Sunday’s announcement that James was joining the Lakers wasn’t met with quite the same angry undertones in Cleveland that defined his first departure in 2010, though. Fans were just as disappointed at James’s decision as they were the first time, but they were also much more understanding. The Cavaliers had reached four consecutive NBA Finals, but the basketball relationship between James and the Cavs had arguably run its course.
From Kyrie Irving being traded to the rival Celtics last summer, to owner Dan Gilbert deciding not to retain general manager David Griffin, a favorite of James’s, Cleveland spent this season trying to regain their championship form. They did make the Finals again, but only because of James, who had perhaps the greatest individual playoff run of any player through the first three rounds of the postseason. With an aging roster, and a lack of trust between James and the front office, the Cavs no longer gave James the best chance to play on a championship contender in both the short-term and long-term.
Beyond the aforementioned reasons, of course, Cleveland may be in a more forgiving mood because James ended the city’s 52-year championship drought in 2016 by bringing the franchise its first NBA championship. From a basketball standpoint, James wasn’t leaving Cleveland empty-handed this time around—he’d delivered the win.
It’s also important to remember that the “coming home” essay in 2014 was not just rooted in what James was offering on the court; he described his relationship with Northeast Ohio as something that was “bigger than basketball.” And indeed, his foundation, the LeBron James Family Foundation, has done important work in the community. In 2016, James and the foundation pledged more than $41 million to help students in Akron receive their college degrees. His foundation created a program that would target children in the third grade, and provide them with mentorship throughout their schooling, including the opportunity to be offered four years of college tuition to the University of Akron if they maintain a 3.0 grade point average.
The foundation’s latest project is to open an I PROMISE School in Akron, scheduled for the end of July. It’s no coincidence that the school opening is where James is expected to make his first public appearance since joining the Lakers. This time, James didn’t turn his departure from Cleveland into a spectacle. Instead, his agency Klutch Sports Group simply tweeted out a press release announcing his signing with the Lakers on Sunday night. James posted several stories to his Instagram thanking Northeast Ohio, and reiterated that it will always be his home.
You can certainly argue with the homecoming narrative that James crafted in his 2014 essay. As much as returning to Cleveland was a desire of his, James was also leaving a professional environment in Miami that hinted at diminishing returns. James was also stepping into a set-up that was advantageous for his on-court goals; the fact that he would play with two younger superstars (Irving and Kevin Love) would give him a better chance at extending his championship window. It doesn’t make his heartfelt letter disingenuous; James simply struck the right balance, illustrating his commitment to his hometown, while his desire to find a better basketball destination thrummed in the background.