Three objective facts to get out of the way before we begin:
– In professional wrestling, a “heel” is a wrestler which is villainous or a “bad guy,” which is booked (scripted) by the promotion to be in the position of being booed.
– A “face,” on the other hand, is a heroic or a “good guy” wrestler, booked (scripted) by the promotion to be cheered by fans.
– LeBron James, free agent of the millennium, is going back to the Cleveland Cavaliers — the team he abandoned four years ago.
But while four years ago there was a TV special, a party, and a parade, this time all we got from King James was an essay (as told to Lee Jenkins) on Sports Illustrated’s website describing his reasons for going home (by the way, expect to hear that “Coming Home” song a lot for the next few months).
And it’s perfect.
No, LeBron James isn’t perfect, and his reasons aren’t perfect, and his whole career can be summed up in his piece’s own words, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently,” but this essay is exactly what it needed to be. Whatever highly-paid team of ghostwriters chiseled these 949 words earned their keep. Everyone was ready to judge him for whatever decision he made, even if it was the right one, because that’s our national pastime, but this thing is air-tight, check-every-box, bulletproof.
This was the most efficient, quickest heel-to-face turn since CM Punk’s infamous 4th-wall shattering Pipe Bomb speech (which is worth watching if you have five minutes to spare).
LeBron James has always been a divisive topic; many have wanted to continue flaying him for his Ohio departure/ring-chasing/supposed meltdowns under pressure/etc, but the reason people watch professional sports is because they like seeing the pinnacle of human performance and LeBron James is the pinnacle of that pinnacle. Watching him play is simply awe-inspiring, so there’s always been a struggle between rooting for him to shatter in front of us (or maybe just cramp up a bit) and for him to shatter our expectations about what is possible.
But after this essay, those that rooted for the Miami Mountain to crumble are now left looking at a LeBron James who just got embarrassed in the Finals and who is now voluntarily joining one of the biggest underdogs in the league (though they are still in the Eastern Conference, at least). Kyrie Irving may have a hollow MVP All-Star trophy, and there is some real potential in The Forest City, but this is the polar opposite of ring-chasing. And this essay makes sure to remind us of that…
Yes LeBron asserts that “what’s most important for [him] is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio,” but the 26-year old kid that started counting his not-yet-won championships on his fingers during his Miami Welcome party isn’t the same guy that (allegedly) penned this sentence:
“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”
This is how a heel-to-face turn starts, when someone does or says something you never expected their character to do.
And he (and his PR team) had already found a way to tackle/posterize the elephants in the room as quickly as possible earlier in the essay. He was able to honor his time in Miami without renouncing it as a bad decision (and in my personal opinion, this is best point he makes in the whole essay):
“Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go.”
When it comes to the “Oh, NOW you’re coming back…” inevitable responses, he was able to play the family-man/”won’t someone please think of the children” angle:
“I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when….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.”
And the essay sidled right past the awkwardness that always comes from getting back together with a former fling. It made sure to remind everyone (including Cleveland fans) about how terrible they were to their King, but LeBron made it all about his mother and his wife holding a possible grudge instead of making it seem like it was him with a chip on his shoulder:
“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.”
He even threw Dan Gilbert a lifeline:
“Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
And with that, he (and his PR team) began establishing the narrative for this next era in LeBron James’ career (knowing full well that every outlet in the world will be covering this and latching onto these made-for-headline quotes): LeBron James is going to save Northeast Ohio.
But what’s really fascinating about this move is that while his promise to Miami of countless championships incidentally helped exacerbate LBJ’s Krytponian fear of letting people down when he didn’t produce, this new vague goal is impossible to definitively fail at. The minute he stepped onto the court down in South Beach, the clock started ticking for him to come through on his tangible promise of ultimate success. The minute he steps onto the court in Cleveland, he will have already succeeded.
Because LeBron James isn’t going back to Cleveland to shower them in Finals trophies (though he better get them at least one), he’s coming back to give them something much more powerful (and much more arbitrary):
“I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
In those final three sentences, LeBron James was able to actualize the final steps in the Hero’s Journey plot structure. Act II may have lasted longer than any of us imagined, but the King is returning to his world.
Which, just to remind you, looks like this: