LeBron James’ decision to return home and play for the Cleveland Cavaliers has ignited a new wave of belief that more superstars will follow suit. LeBron grew up in Akron and played seven years with the Cavs before jumping to the Miami Heat. Now everyone speculates on whether Kevin Durant might return to his home area and play for the Washington Wizards.
It made me wonder about NBA history. How often have superstars returned home? Of course, it’s a lot easier these days than in yesteryear, thanks to free agency. But even in the days before free agency, players could force trades. Basketball players long have had more power than their brothers in other sports.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar forced a trade from Milwaukee — but to the Lakers, not his hometown Knickerbockers. Moses Malone floated all over the globe, from Utah to St. Louis to Buffalo to Houston to Philadelphia before finally landing in Washington, two hours from his hometown Petersburg, Va., at age 31. He played two years and jumped to the Hawks as a free agent. Kobe Bryant has remained a Laker, with no interest in going to Philadelphia, where he went to high school.
I went through the list of the NBA’s greatest 50 players, plus great players since that list was produced about 15 years ago.
* Nate Archibald grew up in New York and in 1976 was traded to the New York Nets by the Kansas City Kings. But the Nets traded Archibald to Buffalo the next year.
* Paul Arizin grew up in greater Philadelphia, played college at LaSalle and went to the Philly Warriors in the territorial draft. He played in Philadelphia his entire career.
* Rick Barry grew up in New Jersey and was traded to the New York Nets in 1970 in the old ABA, in which players moved frequently.
* Elgin Baylor grew up in Washington, D.C. He was a career Laker.
* Dave Bing grew up in D.C. and was traded by the Pistons to the Washington Bullets in 1975 at age 31.
* Larry Bird grew up in French Lick, Ind. A Celtic all the way.
* Wilt Chamberlain grew up in Philadelphia and was taken by the Warriors with a territorial draft selection. Wilt went with the Warriors to San Francisco in 1962 but was traded back to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1965. The Sixers shipped Wilt to the Lakers in 1968.
* Bob Cousy grew up in New York but was a Celtic his entire career except a seven-game stint with the Cincinnati Royals at age 41.
* Billy Cunningham grew up in New York but was a 76er his entire career except two seasons with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars.
* Dave DeBusschere was drafted by his hometown Pistons in 1962, then was traded to the Knicks in 1968.
* Clyde Drexler grew up in Houston, was drafted by the Trailblazers but was traded to the Houston Rockets in 1995 at age 32.
* Julius Erving grew up on Long Island and was sold to the New York Nets after two years with the Virginia Squires. The Nets eventually sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers.
* Patrick Ewing grew up in greater Boston but never made it to the Celtics. He was a Knick until age 38, when he jumped first to Seattle and then to Orlando.
* Walt Frazier grew up in Atlanta, played his first 10 NBA seasons with the Knicks and then was sent to … Cleveland.
* George Gervin grew up in Detroit but was Mr. San Antonio Spur. He played a little for the Virginia Squires and one season with the Chicago Bulls.
* Magic Johnson grew up in Michigan. Never made it the Pistons, though he played some epic series against Detroit.
* Jerry Lucas grew up in Middletown, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Royals took Lucas in the territorial draft, and Lucas starred for Cincy. He eventually was traded to the Warriors and the Knicks.
* George Mikan grew up in Chicago. He was a Minneapolis Laker star.
* Earl Monroe grew up in Philadelphia. He starred for the Baltimore Bullets and the Knicks. Never made it back to Philly.
* Shaquille O’Neal was an Army brat but graduated high school in San Antonio. He staged a tour of NBA contenders — Orlando, LA, Miami, Phoenix, Cleveland, Boston — but never played with the Spurs.
* David Robinson grew up in D.C. Landed in San Antonio and still hasn’t left.
* Bill Russell grew up in Oakland and was a career Celtic.
* Dolph Schayes grew up in New York City; he played for the Syracuse Nationals until they moved to Philadelphia and he played one year with the 76ers.
* Isiah Thomas grew up in Chicago. A Piston all the way.
* Nate Thurmond grew up in Akron; he was the greatest Akronite of all time until LeBron came along. Thurmond spent 11 years with the Warriors, then was traded to the Bulls for two years and finally, at age 34, to his hometown Cavaliers for two seasons.
* Lenny Wilkens grew up in New York and became a star in St. Louis and Seattle. He finished out his career in Cleveland and Portland. Wilkens coached 33 seasons; the final two seasons were with the Knicks, if that counts.
* Kevin Garnett grew up in Chicago. He’s been a Timberwolf, a Celtic and now a Net.
* Paul Pierce grew up in Los Angeles. He’s been a Celtic, a Net and now a Wizard.
* Gary Payton grew up in Oakland. He was a long-time Sonic and finished out his career with Milwaukee, the Lakers, Boston and Miami.
* Reggie Miller grew up in Riverside, Calif., just outside LA. He spent 18 seasons as a Pacer.
So the data is small on NBA stars who want to get home. It hasn’t happened often. LeBron and Wilt Chamberlain, and Wilt never expressed any great sentimental feelings about a homecoming. The 76ers just offered the best situation.
It’s possible that LeBron will start a new fad. But that’s what it would be. A new fad.