in advance of an ending. Either LeBron James brings an NBA championship to Cleveland and is hailed as a hero, or his career will be labeled as having come up short.
One or the other. No in-between.
Forget the two titles with Miami, four league MVPs and 10 All-Star Game appearances. Forget the estimated 10,000 LeBron jerseys sold (not counting those retrieved from the burn pile). Forget the TV spin and exposure generated from endorsements that have shaped how we view James. Yes, those images are powerful, including a just-released emotional YouTube video in which singer Skylar Grey changes the lyrics of her song Coming Home as a tribute to LeBron.
Coming home is all well and good. It will be remembered as The Return, the prodigal who sought a better life elsewhere before yielding to his heart by wanting to help carry Cleveland to glory. It is a wonderful feel-good story about sacrificing for others, but so was Life is Beautiful, until (spoiler alert) the ending.
Likewise, the LeBron story is all about the closing credits. James’ past does not matter. Toss it. This is about his future, which remains fresh cement. James deserves time to make things happen. But when the concrete hardens, will the words finger-written into the mix be He did it or He failed?
Failure is a tough tag to lay on someone who already has achieved so much, but it applies here. James specifically is returning to help spread joy to a city that hasn’t had any since the Browns won the NFL championship in 1964.
Anything less than hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy will constitute a return to the seven seasons James spent trying to win a championship with Cleveland. Remember those?
LeBron brought hope and positive hype to Cleveland the last time around, but no title. How will this be any different if the Cavs do not win it all? Certainly, winning regular-season games beats losing. And without LeBron, the Cavs lost much more often than they won. But Cleveland fans should be past the point of praising LeBron just because he makes them feel good. You enjoy watching him? Great. But being able to elicit oohs and aahs from adoring fans is not much of a legacy.
LeBron knows this, which I believe drove him back to the city that blistered him on his cut-and-run way out of town in 2010. Think about it. How can James carve a legacy that separates him from Michael, Magic, Bird and Kobe? LeBron will never be Jordan, who ESPN has turned into His Utmost and Highest. Untouchable.
LeBron will never be Magic, the lovable Los Angeles icon. LeBron is the wrong color to be Bird, who is white America’s last great hoopster. And LeBron lacks the assassin’s heart of Kobe, who does not care if you like him. LeBron cares, deeply.
But James still can achieve a legacy different from — and one could argue greater than — what those greats enjoy. He can redeem a city. And not just any city, but hard-luck Cleveland, which is close enough to his actual birthplace of Akron to be considered home. Jordan won his six titles in Chicago, not his hometown of Wilmington, N.C. All the others won their titles without returning to save their own city.
So it is a high-risk/high-reward game LeBron has signed up for. The last time he played for the Cavs, the team did not surround him with the pieces to complete the task. Now, he has Kyrie Irving, who is no Delonte West. He has Andrew Wiggins, and he might in time have Kevin Love.
No excuses this time. The Cavs reached the NBA Finals in 2007, but close does not count. Bernie Kosar came close. So did Charlie Nagy and on down the line. Cleveland doesn’t want close. It thirsts for a title.
If LeBron delivers, his legacy will light up Cleveland. If not, he will be branded a disappointment. No pressure there.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.