You shouldn’t be known for the worst thing you ever did. As Dan Gilbert flew in a private plane to meet LeBron James last Sunday, he made notes about things to say, things he had been thinking about for four years, since the night James announced on national TV he was leaving Gilbert’s Cleveland Cavaliers and taking “my talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.
Gilbert had watched this in Sun Valley, Idaho, then dashed to a computer and – “in about 45 minutes” – banged out an angry letter meant to reassure the fans. In it, he mocked the “King” and his nicknames, referred to his leaving as a “cowardly betrayal” and promised Cleveland would win a championship before James did.
“There were a couple of people who tried to talk me out of it,” Gilbert tells me via phone from California. “Frankly, I didn’t put it in front of enough people. It was boom-boom, put it up. That’s something I’ve learned. When you’re in an emotional state – wait.”
That letter came to define Gilbert as a basketball owner. (“If you Google me, it’s the first thing that comes up.”) He regretted it not long after he’d written it, but in the Internet world “posted” means “forever.”
He pondered that as the plane descended into Florida. He and James hadn’t spoken since that night. Four years. They’d seen each other a few times. “I’d sit on the baseline when he came back to play in Cleveland. He’d look at me from the free-throw line. Not good. Not bad. Just look.”
Now he was scheduled to meet James, in secret, to discuss what seemed impossible just days earlier – a return to the Cavs. The whole world was hanging on the news. But as Gilbert glanced out the window, for a moment he wasn’t a billionaire Detroit businessman or an NBA owner. He was every guy seeing his ex-wife after the divorce, every teen guitarist seeing a former friend who broke up the band.
“I had told LeBron’s guys, whether he comes back or not, I really want to clear the air. It shouldn’t be like this.”
He hoped that part would go smoothly. Then someone on board yelled the media had discovered his plane was en route, and a new airport had to be quickly found.
Gilbert realized nothing was going to be easy.
The moment of truth
But then, saying you’re sorry never is. You do it anyway. Long after the basketball smoke clears from this story, that’s the human part we ought to remember.
You shouldn’t be known for the worst thing you ever did. Gilbert entered that private home meeting by himself, no assistants, and sat down at a dining-room table across from James and a few associates.
“First thing I said to him was, ÃÂLeBron, you know this is true. We had five good years and one bad night. Like a marriage that’s good and then one bad thing happens and you never talk to each other again.
“ÃÂI’m just glad we’re here, whether you come or not, LeBron. This has been hanging over my head.'”
To his surprise, he soon heard James saying the same thing. The superstar said he regretted the infamous “The Decision” broadcast. He said he didn’t think it out properly. In short, many of the things Gilbert was thinking about his own actions.
“I apologized and we talked and it took maybe 15 or 20 minutes. That’s it. Then I said, ÃÂIs that enough about the past?’ And we started talking about the future.”
The new decision
Gilbert shook James’ hand warmly at the end (“It’s hard to hug a guy a foot taller than you”) and left not knowing whether King James would play for him or not. But he was suddenly lighter.
“It really is an incredible relief. You can do 999 out of 1,000 things right, and the one wrong thing is who you become. It was a burden. But I couldn’t blame anybody else.”
He admits writing the Cavs would win an NBA title before James “was stupid. How could I be so dumb as to write that?”
He also says that, contrary to many reports, the Cavs took his letter down from their website after a few weeks, but people were able to find it through “some nba.com route. I didn’t even know until last week.”
Suddenly, it didn’t matter as much. The elephant was off his chest. It wasn’t until five days later, Friday morning, that he got the call that LeBron said yes. He would play for the Cavs again. It was considerable icing on an already sweet cake.
“It makes a lot of sense for who he is and his life story,” Gilbert says. He remains perplexed by people who are posting vitriolic comments – hating him, hating James. “If we’re not mad at each other, why are they?” he asks.
But he realizes things are said in anger, and on the Internet they smolder long after the writer has cooled down. Sure, this deal is about sports and money – it’s good for both parties – but there is also a lesson about forgiving and forgetting.
“On this planet,” Gilbert says, “there is no perfection. If you chose to end relationships because of one mistake, you’re going to be alone.”
He and James both realized that.
Which is why they’re back together.