What is it about LeBron James that generates so much raw emotion and passion among his fans? Is it because of his two NBA championships, four NBA Most Valuable Player Awards, two NBA Finals MVP Awards, two Olympic gold medals, an NBA scoring title, and the NBA Rookie of the Year Award? His pure athletic greatness could be the reason he has so many die-hard followers. But for me, as of yesterday, he’s come to represent something much more.
It wasn’t until he decided yesterday to return to his hometown and play once again for the team that drafted him back in 2003 — the Cleveland Cavaliers — that I finally realized what it was about LeBron that has entranced me for the last four years as he played his guts out for my beloved Miami Heat.
I was devastated by the news — following closely in real-time for the final decision. I was scared to read his piece in Sports Illustrated. I didn’t want to believe that he was actually leaving Miami. But as I read his letter, two things happened: my fears became reality (he was, in fact, leaving Miami) but secondly, I realized that what attracts me to LeBron is something more than just his basketball prowess. It’s his gracefulness.
Hang in there with me on this one. LeBron was with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2003-2010. Ohio was his home and his devotion was clear.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart,” LeBron said.
After his long tenure, LeBron made the decision to leave his home and the Cleveland Cavaliers to move to Miami on July 8, 2010. He had brought the Cavalier organization from the bottom of the NBA to the top, leading them to their first ever NBA Finals in 2007. He brought basketball respectability to Cleveland. When he left, he didn’t leave because he was demanding a trade or pouting because he didn’t have a better supporting cast. He left as a free-agent, meaning he fulfilled his contract with the Cavs and was now free to sign with any team he chose. He had fulfilled his responsibilities in Cleveland and was now relocating. He was offered a “job” in Miami, and he took it because it gave him the opportunity to play with two of his best friends, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and it gave him the best chance to win multiple championships, which, in that business is the goal.
While I was thrilled with the decision and what this meant for my Miami Heat, I watched as LeBron James instantly fell from grace in the eyes of his once-loyal following. His decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers drew immense criticism. He was villanized by sports analysts, ostracized by his fans, and emotionally exiled from the place he once called home. He was no longer their hope and their hero. Cavalier fans burned his jersey in the streets. The owner, Dan Gilbert, wrote a piece on LeBron that was so slanderous and scathing I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I first saw it.
A super star
But, for the next four years, LeBron would prove to be my hero as he led the Miami Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances and back-to-back championships. He was a super star. He had passion and courage and ridiculous talent. Like I said, however, there was something else about him that always resonated with me. And I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until yesterday…the day he decided to leave my team and go back to Cleveland. This is where grace comes in.
In 2010, Cleveland had disowned and betrayed LeBron — from his once-beloved fans to his former teammates to the owner to the city itself – and he lived with this in his heart for four years. But, despite the fact that he wasn’t welcome there (he was, in fact, booed every time he went back there to play with the Heat) nor had he ever achieved championship status there, LeBron forgave them all before they had even asked. LeBron’s love for “his people” compelled him to leave a city that loved him (Miami) for a city that disowned him (Cleveland).
“To make the move I needed the support of my wife and my mom, who can be very tough,” said LeBron. “The letter from Dan Gilbert, the booing of the Cleveland fans, the jerseys being burned — seeing all that was hard for them. My emotions were more mixed. It was easy to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to deal with these people ever again.’ But then you think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react? I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?
A picture of grace
LeBron’s decision to return to a city he loves with a desire to bless the same people who cursed and ridiculed him four years ago is a remarkable picture of grace.
Cleveland, not LeBron, is the fickle prodigal son. And LeBron, not Cleveland, is the devoted father. He welcomes Cleveland back with open arms and never once asks them to take back every terrible and mean thing they said and did. By returning to Cleveland, he shows all of us how to love and forgive the ill-deserving.
Yes, LeBron, you have certainly shown me that you are much more than a high-priced basketball diva. I will miss you in Miami but am happy to welcome you into the grace club…for it is here that you will find peace and play the game of basketball with a much lighter heart and more passion than ever.
Tullian Tchividjian is a South Florida native, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He is the founder of LIBERATE (liberatenet.org), a bestselling author, a contributing editor to Leadership Journal, and a popular conference speaker. Tullian and his family reside in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Follow Tullian on twitter at: @pastortullian