For four years, the letter had come to define Dan Gilbert, and the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to wash away the shame and embarrassment and guilt of it all. So Sunday, Gilbert sat down with LeBron James and his inner-circle and tried to absolve himself of a most wretched moment in time.
"We had five great years together and one terrible night," Gilbert told James, and so started the process of reconciliation on Sunday night in Miami. "I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back."
And soon, James told Gilbert that he wished he had never done "The Decision" on cable television and that they had made mistakes together, that they could move past it. From James and his agent Rich Paul and business manager Maverick Carter, the air of peace hung heavy in the South Florida air, the process of returning to Cleveland had begun in earnest. Soon, they had stopped talking about the past and talked about the possibility of a future together and for the first time – truly the first time – the possibility of reunification had become genuine.
"It was more comfortable than I actually thought it would be," Gilbert told Yahoo Sports on Friday afternoon. "They made it easy for me."
These had been Gilbert's first public words since agent Rich Paul called him moments before a public announcement, and said simply, "Dan, congratulations. LeBron's coming home."
Gilbert had flown down on his private jet on Sunday for the most important meeting of his billionaire business life. After obliterating James on the night of his departure for the Miami Heat four years ago, Gilbert had come back to make his pitch for the most improbable of partnerships: James and Gilbert, older and wiser, scarred in far different ways from sport's most spectacular falling-out.
James became branded by The Decision, and Gilbert became a hostage to his Letter. Only, James would win two titles in four years with the Heat, and winning washes everything away. Winning changes the story. The Cavaliers have lost a lot of games, made mistakes and then Gilbert started to understand something: For all his business genius, all his rebuilding of Detroit and charitable endeavors and everything he had done in his life, the letter had come to define him.
"Do a Google search on me, and it's the first thing that comes up," Gilbert told Yahoo Sports. "To a certain segment of society, it's like somebody killed somebody, like somebody killed their kid. I told LeBron, 'That letter didn't hurt anybody more than it hurt me.'
"For the first two months, I kept thousands of letters – not hundreds – thousands written to me. There were 90-year-old ladies and CEOs, and I realized that that letter had transcended the event, went far beyond LeBron. After a few months, I would re-read it and just be full of regret. That wasn't me, that wasn't who I am. I didn't mean most of the things I said in there. The venom it produced, from all sides … I wish … I wish I had never done it.
"I'm grateful that we all get another chance together now."
Three years ago, Gilbert says he "started to hear rumblings that this could be possible," that James had thoughts about someday making a return to the Cavaliers. "I went back and forth in my mind, thinking: Could this really happen? It was a volatile thing for years, and now that it's happened, I'm still in shock."
Gilbert couldn't stop talking about Paul and Carter, about how they were the conduits to make it all work again. "So professional with us through the whole process," Gilbert said. In the end, LeBron James wanted to come home, wanted to forgive, and there were these two figures, forever connected in history, sitting in Miami on Sunday and slowly, surely laying out a way it could all happen again.
LeBron James comes home a two-time champion, comes home with a chance to deliver something Dan Gilbert would've never imagined possible again: a chance for them to be champions together, a chance to wash away all the stain of a Scarlet Letter and The Decision, to get together older and wiser, and better understand how it can be made right again.
His cell phone buzzed on Friday afternoon, and Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, heard the words he could've never, ever imagined: LeBron's coming home.