LeBron James has decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Sports Illustrated, a move that will not only shake up the NBA, but could increase the fortunes of the basketball team’s hometown.
James, who was born in Akron, Ohio, made the controversial decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010. The NBA All-Star’s choice infuriated fans and caused substantial damage to the team’s revenue -- and, by extension, to the city itself.
According to a 2010 report, LeBron’s departure cost downtown businesses about $48 million for the season and upwards of $150 million in potential playoff dollars, while Forbes put his value to the team at $100 million. After he left for Miami, attendance at Quicken Loans Arena dropped from second in the league to 19th in 2012, according to ESPN.
During his seven-year tenure with the Cavaliers, James was able to lead the team to one NBA Finals appearance, where they were swept by the more experienced San Antonio Spurs.
The general consensus among basketball fans has been that the Cavaliers franchise never made enough of an effort to surround James with stronger support to make consistent runs at a title.
James has helped lead the Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances, alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, with back-to-back championship victories in 2012 and 2013. Forbes estimates that during his time in Miami, the NBA superstar doubled the value of that franchise.
However, the impact on the economy outside of the stadium’s radius is far murkier. Although the Cavaliers franchise undeniably took a hit when James left, the surrounding community has remained resilient and maintained a sense of gallows humor in the face of economic instability.
"We haven’t suffered as much as ESPN would have you believe," Rob Shoens, a local tavern manager, told the Huffington Post in 2012. "We saw a hit in business after LeBron left, especially that first year when the Cavs were in the toilet, but we saw true Cavs fans come out. When LeBron was here it was a spectacle, with businesses taking groups -- now you're seeing the true Cavs fans."
The return of LeBron James coincides with news that the Republican Party will be holding its 2016 presidential convention in the city as well. Both events are expected to generate money for the local economy. Ironically, if LeBron leads the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2016 it may conflict with the scheduling of the GOP convention.
The unemployment rate in Ohio recently dropped to 5.5%, slightly below the national average. In Cleveland the jobless rate hovers around 9%.
Rev. Jesse Jackson later suggested Gilbert was treating James like a "runaway slave."
James is expected to sign a maximum free agent contract. He is coming off another strong season with the Heat that ended badly with a 4-to-1 series defeat, again at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs.
Cleveland fans are apparently willing to forgive and forget, as savvy marketers are already selling “Forgiven” memorabilia online. The city hasn’t enjoyed a championship victory since the Browns won a pre-Super Bowl football title in 1964.
"When I left Cleveland, I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two. But Miami already knew that feeling. Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time," James told Sports Illustrated. "My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio."
“He got himself two rings; he explored the world. Good for him,” Melvin Orr, a Cleveland-based barber told The New York Times. “He’s in a business. If he comes back here, that’s a pretty great story, isn’t it?”
At Friday's White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest said that while he hasn't spoken to President Barack Obama directly about James' move, the president is a "big fan of LeBron's" and considers his return to Cleveland "a powerful statement about the value of the place you consider home."