07/12/2014 01:13 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2014

The Prodigal Son


This is and isn't about LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This is about a man growing up and breaking free.

To understand the magnitude of LeBron's decision, we need to examine the Decision. Through the free agency period of 2010, LeBron James embraced the attention and fell in love with the spectacle. Ultimately, in a 75-minute TV special, James announced he was leaving Cleveland to sign with fellow All-Stars and 2003 draftees Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.

And the world erupted, betrayed. LeBron was supposed to lead his Cavaliers into clash after clash versus Wade's Heat, a la Magic Johnson and Larry Bird or even Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant. Past legends announced their disapproval, blustering how they would never have joined their rivals.

But we forget the paradox of LeBron James: the last high school-to-NBA prodigy, and the first Twitter-era superstar. No one before had to face a 24/7 spotlight. No one was signed by Nike to a seven-year, $93 million shoe deal before playing a minute of collegiate or pro basketball.

No one was the heir apparent to Jordan despite playing like Magic. We blame him for going AWOL, but the fact remains that no one asked LeBron who he wanted to be. Somehow, we remain astonished that LeBron tried to make people happy, believing that the role carved out for him was his destiny.

He had to leave, to grow up and realize that he is one of the best players ever, with a unique combination of astonishing speed, strength, vision and fire, all piloted by a chess player's mind. He is a battering ram on ice skates, a gale-force wind with the feet of a dancer. The problem was, to the eternal delight of any fan with the bravado of anonymity, he forgot that. He allowed the shrieking to drown out the fact that all he had to do, all he ever had to do, was win. He slipped, reaching his nadir in the 2011 loss to the Dallas Mavericks just when the haters were howling like monkeys, rattling the bars and foaming at the mouth.

And that's when LeBron hit mute on the world.

Before, the joy he displayed was a weapon, to be held gingerly and with reverence. He loved being Cleveland's treasured son, and so he played the part. He joked too much and won too little.

Now, rings in hand and demons exorcised, there is a different joy -- a joy in purpose. LeBron James plays with the quiet self-assurance of a man who treats his craft as sanctuary, not theater. He will still unleash rim-rattling dunks, hurl passes that bend the laws of geometry, but these are expressions of an artist where before they were outbursts of an actor. He no longer plays for the lights; he plays for the game.

He suits up not to lift us, but to fly.

He finally understands he is singular, and he is special.

And that's why I never really believed it would be as easy as people assumed for the Miami Heat to retain the services of LeBron James. He let others dictate his 2010 free agency. Dwyane Wade tipped off Heat president Pat Riley that James could be pried away on promises and bling. His friend and business partner Maverick Carter told him to use the Decision to raise money for charity.

Pat Riley promised him he would be Magic. He wouldn't have to score nor carry the team.

But LeBron mastered himself. He sat down at season's end and remembered leading Miami in scoring all four years. He remembered playing the most minutes on his team every year -- a lead that only increased annually. He remembered believing Heat owner Micky Arison would spare no expense, and then bidding farewell to key contributor Mike Miller for purely monetary purposes. He remembered the promises, both fulfilled and broken.

Pat Riley delivered an unhinged press conference this offseason in which he challenged his stars to stay in Miami, if they "had the guts". He preached loyalty and patience -- two virtues he talked LeBron out of practicing in leaving Cleveland. I wondered if Riley saw a team that would collapse without LeBron James.

2010 LeBron James would have been grateful to Riley, enough to overlook the fact that he was never Magic, overlook the financial reality of two expensive and insufficient co-stars, overlook how this Heat team was embarrassed in the Finals. He would overlook the broken promises. But that boy was gone.

In LeBron James's thoughtful, honest and elegant essay, he shows a degree of personal growth matching the maturation in his game. He was a kid four years ago who needed a place to grow, needed to realize he owed nothing to anyone, and that there were many fans who felt privileged to watch him.

He says he knows Cleveland probably won't win a championship, and that's okay. He says that what he left behind in Ohio was bigger than basketball, although he needed to leave to realize it. The one word I most associate with LeBron James now is a word I never thought I would tag him with: serenity.

This summer, LeBron once again sat amidst promises and optimism, and felt threads of possibility run through his fingers. He remembered the ones fulfilled, remembered the ones broken.

He knows now that for every moment of harmonic resonance a championship roster exhibits, there will be catastrophic missteps. He knows no vision for him will come exactly as promised. For every 2013, a season which his Heat reeled off a 27-game winning streak en route to defending their title, there will be a 2014, a season in which his team staggered through the regular season before getting run over.

And so LeBron opted for something he was far too young to understand four years ago. He chose to give himself to something bigger than the game.

Because no matter how far we wander astray, we can always go home.