By now you’ve all heard that the biggest star in the NBA—and one of the biggest stars in all of sports—made an unprecedented announcement last Friday: LeBron James is leaving the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers. This move is remarkable for many reasons. For one thing, the biggest star in a sport doesn’t often change teams. For another, he doesn’t usually return to his original team in his home state—especially when he burned every bridge leading out of town with napalm when he left.
When James made “The Decision” to leave Cleveland in a nationally televised spectacle in the summer of 2010 it was nigh impossible to imagine he’d ever return to the Cavaliers, and even more difficult to think they (or the city) would ever want him back. The kid from Akron had publicly shamed the most forlorn sports fans in America. He took his talents to the sunny shores of Miami’s South Beach, leaving his fellow Ohioans wallowing in their sorrows and frigid winters. To return, especially to be welcomed back with jubilance, took something remarkable, something more than a signed contract and a press conference.
And James did it. In one of the most poignant communications from an athlete I’ve ever read he made things right. We can learn some important lessons from how James handled this transition.
In the open letter, James admitted his faults and errors with clarity, but he did not apologize for what wasn’t wrong. He looked back at how he departed Cleveland and frankly apologized for it. But he did not apologize for leaving, which he had both the right and reasons to do. He was humble enough to admit to his immaturity at the time and say he was sorry for specific hurtful actions.
His honesty throughout the letter was significant. It felt like he meant it because he was equal parts remorseful and clear. He explained himself, but not in a defensive way. He described how the four years in Miami were crucial to his growth as a player and as a person. He explained his regrets. And he explained how all this had prepared him to return with a better understanding of what Cleveland means to him, what he means to Cleveland, and what it will take to bring an NBA title to the city.
James did not woo Cleveland with false promises. He promised very little about wins or titles. In fact, he did quite the opposite: He promised commitment, effort, and care for a city and region he loves. In all of this fans were given a window into his mind and feelings. They could embrace his return knowing what they were getting without all the glitz or show.
LeBron James’ return to Cleveland exhibits precisely what it takes to restore broken relationships: humility, confession, honesty, openness, realistic promises, and commitment. He showed how to hold fast to what he believed to be good while laying down what he believed to be wrong. He did what was necessary for those he hurt to welcome him home.