Bill Simmons’ July 11th article about basketball star LeBron James is entitled “God Loves Cleveland”. Everyone remotely interested in basketball knows the story of LeBron and Cleveland: his wunderkind prowess, his straight-to-NBA (Cleveland Cavaliers)-from-high school (St. Vincent–St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio) journey, his Herculean accomplishments with the more often than not hapless Cavaliers, his stunning exodus in 2010 to alluring and sunny Miami, his maturation and MVPs, and two NBA titles in four astounding seasons. And yesterday, the long rumored but still startling announcement of his homecoming, a return to the Northeast Ohio of his youth.
While even casual fans know who LeBron is, sports buffs know about the trials, tribulations, and curse of Cleveland: the longtime dismissive nicknames (“mistake on the lake”), the deep gloom hanging over its rusty factories and brutal winters, its underdog sports teams that try again and again to reach the hallowed heights of a championship, the plight at being labeled one of the poorest big cities in the nation, its habitually corrupt local government, and the struggles of an education system, lacking basics such as textbooks and sealed roofing.
In a sports world overflowing with hyperbolic declarations of overbearing analysts constantly and breathlessly comparing sporting events to epic battles while continually dipping into religious connotations—from “Hail Marys” to players achieving “redemption”—LeBron James’s announcement was arresting because of a real gravitas, as evident in his announcement via a letter told to Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated: “I’m Coming Home”.
First, the best basketball player in the world presented a narrative profoundly more meaningful than just another gifted athlete out for titles, cash, and glory. He wanted to go back to his roots with his wife and children: “I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown.”
Secondly, LeBrown’s hometown is pitted in an area nearly everyone around the country can relate to in some fashion—most people know at least something about Cleveland, whether it be the Cuyahoga River catching fire, Mayor Ralph Perk’s hair catching fire, or Art Modell moving one of the most beloved football teams to Baltimore, for example. (There’s also Michael Jordan’s Shot, John Elway’s Drive, Ernest Byner’s Fumble, Red Right 88, Willie Mays’ The Catch—there is no end to the city’s lovable failures.)
And yet…and yet…
The story of Cleveland is now intertwined with LeBron James’s own story so that they become inseparable. And what this story ultimately reveals is that even when people think they have long shed and moved past old fashioned ideas, there is something—an ongoing, steadfast belief—they secretly hold on to: hope. Hope and forgiveness, along with home and belonging.
There are some, of course, who harbor ill feelings towards the future Hall-of-Famer and how he publicly announced he was leaving his hometown and the Cavaliers after seven seasons in July 2010. But he was then 25, and under the spell of long Miami nights, a city of gold and endless winning. In his announcement, he likened the four years he spent in South Beach to four years of college—something he never experienced, entering the league at 18. Is he not, then, a bit like the prodigal son from Luke 15, and the long suffering fans of Cleveland like the older son who loyally labored while his younger brother saw the world, and the patient father now the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, embracing their returning son with open arms, the talc he’s famous for throwing prior to tip-off floating above it all, a family eager to live, love, and play basketball?
Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?” LeBron himself confesses. “I sometimes feel like I’m their son,” he writes of people in Northeast Ohio. He talks about his wife and the desire to raise his two sons and a forthcoming daughter in the environment the area offers. “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
Should a championship be brought to the shores of Lake Erie it would be the first championship of any kind there in half a century, since the Cleveland Browns won the 1964 title (the first Super Bowl was in 1967). LeBron himself nearly won it in 2007; the long-suffering Cleveland fans are so hungry and giddy with the possibility that he once again might rain down a ticker tape parade below the city’s venerable Terminal Tower that on the day of LeBron’s announcement a 20-something wearing the superstar’s high school jersey exclaimed, standing in a Cleveland Chipotle line: “I’m so excited I don’t know what to eat!”
Nick Tolar, a Cleveland musician from the bands Expecting Rain and Herzog, composed a song in 2003, Lebron’s rookie year, titled “The Ballad of Lebron James”. He stopped performing it years ago, he said, and today is no longer able to recall most of the lyrics. It was a song very much of the pervading mindset that Northeast Ohio was a down-and-out rust belt town with nothing left to offer. He decided to focus his music on other themes since. Yet, the one line he does remember from it? “Hope dies hard.”
Hope dies hard. The deep and abiding love between a man and his home here embodied in the story of LeBron James and Cleveland, Ohio, reveals that it is hope which continues to drive man’s train, even in the most hopeless of situations, of which Clevelanders are well aware. That forgiveness still has the power to transform, and that happiness is still the prize we search.
And while LeBron James’s professional goal is to win basketball championships for his team, the real reason the world is abuzz about this announcement hints at less about winning a game than about the return of a lost sheep, who through a remarkable serious of events is placed back on the shoulder of the shepherd, and brought home.