Four years ago this week, workers tore down the iconic, 10-story-tall Lebron James Nike mural that had graced the side of the Landmark Office Tower in downtown Cleveland for most of the Cavaliers star’s tenure with the team. The transparent mural covered the window of my husband’s office in the building and he watched as a part of Cleveland history fell to the ground in heaps that day, along with the hopes of hundreds of thousands of Northeast Ohioans. A handful of diehard fans stood on the sidewalk below that day, snapping pictures of what they thought was the last glimpse of their hero on Cleveland soil. It was a terrible day after a terrible week. In the hours following James’ announcement that he was “taking his talents” to the Miami Heat, angry fans hurled rocks at the mural, which featured a triumphant James with his head thrown back and “We Are All Witnesses” emblazoned on it.
It’s an indisputable fact that James handled his departure poorly, sticking a thumb in the eyes of fans — who had supported him since he was a standout at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School — by turning “The Decision” into a national media event. It was tantamount to a high-profile Cleveland-shaming in the eyes of many fans, who burned #23 (and #6) jerseys in response, knowing that their hopes of a Cavaliers championship had just defected to Florida. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert wrote a scathing, emotional letter to Cavs fans that week (which was still on the team’s website until last week) calling James a “former hero” who had “betrayed” the team. Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and a major partner in several Ohio casinos, told fans at the time that they didn’t deserve James’ “cowardly betrayal.”
It was a painful episode in a long history of Cleveland sports disappointments. No Cleveland team has won a championship in half a century, not since the 1964 Browns won a (pre-Super Bowl) NFL title. The last time the Indians won a World Series was 1948 and the city has never won an NBA title. So perhaps it’s not difficult to understand, just a little, why LeBron found himself the repository of fifty years’ worth of pent-up frustration.
For the last two weeks Northeast Ohio has been on “LeBron Watch,” waiting for “The Next Decision.” On Thursday reporters and fans were camped outside his Bath Township mansion (just outside Akron, where LeBron has maintained a residence) after the media reported that an announcement was imminent. Fans and pundits speculated about factors the NBA star might be considering as he pondered his decision: money, family, roots, championship, legacy.
In the end, “The Next Decision” was subdued, an anti-event. Rather than holding court at another ESPN media circus, James released an essay to Sports Illustrated that expressed his reasons for deciding to return to Cleveland. After reading it, I’m inclined to be a little more sympathetic to his decision to leave and a bit more enthusiastic about his return.
In the essay, James explains,
Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, This is really tough. I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man.
First, I appreciate LeBron acknowledging that he flubbed his departure from the Cavs and (I’m assuming) saying that he wishes he would have rolled out the announcement differently. When James was in high school he sometimes talked about going to college instead of straight to the NBA — league rules allowed high school players to jump straight to the NBA in 2003 when James was drafted. The pressure (and the money waved at him) to go straight to the draft was surely overwhelming for the high school kid from the Akron projects, and so he never really left home. He moved to the Akron suburbs, a 15-minute drive from where he grew up, hanging out with the same kids he played basketball with in high school. It’s hard to begrudge a young man — even one who is wealthy beyond what most people can even imagine — the opportunity to make a name for himself away from his hometown.
LeBron also reminded us in his essay about his ongoing commitment to philanthropy in Akron, even after he left for Miami. The LeBron James Family Foundation has done a lot of good for the area and he regularly returns to participate in events for his foundation and on behalf of his former high school (a private Catholic school near downtown Akron), spending $1 million on a new gym recently. Though he took his talents to Miami, it seems that his heart remained in Akron in many ways.
James said in his essay that he always believed he’d return to Cleveland to finish his career. “After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought,” James said. “But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland.”
For the most part, James has been an excellent role model, somewhat of an anomaly in the thuggish culture of the NBA. He’s been with the same girl (now his wife and the mother of his children) since high school and has kept the same close circle of friends. He loves his mother and except for his bad habit of wearing a New York Yankees hat to Cleveland Indians games (an unpardonable sin in my book), he’s been a model citizen.
He acknowledged that the reaction of Cleveland fans and Gilbert’s letter were difficult for his wife and mother (who still lives in Akron) and they factored into his decision, but in the end LeBron said, “You think about the other side. What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?” He said he’s met with Dan Gilbert “face-to-face, man-to-man” and they’ve talked things out. “Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
He said his “calling” in Northeast Ohio goes beyond basketball. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” He said he wants kids in the area to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. “Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get,” adding that “in Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
LeBron James demonstrated today that he never really left Ohio. He still remembers what it’s like to be a poor inner kid dreaming about champion teams in Cleveland and imagining a future outside of the hood. Obviously, LeBron is just a man and basketball is just a game. But his return will boost the Cleveland economy and bring back some of the excitement that’s been missing on the Cleveland sports scene since he left. LeBron has been a thrill to watch on the court since he was in high school and even when I hated him for leaving, I couldn’t resist copping a peek at his amazing dunk shot anytime I caught a Miami Heat game while channel surfing.
I still hate that he left Cleveland for the quick bling of a big-market championship team in Miami. But now that he’s gotten that out of his system, perhaps a more mature LeBron is ready to do what no other Cavaliers player in history has done: lead the battle-hardened city of Cleveland to a basketball championship. I’ve been around this town long enough that I don’t get my hopes up about our sports teams anymore. But (lacking any other feasible options) I’m at least willing to keep an open mind about LeBron and see if he’s willing to put his talent where his mouth is.