One of my first encounters with LeBron James occurred nine years ago this month.
It was at a small neighborhood park in Akron, Ohio, LeBron’s hometown and the city in which I landed my first job out of college.
LeBron had just finished his second NBA season. I was in my rookie year as a sportswriter.
Back then, while at the Akron Beacon Journal, my primary assignment was the University of Akron men’s basketball team. The Zips were coached by LeBron’s first high school coach, Keith Dambrot, and featured two of LeBron’s prep teammates, Dru Joyce III and Romeo Travis.
In those days, LeBron always was around, never venturing too far away from home for too long.
But to understand why the NBA’s best player on Friday, after a four-year run with the Miami Heat, announced that he’s returning to his roots, you have to understand that he never really left.
James tried to summarize as much in a thoughtful and heartfelt essay he delivered to SI.com. His words were remarkable, concise yet candid, enough to force you to forgive the controversial manner in which he told the world he was taking his talents to South Beach.
But even that essay only scratched the surface.
From the moment I surveyed the scene at Perkins Park on that muggy summer day nine years ago, it was clear to me that the bond James shares with Akron is stronger than oak. Using his weighty influence, James brought Nike, his biggest sponsor, to town to film a reality show that tracked two basketball teams, one from Chicago and one from New York. It was called “Battlegrounds: King of the Court.” MTV held the show’s rights, and for one night the network turned a tiny park in tiny Akron into a Hollywood set.
LeBron could have filmed that finale anywhere. He chose his hometown.
My story in the next day’s Beacon Journal highlighted LeBron’s decision. My opening line read, “Lights. Cameras. Akron.”
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James wrote in his essay. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
Whether spotlighting his hometown on a reality show, hosting his annual Bike-a-thon charity in Akron, or with numerous other endeavors through his LeBron James Family Foundation, James always has found ways to give back to his community.
He put Akron on the map 13 years ago, when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated packaged as “The Chosen One.” Now he’s appointed himself to be the man to bring glory back to the region.
You can’t live in Northeast Ohio for any amount of time, let alone grow up there, without acquiring an intimate knowledge of the heartbreak sports fans have endured. Their sorrow has become legendary, summed up with two-word categorizations that need no explanation.
The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot.
LeBron only added to the misery four years ago with The Decision.
Cleveland sports fans aren’t just accustomed to bad things happening. They expect it and fearfully guard against any and all positive outcomes.
Take for example my old college buddy, Stan.
Stan is from Ohio. Youngstown to be exact. He’s a big time fan of each of Cleveland’s three major sports, as well as the Ohio State Buckeyes. I knew what LeBron’s decision would mean for Ohio natives, and so I sent Stan a text the night before LeBron’s announcement to ask how he was holding up in the midst of rampant rumors and speculation.
“Trying to make it,” he responded. “Don’t want to get my hopes up too high. I don’t think he’s coming back.”
My response: “Spoken like a true Cleveland fan.”
James is now dedicating himself to eradicating that loser’s mentality. He’s trying to give the people of Northeast Ohio something to believe in.
It’s an admirable mission, but one that’s mostly been impossible since the manufacturing industry began betraying Ohioans in the late 80s and early 90s, first with steel mills in Cleveland and Youngstown and then the rubber plants in Akron.
Layoffs resulted in hardships, unemployment, crime and broken families. LeBron briefly touched on those issues when he referenced the struggles of his community.
“I want to give them hope when I can,” he wrote.
His best vehicle is basketball.
James talked about how Cleveland hasn’t had the feeling of winning a championship in “a long, long, long time.” It’s been 50 years since the 1964 Browns won the NFL Championship. And though he always has been quick to distinguish Akron from Cleveland, LeBron used the phrase “our city” to make his point.
You don’t grow up in Norman not caring about the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Add in the plethora of talent the Cavs have acquired since 2010 and it became a no-brainer for James to return.
LeBron made mentions of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s irate letter and Cavs fans burning his jersey the night he left and brutally booing him upon his early trips back. But he made peace with those things. He admitted Cleveland fans’ passion can be overwhelming, but that’s what makes them great.
“It drives me,” James wrote.
And so he’s headed home, giving the great people of Northeast Ohio something to believe in once more.