Four years ago, America's most celebrated basketball player epitomized the selfish and ego-driven ills of the modern sports world when he used a televised spectacle to abandon his Midwestern hometown team and chase riches and glamour on a faraway beach.
On Friday morning, in a stunning victory for maturity and perspective, LeBron James announced he was returning home.
James' touching and insightful letter published by Sports Illustrated should serve as a Magna Carta for all sports superstars. In it he explained why he will leave the Miami Heat, with whom he won two championships in four years, to return to a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has never won a title.
"I'm ready to accept the challenge," he wrote. "I'm coming home."
He will return to the area where he was born, grew up, and played for his first seven professional seasons before fleeing to Miami with an announcement that was a widely derided televised display of narcissism known as "The Decision."
He will return home despite having been constantly booed by Cavaliers fans during the four seasons since that moment. He will return home even though he was criticized for a "cowardly betrayal" in an open letter from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that remained on the team's website for the entire four years.
He will return home because, as he wrote in words rarely spoken by today's sports heroes, sometimes it's about more than sports.
"I feel my calling here goes above basketball," he wrote. "I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I'm from."
He certainly did make a difference in Miami, teaming with fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form the "Big Three," a group that led Miami to four consecutive NBA Finals and two championships. James' supporting cast struggled this spring and was wiped out of the NBA Finals by the San Antonio Spurs. Still, with a couple of minor acquisitions, the Heat had a chance next season to become the first team in 49 years to appear in five consecutive Finals.
Yet, in late June, James exercised an early-termination clause in his six-year, $110-million contract, erasing the final two years of his deal and making him a free agent, just as he was in the summer of 2010.
Only this time, his destinations were quickly whittled down to Cleveland or Miami. This time, there were no loud interview tours or welcoming parades. This time, James' business team conducted the negotiations professionally and with no publicity as the NBA remained frozen for two weeks as it awaited his decision.
Few actually believed he would pick Cleveland. How can spending four years as the leader of a renowned sports circus actually made an athlete more grounded? How often does a great athlete's grace and humility actually grow with his abilities?
Yet this time, James didn't choose the rings, the bling or the beach. This time, for a yet-undisclosed contract figure that is expected to be less than he could have received from the Heat, he chose home.
"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from northeast Ohio," James wrote. "It's where I walked. It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled."
James, 29, who grew up in nearby Akron and still lives there, wrote that time has taught him the importance of his impact there.
"People there have seen me grow up, I sometimes feel like I'm their son," he said. "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."
James acknowledged the Cavaliers, who missed the playoffs last season, are not a championship caliber team like the Heat. The Cavaliers are expected to attempt to make a trade to bring in Minnesota's all-star forward Kevin Love to form a new "Big Three" with James and the team's star guard Kyrie Irving. But until then, they are not even one of the top five teams in the league.
"I'm not promising a championship, I know how hard that is to deliver, we're not ready right now, no way," James wrote. "But I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn't know they could go."
It's hard to imagine a championship athlete not celebrating the destination, but the journey. Then again, it's just as difficult to imagine LeBron James, wearing two rings and covered in the glitter of Miami, once again wearing the wine and gold of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Four years ago, James celebrated "The Decision'' with a Miami pep rally that featured smoke and fireworks and the promise of multiple championships. This time, he said he is bringing nothing but his heart.
"I'm not having a press conference or a party," he wrote. "After this, it's time to get to work."
Now that's a decision.
Twitter: @billplaschkeCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times