When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach in free agency back in the summer of 2010, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wasted no time in responding. Using language that was reminiscent of something a zealous fan might post on his favorite online message board, Gilbert’s infamous open letter made him look small, the organization weak and served no purpose in trying to move forward after LeBron had left them behind.
“I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE”
You can take it to the bank.
It didn’t just stop there, either. Gilbert, a man who has built his empire off of making business deals that not everybody necessarily approved of in the process, took James’ departure on a deeply personal level, displaying public emotion that we rarely see from the owner of a professional sports franchise.
This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown (sic) “chosen one” sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And “who” we would want them to grow-up to become.
During the four seasons LeBron spent in Miami with the Heat, he won his first two championships, made it to the Finals every single year and matured as both a person and player in a way that was likely impossible to achieve had he remained in Cleveland. Now having returned to the Cavs with a restored kingdom of subjects and with the most talented roster he’s ever been a part of, Cleveland’s reinvention is as much about LeBron as it is about Gilbert.
When LeBron was again making his free agent decision during the summer of 2014, few believed a reunion between the two men was realistic. James had enjoyed a ton of success in Miami, played alongside two of his best friends in the game in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and had a team that had forever been about Wade become all about LeBron. What happened next is was the first critical step in Gilbert reinventing his reputation while simultaneously reclaiming LeBron.
James needed to change in order to make this work. A kid at the time he decided to move his personal party from frigid Cleveland to hot and humid Miami, there is a lot of logic in LeBron comparing his Heat tenure to a boy spending four years at college en route to becoming a man. James needed change in order to find a different perception, an appreciation for an environment he perhaps took for granted and a chance to grow on and off the floor. Maybe that’s why he was so willing to forgive the man—someone he still shares a close, personal relationship with—who had previously printed words about him no one else dared to speak.
Gilbert apologized profusely for his passion and tried to explain to James how or why he authored those hurtful words, but LeBron wasn’t all that interested in hearing it. Instead, James too apologized for how he handled “The Decision,” and cited how past mistakes shouldn’t be the sole influencer of future decisions. Explaining the real impact of the letter after LeBron had agreed to return, Gilbert summarized his actions in a way we had never heard (via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports).
“Do a Google search on me, and it’s the first thing that comes up. To a certain segment of society, it’s like somebody killed somebody, like somebody killed their kid. I told LeBron, ‘That letter didn’t hurt anybody more than it hurt me.’
Gilbert understood what that letter, designed to rally a desperate fan base that has an unbelievable thirst to win, actually wound up doing. We often wonder about how our own personal situations can be improved, and in the process we regularly lose sight of what should be valued on a regular basis. Gilbert reacted like any of us might upon losing their first love, and that’s an apt juxtaposition considering the Cavs’ owner had been married to LeBron since the day his franchise took the hometown kid with its first overall selection.
Now with a clear understanding of how fast the future can change, Gilbert is valuing the present like he’s never done prior. Having already locked up Kyrie Irving to a long-term max contract, the Cavs wasted no time in re-signing Kevin Love to a five-year maximum deal of his own. Iman Shumpert, acquired in a trade just last season, signed on for another four years and $40 million. J.R. Smith, despite opting out of his contract and gambling on himself in free agency, was brought back into the fold as a luxury rather than a necessity. After Matthew Dellavedova was exposed as Kyrie Irving’s backup last season, the team reunited with Mo Williams to bolster LeBron’s supporting cast. Richard Jefferson was added to provide both insurance and production Shawn Marion never could, and even Jared Cunningham—the 15th man on the roster and a training camp invite with a $947K deal—is going to stick on the team for now despite his contract adding another $3.8 million in luxury taxes to Gilbert’s payroll.
Oh, and have I mentioned that the Cavs eliminated their last remaining distraction, re-signing Tristan Thompson to an $82 million deal just a week before the season began? Cleveland may be used to the snow, but Gilbert has been making it rain all summer long.
Now with a loaded roster, aligned expectations and an owner who is reinventing his team as his own personal evolution continues, it’s good to be Dan Gilbert.
The man previously viewed as responsible for James’ departure is now celebrated for his return. Gilbert, previously mocked for his shortcomings as an owner, now has others wondering how he’s managed to become so successful. And with LeBron in his corner, a team that will be a perennial title favorite and a brand that seems incapable of being damaged, Gilbert just has one final hurdle remaining—winning an NBA title—before his reinvention is deemed complete.