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Is the LeBron James story about basketball or redemption?

LeBron James Associated Press/Photo by Leo Correa

Is the LeBron James story about basketball or redemption?

Sports pundits had plenty to talk about over the weekend as the World Cup wrapped up in Brazil. But most of the chatter centered on LeBron James and his announcement Friday that he will return to Cleveland, the city he spurned in 2010 to pursue a championship in Miami.

James is now married with two sons and a daughter on the way. His decision isn’t widely seen as a bid to win more pro basketball games. Rather, the Akron native’s return to the Cleveland Cavaliers is couched in terms of legacy, maturity, and redemption.

James, 29, is widely regarded as the NBA’s best all-around player, a four-time MVP once dubbed “The Chosen One” as a can’t-miss high school star. At 6 feet 8 inches and 260 pounds, he can score from all over and is one of the game’s best passers and defenders.

But after repeated playoff failures in Cleveland during his first seven seasons, James staged a 2010 televised spectacle during which he announced, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” Cleveland fans burned James jerseys, and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned a now-infamous letter calling James a coward. The Cavaliers plunged to a 97-215 record in James’ absence, while Miami made the NBA Finals all four years, winning two championships.

San Antonio squelched Miami’s hopes for a third championship in a five-game rout during last month’s NBA finals, and Friday’s emotional Sports Illustrated announcement ended two weeks of speculation about James’ future. Naturally, NBA analysts picked apart every word down to his choice of medium—a first-person essay edited by Lee Jenkins, a writer he knew.

The verdict? James has grown up.

“How he handled it, his words, his approach were night and day,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told ESPN. “I think he deserves a lot of respect.”

Some say Cleveland fans don’t deserve James’ forgiveness for their retaliation after he left. Others say James deserves no praise for doing what he should have done all along. But few debate that the man himself is changed. “I did a lot of his games in high school and all of his games up until he left, and honestly, this is the most mature, big-time thing I’ve seen him do,” said Jeff Phelps of radio station 92.3 The Fan, in Cleveland.

“People there have seen me grow up,” James wrote. “I sometimes feel like I’m their son.” He acknowledged mistakes he made in 2010 and said he and Gilbert have personally talked and moved on. He understands what coming home means for his legacy, said Houston radio host Sean Pendergast: “This is one of the greatest redemption stories in sports history, almost like LeBron went away to college for four years and returned a man.”

The young, unproven Cavs, and rookie coach David Blatt, are not ready for a championship yet, James wrote. This time around, while it may try his patience, he guaranteed his hard work. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously,” he said.

Even his Miami Heat teammates are supporting James’ move. “LeBron made the right decision for himself and his family because home is where your heart is,” a disappointed Dwyane Wade said. Heat players said they accomplished what they set out to do—win a championship—and made lasting relationships. “We’re going to be brothers regardless,” Chris Bosh told ESPN.

While James’ contract is for only two years and $41 million, he says he wants to finish his career in Cleveland. And more important than basketball, he said, his lasting example to the city’s children could make Cleveland a better place.

“Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business,” he said. “That would make me smile.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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