As is the case with most abstract concepts, a legacy can be a tricky thing to manage. One can spend his entire life building something, but ultimately, it is up to others to define what that something means. Depending on your perspective, LeBron James is either keenly aware of that fact, or completely oblivious to it.
The proof? Friday’s Decision Do-Over, in which he announced his triumphant return to Cleveland, eschewing the promise of more titles in Miami in favor of rescuing an entire region that has suffered through plenty, least among its gripes being a 40-year championship drought. It makes for a compelling storyline, yet it also a convenient one. Whether or not James succeeds in his heroic quest is largely beside the point; to him, all that matters is that he’s embarking on it.
LeBron’s concern for his legacy is not unique amongst athletes. His desire to control it is. From the moment he first entered the NBA, he has seemingly been obsessed with how he will be remembered. He was the prodigal son from nearby Akron, the kid destined to lead Cleveland to the Promised Land. He wore number 23 with the Cavs, an homage to Michael Jordan, but also a sign that he desired to be the heir apparent to his Airness’ throne. Two MVP awards and an NBA Finals sweep later, he realized only a championship would secure his legacy, so he left the banks of the Cuyahoga for the shores of South Beach.
Of course, the way he announced that move – via a prime-time special dubbed “The Decision” – would come back to haunt him, and though he would find tremendous success (and two championship rings) as part of the Miami Heat’s “Big Three,” the second chapter of his career was largely defined by the fallout from that one very disastrous public-relations move. Sure, LeBron was a great basketball player, the thought process went, but he was also a self-serving one, a man who put his interests above those of his teammates or his community, a fallen idol incapable winning the big one without help.
So it makes sense that he’s coming back to Cleveland. There, he will unquestionably be the man, taking over a talented-yet-young team led by a first-year head coach. If he guides the Cavaliers to an NBA title, he will have done it largely by himself, thereby erasing the narrative that he is incapable of shouldering the load. He will be a leader, a savior, a proud-hearted warrior. It will be a rather tidy way to tie up his career.
Tellingly, James also avoided the airwaves when announcing his decision, breaking the news instead with an essay for Sports Illustrated. Beneath a headline that proclaims “I’M COMING HOME,” James spends no shortage of words discussing the “responsibility” he feels to the region, expressing a hope that his return will have a profound effect on Northeast Ohio, closing with “Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”
It is a nice sentiment. But why should we believe him?
When James arrived in Miami, he certainly made it seem that he was there for the long haul – famously predicting the team would win “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” NBA titles. Turns out, they won two, and, when the Spurs made it clear last month that the Heat’s window was closing, James bolted. And after leaving Cleveland under much the same circumstances in 2010, you have to wonder whether he’s the kind of guy who turns tail when things get tough. He’s yet to prove otherwise.
In his essay, James proclaims, “I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.” Is that homecoming born out of pure intentions, or does it represent yet another attempt to re-write his legacy on the fly? Only time will tell — but ultimately, it will be up to us to decide how he is remembered.
Not even Kings have the power to control perception. No matter how hard they try.