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The 30: East of Eden

God Loves Cleveland

Why LeBron James — unparalleled NBA genius, heir to Michael (and Larry and Magic) — went home

Yeah, I read LeBron James’s classy letter in Sports Illustrated. I believe him. I think he wanted to come home. I think he always wanted to come home.

In the summer of 2010, LeBron handled everything wrong. He knows that now. His hometown turned on him. His former owner excoriated him. Everyone else hated what he did. We turned him into a wrestling heel, pushed him to a dark place, affected his personality, planted seeds of doubt that blossomed like a black rose during the 2011 Finals. It took LeBron nearly 15 months to recover from the damage, both mentally and physically, and when he did, he captured two straight MVPs and his first two NBA titles.

But he never forgot what happened, and deep down, he probably always wanted to atone. When the time arrived this summer, he flipped the script on us. This wasn’t a 24-7, overplanned reality show like the one in 2010. He said nothing. He hinted at nothing. During the first week of July, his agent took every meeting. During the second week, LeBron stayed in Las Vegas and made everyone come to him. He announced his decision in an online piece titled “I’m Coming Home,” then he flew to Brazil for the World Cup. So much for the Boys & Girls Club and Jim Gray.

Click here for more on 2014 NBA free agency.

Those four Miami seasons made me sure of one thing: He’s one of the greatest NBA players ever. Now he’s pursuing a greater challenge: bringing Cleveland its first title in 50 years in any sport. Add everything up and it’s the best possible story. He’s the conquering hero who came home, and, hopefully, will conquer again.

It’s also not entirely accurate. I think LeBron would have stayed in Miami — for at least one or two more years — if he truly believed he had a chance to keep winning there.

If you think of him like a genius, it makes more sense. He’s smarter about basketball than you and me, and, really, anyone else. He sees things that we can’t see. During that last Miami season, I don’t think he liked what he saw from his teammates. LeBron James wanted to come back to Cleveland, but he also wanted to flee Miami. His heart told him to leave, but so did his brain. And his brain works like very few brains — not just now, but ever.

 

JORDAN

“Do you think Michael Jordan was a genius?”

I asked Doug Collins that question during the 2014 NBA Finals, on the afternoon of Game 3, hours before San Antonio transformed into some crazy hybrid of Russell’s Celtics, Walton’s Blazers and Bradley’s Knicks. We were eating lunch at our hotel’s pool, flanked by the radiantly blue ocean off Brickell Key, talking hoops, because that’s what you do when you’re around Doug. He loves basketball more than just about anyone I’ve ever met. The man has enough stories for three books, but too much respect for the game, and for the relationships he has cultivated over the years, to ever actually write one.

When Collins played for Will Robinson at Illinois State, Robinson forced him to take up boxing. Robinson didn’t want opponents targeting Collins — painfully scrawny at the time — believing that, “If you let them rip out your heart, they’ll take your jump shot, too.” That’s how Collins learned to fight for himself. In the gold-medal game of the 1972 Olympics, a Russian player recklessly undercut Collins on the potential winning layup with three seconds to play. Collins flipped over, struck his head and got knocked out. When he came to his senses, he thought of Robinson telling him to fight for himself, and he heard coach Hank Iba tell the officials, “If Doug Collins can stand, he’s taking those free throws.” Collins cleared his head and sank the greatest pressure free throws ever made. Even if he was robbed of becoming the Mike Eruzione of basketball, those few minutes changed his life. Nobody would rip Doug Collins’s heart out.

Fourteen years later, he started coaching Michael Jordan — someone who collected more ripped-out hearts than anyone. Do you think Michael Jordan was a genius? I barely got the words out of my mouth.

“Oh yes,” Collins said. “There’s no question.”

It wasn’t just Jordan’s ability to flip geometry and gravity against his competitors, Collins explained, or how he saw entire sequences of plays before they happened. Jordan spent more time reading people than Phil Ivey. He studied their faces, weighed their body language, solved their tells. He did this quickly and instinctively. If a particular opponent seemed weak, Jordan kept attacking until that person broke. If he sensed that a particular teammate would fail him, he’d gesture to Collins to remove that person from the game. All these years later, Collins delights in imitating how Jordan did it — by making eye contact with his coach, glancing toward the offending teammate, then unleashing one of those “Get him the F out of here” grimaces. Almost always, his instincts were right.

David Halberstam once wrote that sociologist Harry Edwards “talked about Jordan representing the highest level of human achievement, on the order of Gandhi, Einstein or Michelangelo.” If that’s true — and I don’t think it’s far-fetched — then Jordan’s situation was particularly interesting because he couldn’t succeed without the assistance of teammates and coaches. Jordan weeded out weaker personalities and relentlessly pushed the ones that might have helped him. Teammate B.J. Armstrong became so frustrated by Jordan’s withering personality, he checked out library books about geniuses hoping to understand the man better. Really, it wasn’t hard. Jordan’s teammates needed to come through for him … or else.

Of course, the greatest sequence of Jordan’s career didn’t involve teammates: Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, 41.9 seconds remaining, Chicago trailing by three. Pippen inbounded the ball at half court, and after that, nobody on Chicago touched it again. Jordan ripped through Utah’s defense for a floating layup, swiped the ball from Karl Malone like he was snatching a purse, then drained the title-winning jumper in Bryon Russell’s mug. It wasn’t just the storybook ending that made it so unforgettable, or even Jordan’s incomparable brilliance, but how premeditated everything seemed. There was something genuinely spooky about it.

I watched Jordan play in person, many times, at various stages of his career. My favorite version was post-baseball MJ — a little humbled, a little wiser, still kicking everyone’s collective rear end — when the Bulls occasionally rolled through Boston and eviscerated the carcass of Celtic Pride. One particular night, we turned on the locals and started cheering what we were watching. It didn’t happen because we were selling out, but because we had witnessed a special kind of greatness during the Bird Era. We knew what it meant. We knew how fragile it was. We missed seeing it. Watching those Bulls was like catching up with an old friend.

Jordan’s genius during that particular run, at least for me, was in how beautifully he meshed with Scottie Pippen. You watched them together, running around in tandem, and it was almost like Jordan had spawned his own clone. Like Dr. Evil and Mini-Me. Only in this case, Pippen was two inches taller. Pippen moved like Michael, saw the court like Michael, jumped passing lanes like Michael and blended with Michael’s game like a non-identical twin. It was crazy. I will never forget watching it for the rest of my life. Bird and Magic were genuises, too, but shit, they never figured out how to replicate themselves.

For that reason and many others, I am never seeing a better basketball player than Michael Jordan. I am 44 years old and I know this to be true. Remarkable athlete, exceptional talent, insanely hard worker, homicidal competitor, and yes, an unequivocal genius. Whenever the subject turns to heirs to Jordan’s throne, you can always count on Collins reacting like someone were hitting on Mrs. Collins. He takes it personally. He really does.

“I was there,” Doug Collins will tell you. “We need to stop comparing people to Michael. We are NEVER seeing that again.”

He believes it’s true, and he believes it because it’s true. Michael Jordan was a genius, and maybe he was better than even that. From December 1990 through the 1998 Finals, not including his baseball sabbatical, the Chicago Bulls never lost three straight games with Jordan. Given the unforgiving NBA schedule, nonstop travel and general wear and tear, that’s basically impossible. But it happened. The man hated losing THAT much. Either he brought the best out of a teammate or he dumped that teammate like a showrunner killing off a struggling character. Keep up or get out.

Still, that was an exclusive genius — Jordan couldn’t transfer those gifts to others, with Pippen the lone exception. You weren’t Jordan’s teammate as much as his coworker. Jordan believed, like Kobe after him, that the best situation for him was always the best situation for the team. He left it up to every teammate to figure out how to play with him. And if they didn’t, they had to go.

Bird and Magic went the other way — if they made their teammates better, it gave them a better chance to win. Like Jordan, they were basketball savants who possessed a supernatural feel for what should happen collectively on every play, as if they had already studied the play’s blueprint and come up with a plan of attack. Unlike Jordan, their genius was inclusive — just by playing with them day after day, their teammates started seeing the court like they did. Bird’s first Celtics coach, Bill Fitch, affectionately nicknamed Bird “Kodak,” explaining to a writer that Bird’s “mind is constantly taking pictures of the whole court.” You could have said that about Magic, too. That’s what made them such devastating passers; they always knew where every teammate would be.

And maybe it took a few years, but Bird and Magic parlayed that particular gift into something more meaningful. Bird learned how to fully harness “it” during the 1984-85 season; for Magic, “it” didn’t happen until two seasons later. And here’s what “it” is. Each guy could assess any basketball game — in the moment, on the fly — and determine exactly what his team needed.

That seems simple, right? It’s impossible.

You need to understand every strength and weakness of your teammates.

You need to realize that you can’t dominate every game, that your teammates have to shine occasionally — if only because it enables them and allows you to count on them later. You can make that concession because you know, deep down, that you can take over whenever you want.

You need to be so good, so talented, so ridiculously dominant, that you don’t even think about it anymore. It’s almost like breathing.

And you need to embrace the performance aspects of what you’re doing.

San Antonio Spurs v Boston Celtics

You’re not just playing basketball anymore. You’re an artist. You’re creating something that you want people to remember. Every arena is filled with people who may not have seen you before. On the road, you love silence. That’s your favorite sound. You want to hear cheering and yelling, you want to hear the panic, and then, you want nothing. Just a sound vacuum other than your teammates yelling and screaming. You want them dejectedly filing out of their arena, feeling like someone just hit them with a wrecking ball. You want them muttering that you’re the best player they ever saw, and that they have absolutely no idea how to stop you. That’s your goal on the road.

Home is much easier — just whip your fans into a frenzy, feed off their energy and let them lift you to a higher place. Magic cherished playing at home. He loved seeing the celebrities in the crowd, loved the Showtime gimmick, loved running teams off the floor, loved being the biggest star in a city full of stars. He’d finish the night at the Forum Club and keep the party going for as long as possible. Bird loved the road, especially those Western Conference cities that caught the Celtics once a year. He’d stroll onto the court and ask what the “house record” was — for most points in the building — then he’d threaten staffers that he might break it that night. There was one moment in Los Angeles, when Bird was fouled with two-tenths of a second left in the game and needed to make two free throws to beat the Clippers. He didn’t believe their fans were noisy enough, so he stepped away from the charity stripe and implored them to yell more. Then, he drained both free throws and smiled all the way back to the bench.

Collins told me a fantastic Bird story once. In Chicago, Bird was feeling ornery because the Bulls had screwed up his complimentary tickets. He noticed Collins on the sideline, complained about the tickets and asked him what the “house record” was. Then he vowed to break it. Uh-oh. Collins started the game by defending Bird with Ben Poquette, an awkward backup forward who happened to be white. Strike two — Bird always took it personally when someone defended him with a white guy. And as Collins tells the story, Bird derisively said to him something like “Ben Poquette? Are you f’ing kidding me?” and proceeded to score the game’s first five baskets. So much for Ben Poquette.

At halftime, Bird had 33 points before promising Collins to take it easy in the second half. He finished with 41, something Collins remembered 27 years later (along with every other detail of that story). For fun, we looked the game up on YouTube, because everything’s on YouTube at this point. And there it was. Bird torching Poquette, Bird chirping at Chicago’s bench, the whole thing.

You don’t get the nickname “Larry Legend” because of Game 7s, you get it because you brought it on those random November nights in Chicago because someone messed up your tickets. That’s a very specific kind of art, a genius crafting his performance with anger and competitive drive. That’s the final level of basketball. And when you get there, it’s not just about titles anymore.

So what about this? What if LeBron James cared about making everything right in Ohio … but he also cared about protecting his ceiling as an artist? He couldn’t create what he wanted to create in Miami. Not anymore. This had quietly become 2009 and 2010 all over again — LeBron stuck on the wrong team, with the wrong teammates, being asked to do too much like he has been throughout his career. They weren’t bringing the best out of him. That much was clear.

During Game 5 of the 2014 Finals, something happened that few people noticed because San Antonio played so wonderfully. Trailing by seven after halftime, LeBron came out for the third quarter and wouldn’t shoot. Every pass was sent with a little extra zip, as if he were telling Micky Arison and Pat Riley, here’s the team you stuck me with. Watching it in person, you could tell he was tired and pissed, but you couldn’t tell if it was because the season was slipping away … or because of something deeper. He wasn’t openly sulking, but he wasn’t rallying everyone, either. He looked detached again. Much like Games 5 and 6 of the Boston series in 2010, actually.

The Spurs quickly extended their lead to 20, with LeBron attempting one shot in Miami’s first 14 possessions. If he wanted to prove a point, he certainly proved it. Midway through the fourth quarter, trailing by 18, he missed a 3 and didn’t even run back on defense. The man was totally spent, mentally and physically. He had given everything he could give.

What the Heat did to LeBron last season wasn’t entirely fair. They amnestied Mike Miller and added two free agents — Michael Beasley and Greg Oden — who never played a meaningful playoff moment. They spent the regular season resting Wade (who missed 28 games in all), putting extra miles on LeBron to “save” Wade for the playoffs … only that strategy backfired with Wade’s atrocious Finals performance. Bosh had stopped banging bodies a year ago. Their other role players were either washed-up or not talented enough. For those last three Finals games, Miami looked less dangerous than the 2010 Cavs — the last team LeBron had abandoned, for many of the same reasons.

When he signed with Miami in 2010, I wrote that LeBron copped out, that he joined forces with Wade over doing the honorable thing and trying to defeat him. But the more I watched LeBron and the more stories I read about him, the more I wondered if something more organic had driven that decision.

Was it about winning titles … or finding the right group of teammates?

What if LeBron was a genius like Bird and Magic?

What if he KNEW he was a genius?

What if he was searching for some basketball version of the Holy Grail, some higher state of being, a level of basketball that he couldn’t find in Cleveland?

What if those nights during that first season when Wade (still at the peak of his powers) and LeBron (hitting his prime of primes) would take off after a rebound and unleash the most devastating two-on-one fast breaks we’ve ever seen in our lives … what if THAT was what LeBron really cared about, just playing hoops with someone who saw the game the way he did?

We never talk about his brain enough. Somehow we talk about everything else, but not that.

We watched him for 11 years, wondered about him, marveled at him, picked him apart, embraced him, rejected him, embraced him, rejected him … the cycle just kept going and going. He’s the most criticized basketball star since Wilt Chamberlain, blessed and cursed by his immense physical advantages. Maybe that’s what happens when you blend the best of Magic, Mailman and Scottie into one frightening 270-pound package, only if that human had an unstoppable motor and Bird’s DNA.

On any given night, he can throw up a triple-double, score 40 points, unleash five or six GIFs, defend everyone from Parker to Carmelo, play point forward, play in the low post … you name it, he can do it. LeBron can do whatever he wants. But you know what he can’t do? Play basketball at an insanely high level without the right teammates.

At this point, his résumé is unassailable: He could retire tomorrow as one of the best seven players ever. Over the course of NBA history, five LeBrons would probably beat five Anyone Else’s. (Yes, even five Jordans.) We always point to his physical gifts, but none other than Paul George recently called him the league’s smartest player. Think about THAT for a second. So that’s the gift and the curse of LeBron James. He figured out how to combine genius and performance — he’s there, right now, and really, it shouldn’t be about the titles anymore. It should be about something greater than that. For him, anyway.

So when LeBron wrote that Sports Illustrated piece, he explained himself … but not really. Because here’s what he couldn’t say.

I am a genius. That genius has a shelf life. I already feel my body wearing down a little. Over the last 11 years, including the playoffs, I played 1,000 of a possible 1,044 games, averaged nearly 40 minutes per game and logged 39,993 minutes in all. Only Wilt and Russell reached 40,000 minutes faster than I will. I want to be part of something that’s greater than me. I am tired of carrying teams for nine months a year. I thought Wade and Bosh would help me, and they did for a while, but now Wade is breaking down and Bosh is past his prime.

The more I thought about it, I loved the idea of playing with a younger, more athletic and more malleable supporting cast. I loved the idea of being able to play four positions again. I loved the thought of being occasionally carried by young legs instead of always doing the carrying. I want to play point forward. I want to play with my back to the basket. I want to run the wing on fast breaks again — something I couldn’t do in Miami anymore. I want to use all of my skills. I am Magic and Larry and Barkley and Malone in the same body. I am an artist. That’s what I am.

And if he feels that way … can you blame him?

CHAMBERLAIN

I have caught LeBron in person maybe 50 times. My favorite night happened in Game 4 of this year’s Eastern Conference finals against Indiana, right after Lance Stephenson stupidly challenged him. LeBron said he didn’t take Lance’s buffoonery personally, only we knew that he did. Unlike Jordan or Kobe before him, he didn’t respond by dropping 50.

Instead, he strolled onto the court, figured out exactly what the Heat needed, then gave them exactly that for three incredible quarters. There wasn’t a single moment, for two solid hours, when anyone thought Indiana had a chance. His numbers weren’t mind-blowing: just 29 points and nine rebounds through three quarters. But he dominated the proceedings in every conceivable way. You never forgot he was out there, not for a second. He made the correct basketball decision every time, even something as simple as “I should push the pace right here” or “I’m just gonna assume that Norris Cole is in the left corner even if I can’t see him, so I’m going to throw a 50-foot pass over my head to that spot and hope he catches it.” He didn’t waste an ounce of energy. Over everything else, his efficiency was positively eerie.

During the third quarter, I texted a friend that “this was an all-time non-signature signature game, he’s made like 13 incredible plays.” Almost on cue, the man made two more, including an insane full-court push that finished with a reverse dunk in traffic. Like Magic before him, LeBron loves playing at home — loves seeing the arena covered in white, loves looking out at the fans after big plays, loves stomping around and screaming and feeding off the noise. He’s been great at basketball for years and years, but now he’d figured out the sport itself. He reached that final level. This was art. This was genius plus performance.

In an underrated movie called Six Degrees of Separation, Will Smith plays a scam artist who infiltrates the lives of four different wealthy families in Manhattan. He insists on cooking dinner for one of those families and makes them an amazing meal. Later, when the wife (played by Stockard Channing) is trying to convince Smith’s character to give himself up to police, he remembers that dinner and says it was the greatest night of his life.

You guys let me use all the best parts of me, he tells her.

That’s how I felt about LeBron in Game 4 of that Indy series. It took him years and years to harness his incredible gifts. He couldn’t do it in Cleveland because his teammates weren’t good enough. He couldn’t do it that first Miami year because Wade needed the steering wheel, too. The next two seasons featured a sometimes rocky transition, with Wade gradually getting comfortable in the passenger’s seat as LeBron figured out how to drive. They peaked during that 27-game winning streak, one of the best achievements in NBA history, with a second title coming three months later. In their fourth season, they fought off Father Time while — seemingly — mastering that dangerous on-off switch.

But as long as LeBron could keep cooking those Will Smith meals, Miami would be fine. Or so we thought. His Game 4 meal was a thing of beauty. He brought out the Magic course, the Jordan course and the Pippen course, even throwing in Bird and Barkley appetizers for good measure. He dismantled the Pacers like Floyd Mayweather would pick apart some clumsy welterweight. When Paul George blamed the officials afterward, that’s when I knew the Pacers were done — if their best player couldn’t realize what had happened, they didn’t have a chance. It wasn’t that LeBron beat them on his best night; he beat them in a way that could be replicated every night. Huge difference.

Who could have guessed that LeBron had only seven Miami games left? At the time, I thought their gamble to keep resting Wade at the expense of LeBron — which I never agreed with — was improbably paying off. I thought they were headed for a three-peat. I thought LeBron was never leaving Miami. I couldn’t see the things that he saw.

I watched Game 4 from our NBA Countdown set, sitting on the metal steps, and at one point, I emailed an NBA Entertainment friend asking if their photographer could snap a picture. I thought it could be a cool photo — me wearing a blue suit, surrounded by happy Heat fans dressed in white, the Celtics fan trapped in enemy territory, all of us watching someone at the peak of their powers. I just wanted to have it for 30 years from now. I know that sounds sappy, but that’s how I felt.

The truth is, I didn’t know when this would be happening again. And I still don’t.

Magic and Bird were done before I graduated college. Jordan came and went before I turned 30. Duncan, Kobe, Hakeem and Shaq never quite got there — all of them were great, but they were never GREAT. Durant might be a magnificent scorer and an even better teammate, but it’s hard to imagine him getting to that last level. After him, you’re looking at Anthony Davis — someone with an infinitely better chance of becoming the next Duncan than a basketball genius — and there’s nobody on the immediate horizon. This might be it for a while.

So yeah, I wanted a picture. Shoot me. I was there for Larry. I was there for Magic. I was there for Michael. And I was there for LeBron James. Now he’s bringing his genius back to Cleveland. It’s the right move at the right time for the right guy. This will be fun.  

Filed Under: NBA, Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Lebron James, LeBron James Free Agency, 2014 NBA Free Agency

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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