“We had five great years together and one terrible night,” Gilbert told James, and so started the process of reconciliation on Sunday night in Miami. “I told him how sorry I was, expressed regret for how that night went and how I let all the emotion and passion for the situation carry me away. I told him I wish I had never done it, that I wish I could take it back.”

Sound familiar?

The relationship between LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers is not unlike a marriage. Four years after taking “his talents to South Beach” and crushing the collective heart of Cleveland, LeBron is coming home. What would The Gottman Institute say about the complicated, off-and-on romance between the NBA superstar and NBA franchise? We will analyze their relationship – through the lens of Gottman research – to explain how to overcome a betrayal and rebuild trust.

Marriage #1 (2003-2010)

According to Dr. Gottman, one of the best predictors of a couple’s future is how they view their past. Let’s start from the beginning. When the Cavaliers selected LeBron James as the first overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, the city of Cleveland had already fallen in love with “The Chosen One” from nearby Akron, Ohio. According to author Ryan Jones, James left high school as “the most hyped basketball player ever.”

The relationship between the hometown kid and the Cavaliers flourished as James took the team to the NBA finals in 2006 and won back-to-back MVP awards in 2009-2010. He tossed chalk, adorned larger-than-life billboards, and organized regular charity events in the Cleveland-Akron area. He was “King James,” Cleveland’s homegrown superstar.

However, James failed to deliver a championship to the city and faced heavy criticism for his poor shooting and costly turnovers, especially late in games. He became an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2010.

The Betrayal (2010)

Everything changed the night of July 8, 2010. On a nationally broadcasted television special dubbed The Decision, Lebron James announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach and the Miami Heat.” The public breakup was a devastating emotional blow to the city of Cleveland. According to the AP, fans “could not understand why James, Akron born and bred, would embarrass the people who say they loved him most.”

Within an hour, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert published an angry letter on the team’s website to reassure the fanbase. In it, he mocked the “King” and his nicknames, referred to his leaving as a “shocking act of disloyalty” and “cowardly betrayal,” and promised Cleveland would win a championship before James did. Fans burned his number 23 jersey on national television and greeted him with venom in his first game back the following season. It wasn’t pretty. However, James did not retaliate. “I have the utmost respect for this franchise, the utmost respect for these fans,” he told reporters after the game.

The Other Team (2010-2014)

James would go on to win an NBA Championship in his second season with the Miami Heat while the Cavaliers went 40-108 in their first two seasons without him. James and Gilbert did not speak. “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,” Gilbert later told USA Today. James would take Miami to the NBA Finals for four consecutive years, winning back-to-back MVP Awards and NBA Championships in 2012-2013. While the Cavaliers floundered in mediocrity, LeBron James became the most successful basketball player on the planet.

After losing the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs earlier this year, James opted out of his contract with the Heat on June 25 and became an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Rumors began to swirl that the Akron native was considering a return to his hometown. Would he get back together with the team that he had broken up with? If so, how would he be received by the fanbase that he betrayed?

Marriage #2 (2014 – current)

On July 11, James shocked the sports world by publishing a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated. In it, he revealed his intentions to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now,” he explained. If he had to do it all over again, yes he still would have left, but he would have done things differently. He addressed Gilbert’s letter, the booing of the Cleveland fans, and the burning jerseys. “My emotions were mixed… Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?” King James was coming home.

In an exclusive interview with USA Today, Gilbert explained his first meeting with James, a scene Mitch Albom described as “every guy seeing his ex-wife after the divorce.” The two had not spoken in four years. According to Gilbert, “The first thing I said to him was, ‘LeBron, 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.’”

“On this planet,” Gilbert said, “there is no perfection. If you chose to end relationships because of one mistake, you’re going to be alone.”

The Future

Will it be possible for both parties to regain trust in one another? As Dr. Gottman explains in What Makes Love Last?, our system for healing after a betrayal is based on over 40 years of scientific research and clinical experience. The Gottman Trust Revival Method has three phases.

Phase 1: Atone
Rebuilding cannot begin without the betrayer’s expression of remorse, even in the face of profound skepticism. This is the confession. However, confession is not enough. The commitment to honesty must extend into the present. This is the verification. Then, both partners need to grasp why betrayal occurred in their relationship in the first place. This is understanding. The betrayed partner needs a clear explanation of why the deceiver wants back in. If the reason isn’t made clear, the partner will remain wary that the new commitment will be short-lived. It is then that the betrayed partner can begin to forgive, the last step in the atonement phase.

LeBron James’ essay in Sports Illustrated addresses all steps of the atonement phase. Why did he leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat? “I was on a mission. I was seeking championships, and we won two.” Why does he want back in? “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” Dan Gilbert has forgiven James. The city of Cleveland should, too.

Phase 2: Attune
After the couple emerges from the atonement phase with tentative forgiveness, they come together to build a new relationship. This is attunement. As part of this new commitment to each other, the couple goes public with the “new normal” in their relationship. Getting the word out helps to establish this new relationship as “real” and garners support from the people who are closest to them. It is important that the betrayer refuses “CL – ALT,” which stands for “comparison level for alternatives.” Couples must relearn how to handle conflict so that it doesn’t overwhelm them. For this purpose, we use the Gottman-Rapoport Blueprint and the Aftermath of a Fight Intervention from Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

James and the Cavaliers are currently in the Attune phase. While they are primed to regain trust in one another following the Atone phase, their “new” relationship has not yet begun. There is still work to be done.

Phase 3: Attach
Following the Attune phase, couples can complete the Gottman Trust Revival Method by expressing fondness and admiration, using rituals of connection, and turning towards one another. This is attachment. The couple builds a “new” shared meaning system so that forgiveness has existential meaning to each partner. If there are remaining gridlocked conflicts, we use the Dreams Within Conflict Intervention from Gottman Method Couples Therapy.

The success of the Attune phase will determine the success of the Attach phase. Once James and the Cavaliers begin their “new” relationship this season, will they be able to create a “new” shared meaning system? Time will tell, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if James brought home an NBA Championship to the city of Cleveland.

Sources:

Albom, Mitch. “Dan Gilbert Tells How He and LeBron James Mended Fences.” USA Today Sports. 13 July 2014.

Gottman, John M., and Nan Silver. What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

James, LeBron. “I’m Coming Home.” SI.com. 11 July 2014.

Reynolds, Tim. “Reunion? LeBron James’ Relationship with Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert Could Be Homecoming Hurdle.” Fox News. 07 July 2014.

Wojnarowski, Adrian. “How LeBron James Forgave Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert and Returned to Cleveland.” Yahoo Sports. 11 July 2014.


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The Relationship Between LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers

Michael Fulwiler is the Chief Marketing Officer of The Gottman Institute. He has a B.A. with Honors in English from the University of Washington. Outside of work, Michael is a baseball coach and cautiously optimistic Seattle Mariners fan.