-- CLEVELAND -- LeBron James has two championship rings. He has six MVP trophies, four Maurice Podoloff versions and two Bills Russells. He has two gold medals. He will be a Hall of Famer. He probably will be a billionaire. When the hard feelings fade, he will probably have his number retired by two franchises.
These are known quantities, victories claimed, achievements recognized. But it's what James doesn't have that brought him back home.
James wants to be a hero.
He always has wanted to be, but just didn't realize how badly until he tasted life as an antihero for a while.
They give heroes standing ovations and free drinks for life. They give heroes statues and name schools and streets after them.
That's what returning to Cleveland is about. There would be no greater currency in his career than to be able to win a title here in the land of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises. James will soon be 30, which makes him a full-fledged member of the lost generations of northeast Ohio sports fans. This fall you'll have to be 50 to have been alive for the last major title, the 1964 Browns, and probably about 60 to have remembered it.
Few days in James' life were as transformative as Dec. 2, 2010. That was his first game back in Cleveland after he signed with the Miami Heat. He knew it would be unpleasant. He knew they would boo him, chant at him and disparage him with signs. What he didn't know is that the emotion in the room would be palpable -- it weighted the air and pressed against the skin like a slap.
The fans came there that night to make James feel miserable, the natural human inclination of trying to return what he'd dished out to them. That's not exactly what happened. It wasn't hate that exuded; that was just the façade. It was pain. James will never forget the feeling in the arena that night. He's said it many times.
If he could cause such a strong negative reaction, just think of the power he had to create a positive one. That game did not define his career or even his time with the Heat, though he did score 38 points.
On Thursday night, Cleveland's season opener against the New York Knicks won't define his second Cavs career, either, but you can bet the collective hug Cleveland is about to give him will be just as memorable as that night almost four years ago.
Every hero needs a villain to defeat. In this case, James' villain is that pain. The portion he caused and the scar tissue beneath it that's filled with memories of near misses, bad luck and losses that go beyond games or seasons and include entire franchises. It's a cliché to say Cleveland's fans have suffered. The Browns left town, the Indians blew a Game 7 lead in the bottom of the ninth in the '97 World Series, and "The Decision" happened ... and that was just one 15-year span. Cities have losing streaks. Cleveland is in a heartbreak epoch.
James is about to start his 12th NBA season. He's closer to the end of his career than he is to the start. Coming back home was not a midcareer crisis. If the Heat had won the title last season, James would be in Miami this week hoping for a different piece of history, a scenario he has basically admitted.
However, he has reached the point where the idea of legacy is on his mind. There are numbers to chase and names to catch, and he will track them. But when he went on vacation with his family in July and started to make this wide-ranging choice, the pull to this task seemed greatest and perhaps most rewarding at this stage in his life.
When he came he offered no guarantees. In the days since his announcement, he's been more cautionary than anything, starting in the second half of the Sports Illustrated letter when he dropped the first of many "process" references. He has spent the preseason warning of coming adversities, showing both the maturity of a veteran and the wariness learned from some regrettable attitudes displayed in Miami.
But don't get lost in the light shows and cautionary verbiage. James came home to win his home a title.
Because he relates to these fans.
Because he wants to be accepted and loved by them.
Because it's the biggest challenge of his career.
The quest starts Thursday night.