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Volume 22 No. 32
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LeBron James 3.0: Why I saw this one coming

One of the more interesting themes emerging from the beginning of the new 2014-15 NBA season is the homecoming — a return to the familiar.

The NBA Bobcats are now history and the colorful Charlotte Hornets have returned to invoke fond memories of a winning era. But not even that development can compete with the four-year saga that brought LeBron James back to the familiar wine-tinted colors of his hometown region Cleveland Cavaliers.

For good, almost Biblical, reasons his return to Cleveland from a successful Miami Heat championship sabbatical is one of the most compelling story lines in all of sports. We all recall seeing the smoldering embers of burned James jerseys filling the air after ESPN aired “The Decision,” which confirmed he was taking his talents elsewhere.

That same summer of 2010, Ebony magazine asked me to analyze the efficacy of James’ championship ambitions with Miami and speculate into the future of the then-ringless but supremely talented athlete. While respected by some as a sports business executive and strategist, no
{podcast}

SBJ Podcast:
NBA writer John Lombardo and Assistant Managing Editor Tom Stinson discuss how the Cavs are handling LeBron James' return from a business perspective, as well as how the NBA's new breed of GM could change the game.

one ever became wealthy listening to my prognostication of sporting events or the stock market.

However, using a combination of analysis and pure instinct brought me to the published conclusion — nearly four years in advance — that his decision not only would lead to Heat championships but also a likely return to the Cavaliers following free agency to attempt to replicate such success back at home. Interestingly, many of the same metrics I used to defend his earlier Miami signing are still valid for his triumphant return to Cleveland as this new season begins:

Championships do matter

The return to Cleveland was a business decision that could establish the course of James’ life for years to come.
Photo by: NBAE / Getty Images

Two Heat championship rings out of four NBA Finals appearances is a laudable achievement in a complex team sport when obtaining even one title is hard. Regardless of whether it is self-imposed competitiveness or silencing media critics, it is no secret James aspires to further solidify his place among the “Monument Men” of professional team sports such as Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and others. Fair or unfair, legendary players are judged by championships, not the size of their maximum contracts or endorsements. Just as it made sense to place himself in the best position with the maximum available talent in Miami (with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen) he is doing so now with teammates such as Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao, who possess both court skills and the unteachable “chemistry talents.”

Potential for injury, or the “ACL X-factor”

James has managed to stay healthy despite the consistent physical pounding he receives driving the lane. Four years ago, I mentioned the possibility of a career-ending, championship-foreclosing injury as a decision “X-factor” in perhaps not re-signing with a 2010 Cleveland franchise, which made his Miami championship ambitions more urgent. Again, any good businessperson anticipates risk. Like the Powerball lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play, and anytime he is on the floor, Cleveland’s chances of cutting down the victory nets exponentially increase. While also declining to play in international FIBA competition this year, James is a healthy, well-conditioned athlete who is also playing smarter fundamental basketball than ever before. This will allow him to extend his life on the court before inevitably retiring to an owner’s box, preferably his own rather than be a guest in someone else’s suite. More on this insight later.

Miami + Cleveland = Cleveland

The pain in LeBron-loyal Cleveland was understandable and palpable in 2010. Yet as stated four years ago, given his familial ties to the area and stated greater business ambitions, I always believed he would return to the Cleveland/Akron area. Just as the phrase “compassionate conservatism” is a clever descriptor, several conversations I have had with South Floridians could be summed up as “appreciative disappointment” for the excitement and rings of the LeBron/Big Three-era Heat.

If you are a viable brand like LeBron James with strong endorsement value, that is exactly where you would like to be in such circumstances.

Far too much speculation was heavily weighted toward him remaining in Miami with many mentions of ocean breezes and South Beach nightlife as a rationale for staying instead of sound business decision-making that could establish the course of his life for the next 15 years or more. The strategic and financial platform he is building with his savvy business team coupled with his basketball IQ also suggests that a return to Cleveland is possibly the precursor to future ownership of the Cavaliers franchise or elsewhere from an Ohio base camp.

As Forbes and sports business experts have estimated, James alone adds $100 million to $150 million to the Cavaliers franchise, maybe more once the Steve Ballmer valuation bounce is fully factored into all of the franchise price tags in the near future.

I am sure there are numerous passionate Clevelanders who never burned their LeBron jerseys (or figurative bridges) amid all the drama of 2010 and perhaps quietly went to the cupboard and obtained a gallon-sized Ziploc bag to preserve their treasure for a future day in anticipation of a return home.

As James announced plans to keep his familiar Cleveland number, those same fans wearing No. 23 will be richly rewarded when the pregame ritual chalk flies again in Quicken Loans Arena.

Regardless of where you go for necessary growth and success, remember this: You can always go home again.

Vada O. Manager is a former longtime Nike executive and currently serves on Fortune 500 corporate boards. He is the CEO of Manager Global Consulting Group and co-leads the Sports Business practice of APCO Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @VadaManager.