Right field: LeBron James' homecoming is heartfelt decision

NBA colossus' move back to Cleveland seems genuine attempt at atonement, but contract leaves the escape door unlocked

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 11:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 11:31pm

It is an unsightly, corrosive and flaky coating of iron oxide, more commonly known as rust, and it has come to define northeast Ohio. You think of the rust belt and the first place you think of is Cleveland. It has been a default reaction for years and has helped to contribute to the national punchline that Cleveland has become in the US.

As in, "it could be worse, you could be in Cleveland" and almost on cue the local sports teams have compounded the regional misery by being routinely abysmal.

It has been 50 years since a team has won a professional championship in Cleveland, so if you live in northeastern Ohio it's not because you like bragging.

His essay can't help but melt the heart of anyone who has ever been around northeast Ohio

It's not because of the weather either, with harsh winters featuring blizzard-like winds whipping in off Lake Erie. And you probably don't live in Cleveland because you like driving beat-up old Buicks covered in rust.

Nope, as far as the rest of America is concerned you live in Cleveland because you have to.

Understandably, many of the region's best and brightest have fled as soon as humanly possible for more comfortable and dynamic locales in places like California, Arizona and Florida. I mean, the only thing you can say Cleveland has in common with Miami Beach is that the people in both places need oxygen.

So it seems completely logical that a 25-year-old multi-millionaire at the top of his trade would wish to relocate to southern Florida from northeastern Ohio as LeBron James did four years ago when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.

He certainly was not the first person working in Cleveland to do it. However, when James did it in a much lamented and highly dubious one-hour prime time special called The Decision, he shot an arrow through the entire region's soul.

Born and raised in nearby Akron, the prodigal son quickly became the most reviled guy in the state. A nasty letter from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert outlining James' treasonous actions soon followed and the departure was complete. James would be persona non grata in his home region pretty much forever.

Except forever is never really forever because four years later - in one of the most unlikely scenarios the sporting world has seen - King James is back in Cleveland.

After winning two championships and making four straight finals appearances with the Heat, why Cleveland? Why now?

"My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," James wrote in Sports Illustrated announcing his decision. "I didn't realise that four years ago. I do now."

These days, you don't even have to break a sweat in being cynical about professional sports because sports are big business, nothing more, nothing less.

There was a time, not so long ago actually, when the best sportsmen in the US were activists for social change. People like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell understood the podium sport afforded them and were unfailingly principled in their approach. But that kind of activism has skipped a few generations.

The sportsmen a young LeBron followed and idolised routinely put money ahead of principle. But in his touching and genuinely moving essay about returning home, James put things in perspective. He gets it, that with all the wealth and exposure he has been afforded, the ramifications of his actions go far beyond himself.

His essay can't help melting the heart of anyone who has ever been around northeast Ohio. But no part of it resonated more with me than when he discussed his toxic relationship with Gilbert and how he can go back to work for him.

"Everybody makes mistakes," he wrote. "I've made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?" Holding a grudge is useless; it's cloaked in negativity and serves no purpose except to eat at your core.

It's like rust - corrosive, unsightly and unbecoming. James is inspirational in ways he could only dream of for publicly declaring this.

But while LeBron is in love again with his home, he is not wildly in love. His contract is only for two years, with an opt-out clause after one year, which is a very pragmatic approach.

Still, he is home for now. Places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York or Miami don't need star athletes to raise their profile, at least not like Cleveland does.

With LeBron back in the fold and college football mega-star Johnny Manziel playing for the Browns, Cleveland now has two of the highest profile athletes in the country. The eyes of the sporting world are firmly affixed on northeastern Ohio.

Hopefully, what they will see is a formerly downtrodden region gleefully peeling off one layer of rust after another.