Here on Tobacco Road, we don’t normally pay too much attention to the NBA.
But last week, I found myself drawn in as some of the biggest basketball brands, including LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, tested their value in the annual free agency circus.
The biggest story of the week was The Decision, Part 2. Would LeBron stay in Miami to build on four years of success (2 championships and 4 NBA finals in 4 years)? Or would he jet off for a new adventure on a younger team with more salary cap room to pay him more?
Four years ago, almost to the day, LeBron starred in his own 75-minute TV spectacle on ESPN, where he told the world he was leaving his home state of Ohio to move to Miami and play for the Heat.
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” he said at the time.
His home state was outraged. Jerseys were burned. Tears were shed. Letters were written.
On Thursday, we saw an older, wiser, and savvier LeBron take a different approach to making his dramatic announcement.
He didn’t go on TV.
And it was a good one. In his essay, published on SI.com, he told the world he was returning home to Cleveland, the city where he played his first seven years of professional basketball, to the state of Ohio, where he was born and raised.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think that LeBron decided to come back to Cleveland for purely selfless reasons, love of home and all that. After all, he’ll be making the maximum allowable salary. His teammates in Miami were getting old, and Cleveland managed to get the opportunity to select three of the last four #1 draft picks while he was gone, which means they have some of the top young talent in the league. Clearly, he thought the future looked brighter in Cleveland than it did in Miami.
But after the bad blood from The Decision, Part 1, how could the same player who was branded as Benedict Arnold in Ohio four years ago make peace and pave the way for a happy return?
Simple. He opened his heart and mind to the people of Cleveland. And he did it in a calculated way, showing a combination of emotional maturity, PR brilliance, and authenticity.
From the essay:
“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland.
To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough. The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned — seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, “OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.” But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
A few things that he does really well in this passage. First—in stark contrast to the hubris of the “I’m taking my talents to South Beach” approach—LeBron sets things up by sharing how he made the decision in the context of family. His pregnant wife. His kids. His mom.
Then he honestly admits that he and his family struggled with forgiveness. That this was not easy for him, or them. And finally, in a few beautiful lines, he shows that he understands what his home state was feeling about him. He admits his own mistakes. He forgives. He puts it to rest.
With that out of the way, the letter goes to another, even more interesting place.
Here at New Kind, we say our purpose is to bring people together to share in the adventure of creating the future. And as I read the rest of his letter, I couldn’t help but think that—with healing already underway—LeBron is already beginning to paint a picture of a future adventure that all of Cleveland, all of Ohio, could go on together. He is already bringing people together in his own way.
The adventure he imagines begins on the basketball court, perhaps includes a championship or two for a city with a 50+ year sporting curse, but could become a new source of optimism and pride for the entire community and its future beyond the basketball court.
Here’s how he closes:
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
If I lived in Cleveland and I read that, I’d be in tears by the end of that last sentence.
Now I have no idea whether these are all LeBron’s words or not. A $21 million-a-year salary can buy one hell of a communications strategist and a ghost writer. But it feels authentic. It feels like the way a real person would process an emotionally difficult decision. And it is a wonderful and glorious call to adventure for a city that has had more than it’s share of issues, sporting and otherwise.
By yesterday, Carmelo Anthony, in announcing his decision to return to the Knicks, had already copied the LeBron strategy with a letter of his own. His letter is fine.
But LeBron, master of the basketball court, has once again shown he also has an exceptional gift for managing his brand, while painting a beautiful picture of the future for his home state at the same time.
To the moon, Cleveland!