Why LeBron coming home matters so much to Cleveland

BY Terence Burlij  July 11, 2014 at 2:46 PM EST

LeBron James, then No. 23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers, applies chalk to his hands prior to playing against the Washington Wizards during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2008. James announced on Friday that he's returning to the Cavaliers, after four years with the Miami Heat. Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

LeBron James, then No. 23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers, applies chalk to his hands prior to playing against the Washington Wizards during the 2008 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2008. James announced on Friday that he’s returning to the Cavaliers, after four years with the Miami Heat. Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The past few weeks a lot of people who know my Cleveland roots have asked me what I thought the odds were LeBron James was going to “come home” and whether the fans in the city would welcome him back. Having suffered through some of the most painful moments in professional sports — Michael Jordan’s “Shot,” John Elway’s “Drive” and Earnest Byner’s “Fumble” — my instinct always tells me to hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Four years ago, that feeling was reinforced when James made his “decision” to “take his talents” to South Beach and join the Miami Heat. I wrote about the pain of that moment, and what it meant for Cleveland fans to have a local star leave when, as fans, you have no such option. Your team is your team. Your hometown is your hometown.

“When an NBA title finally comes, the success will be all the sweeter for having suffered through Thursday night. I would say it’s a shame James won’t be there to celebrate when it happens, but I don’t think he’d appreciate it,” I wrote at the time. On that last point, I was wrong.

Fast forward to Friday. In his Sports Illustrated announcement, the first reason James cites for his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers is that he grew up in Northeast Ohio and how the region “holds a special place” in his heart. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” he said.

That James would pass up what is, right now, a better basketball situation in Miami for the promise of a young Cavs team shows that he does appreciate what bringing a title would mean to the city of Cleveland. After the news broke Friday, there was a lot of sarcastic chatter on Twitter about “poor Cleveland,” from people who would probably have a hard time understanding what it’s like for a town with three major sports teams to go 50 years without a title.

That is why the mere announcement that the greatest player in basketball choose to come back to Northeast Ohio is being celebrated with such fanfare. Cleveland fans are used to having their souls crushed, not their hopes elevated. Having won two NBA titles in Miami, James knows just how hard the task at hand is. And he made clear Friday he’s “not promising a championship.”

But what he does bring is promise; he brings hope. That’s something that has been in short supply in Cleveland since he left. And it’s why so many Cleveland fans are thrilled to see him return, even though the split four years ago left bitter feelings on both sides.

James writes: “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.”

Welcome back, LeBron.

In 2010, Paul Solman took a closer look at James’ economic impact on Cleveland.