LeBron James sets tone for Cavaliers, and Cleveland, with leadership

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Marc J. Spears
LeBron James sets tone for Cavaliers, and Cleveland, with leadership
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CLEVELAND – Prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers' first practice of the preseason, LeBron James surprised his teammates by telling them to join him in a meeting room. New coach David Blatt was anxious to get practice started, but gave James his blessing to have the players-only meeting before a ball was bounced. For about the next 30 minutes, James told every player from fellow All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to the guys just hoping to make the team what was expected during the upcoming season.

"I was looking like, 'Wow.' That's crazy that he broke down every individual thing he wants guys to do," Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters told Yahoo Sports. "He wrote down every player from the guy in training camp who may be here or may not be here. …It was unbelievable. It was great."

Said Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao: "He used to talk individually to the players before, but not like that."

Four years ago, James broke Cleveland's heart by using a TV special to announce he was departing to the Miami Heat. James' fans in Cleveland instantly despised him, with some burning his jersey and cursing him. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert even sent his fans a famous angry e-mail laden in shots at James with a prediction that he wouldn't win a title before his old team.

James caused more disdain by proclaiming upon arrival in Miami that he and fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would win several championships.

LeBron James returns to Cleveland with championship experience. (USA Today)
LeBron James returns to Cleveland with championship experience. (USA Today)

"No one breaks up with their girlfriend by telling the kids at the high school over the loudspeaker," long-time Akron mayor Donald L. Plusquellic told Yahoo Sports. "Sports fans are in love with their favorite players like they are in love with their high school girlfriend. You don't do it over the loud speaker.

"I've been in sports bars and got in arguments with people. I got a lot of [expletive] over LeBron."

No one questioned whether James was the world's best basketball player four years ago. But Varejao, the lone remaining Cavalier who played with James during his first Cleveland tenure, said he still had a lot of growing up to do at that time.

"Back then, I'm not saying he was a bad leader, but he had some ups and downs with that," Varejao said.

From 2003-10 with the Cavaliers, James' highlights included one NBA Finals appearance that resulted in a sweep by the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. The big-name players that James played with in Cleveland were primarily either aging like Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Antawn Jamison or injury-prone like Larry Hughes. Former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown believes the lack of true co-stars hurt James' growth in Cleveland – and his title hopes.

"LeBron had never been in a team situation with that many [talented] guys [in Cleveland]," Brown told Yahoo Sports. "For the most part, his second-best player was Mo Williams who was an All-Star one year and he was an alternate selection that year. To be around guys who have won championships and won on an international level would have helped accelerate the process."

In Miami, James was able to learn from a franchise familiar with success.

Heat president Pat Riley, who won five NBA titles as a coach and one as a player, was always around to give advice. Wade was the NBA Finals' MVP in 2006 when the Heat won their first title. Forward Udonis Haslem also was a member of the 2006 champion Heat. Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning was available to listen to players.

"The thing about the Miami situation is a lot of guys that you're going to need and count on had been through a lot [tough] situations," said Cleveland guard Mike Miller, who played for the Heat from 2010-13. "D-Wade actually won a championship prior to that. They actually knew what it took. They had Udonis. C.B. had played in the playoffs before."

The Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals in the first season with James, but won titles the next two. Despite the Heat's defeat to the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals, James had already earned respect as a two-time champion and regained his perch as a fan favorite.

"Hopefully, the pitfalls are less to the ultimate goal," James said. "But it has to happen. You have to go through tough times in order to know how to approach it the next time."

Without James, the Cavaliers didn't make the playoffs the past four years and averaged only 24.2 wins per season. The only thing Cleveland did succeed in was earning the dubious distinction of winning the NBA's draft lottery three of the past four years.

Through all the losing, Varejao still kept the faith that James would come back to Cleveland.

"I thought he was coming back one day because he's from here," Varejao said. "He's from Akron. He's from Cleveland. I thought would be back one day, but I wasn't sure it was now or later."

James' return to Cleveland seemed like a long shot because of the bad blood from his departure and Miami's four straight Finals appearances. But on July 11, James announced he was indeed heading home.

Said one NBA general manager: "You got to have to be a real [expletive] to leave a franchise after you make it to four NBA Finals."

James decided to return to the Cavs after meeting with Gilbert and forgiving him for his incendiary email from four years earlier. He signed a two-year, $42 million contract that gives him the option of becoming a free agent after this season, but has said he's committed to Cleveland for the long-term.

"How did I forgive? I'm a man," James said. "We all make mistakes. As a man, if you got a problem with somebody, you sit down face to face and you talk to them eye to eye. And you hash it out and move on. A lot of things that go on in life or in sports with people kind of holding grudges are because they're afraid to actually take a step forward.

"It's a fine line between pride and progress. And I'm on the progress side. I'm not on the pride side."

Said James' agent, Rich Paul: "You can't do business with a grudge about anything."

LeRoy Brooks, a professor of finance at the Boler School of Business at nearby John Carroll University, expects a revenue increase in Cleveland of nearly $500 million because of James' return based on expected increases in season-ticket sales, downtown business success, out-of-town visitors and new jobs. Because of the high demand of tickets, the Cavs have initiated an online lottery giving fans the opportunity to be randomly selected to purchase tickets to home games. The local downtown businesses can't wait for the 41 regular-season home games and playoffs to bring in a greater influx of patrons.

"When he was gone, we didn't do anything before Cavaliers games," said John Kassimatis, the bar manager of a downtown Cleveland restaurant called Chinato. "We still did a little bit of cash business because we were close to the arena. But nothing compared to when he was here."

James' return to Cleveland has a lot of people smiling. (AP)
James' return to Cleveland has a lot of people smiling. (AP)

James got a good laugh at the financial projections.

"Usually those types of numbers are fabricated," James said with a smile. "That's the first thing I hear. The second thought is if I can help people financially, or whatever the case, with me coming back. It's great to be back home. If me coming back as a role model or whatever, me just coming back, can help businesses or people that are trying to make things happen, then that's great for them."

There is an old perception that James wasn't comfortable trying to recruit marquee players to come to Cleveland during his first tenure because he was afraid of how he would be perceived if they declined. James said he simply had a hard time convincing anyone to come to Cleveland. Hughes signed with Cavs, but he could never stay healthy.

"I recruited [before] I left here," James said. "I just didn't win nothing so nobody wanted to come with me. I recruited. I recruited Michael Redd. I recruited Joe Johnson. I recruited Chris Bosh. I recruited a lot of guys. I just didn't win. They didn't want to come to Cleveland."

Once this past free agency began, the Cavaliers told Paul they were interested in adding Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves via trade and three of James' old Heat teammates in Ray Allen, Miller and James Jones, as well as Shawn Marion, in free agency. James liked all of those ideas behind the scenes. Irving also immediately agreed to a new contract extension with the Cavs.

As soon as James committed to return, he immediately recruited Love, Miller, Jones, Marion and Allen, who has yet to decide whether he's going to play this season. James' sales pitch: "It was nothing really," he said. "Either you want to play here or you don't."

Love and Irving share a major responsibility in the Cavaliers' run for a title, but neither has played in the playoffs. James knows he will be the hero or the goat depending on what happens.

"From Day One, LeBron has taken it upon himself to lead the team in voice and example," Blatt said. "LeBron talks the talk, but he walks the walk. That's what you want from your leader."

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