LeBron James and the heartfelt hypocrisy of a displaced Clevelander
Photo: Phil Kalina
Photo: Phil Kalina

LeBron James and the heartfelt hypocrisy of a displaced Clevelander

I grew up just outside Cleveland, but I haven’t lived there in 15 years, save a couple of summers during college. And yet, hearing the news Friday that LeBron James was returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, I found myself on the verge of happy, cathartic tears. Sure, I’m a lifelong Cleveland sports fan, and I’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars following the Indians, Cavs, and Browns, but the feelings I had weren’t excitement about a possible championship (I don’t count chickens before they’ve hatched), they were about Cleveland—my town—finding peace, finding success, and bringing home another native son.

But I’m a hypocrite. I’m writing all this from Chicago, six hours and one time zone west of Cleveland, and with no real intention of moving back any time soon. Maybe I would if there were a job there for me (full disclosure: I’m not great at basketball), but, like James, I left. I took my talents elsewhere, unable to imagine how a town like Cleveland could ever help me reach my full potential.

In James’ excellent albeit ghostwritten piece in Sports Illustrated, he says he’s coming back to the Cleveland area for Northeast Ohio, because he realizes “our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.” James says he “wants kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders [involved in his foundation] to realize that there’s no better place to grow up.” He also notes—and this is the part that really got me—that “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”

That last line is probably true for most places, but it’s especially true in the Cleveland area, where jobs, lives, and luxuries are never a given. Clevelanders were raised in the shadows of disappointments, from the steel mills that shut down but remain, decaying, to our very public sports shortcomings. I was 5 years old—five—when “The Drive” happened, and I still remember watching every second of it with my parents and their friends. That shit sticks with you forever.

Humiliation has a way of sticking around, too. Cleveland is always a joke, “the mistake on the lake.” Our river caught on fire 40-odd years ago, and no one’s ever let us forget it. LeBron left four years ago, and the perception has been that we’ve been burning jerseys and pining after him ever since. Years ago, Cleveland became a punchline, a city that struggled like Detroit, but never became decrepit enough to draw a nation’s pity. I’m not sure why that was—our then-mayor’s hair fire, maybe?—but the city has become a rote gag, a given joke. Even a video made in loving jest by Cleveland comic Mike Polk Jr. got twisted, turned by the masses into a slam rather than a wink-wink-nudge-nudge mash note to the small city he knows and loves.

But humiliation builds resilience. If Cleveland is the joke, the disappointment, then Clevelanders have come to accept the challenge to live within that punchline and change it. Strangers are going to shit on our town, and by association our families and our upbringings, but Clevelanders past and present are the only people who know the truth and have been hardened by years of facing that harshness down. Like steel, we’re tempered by flames.

As a prodigy and probable genius most of his life, it’s likely that LeBron James has had access to more assets, perks, and boosts than most of us can imagine, but he’s still that “kid from Akron, Ohio,” on his website. Akron isn’t Cleveland—it sits about 45 minutes southeast—but if anything, it’s in worse shape. Akron doesn’t have the name recognition Cleveland does, and its industrial decline didn’t come from something relatively glamorous like cars or steel, but rather from the demise of the rubber industry in the ’70s and ’80s. And that demise stung. Akron’s now the “meth capital of Ohio,” and 30 percent of Akron residents live below the poverty level, a figure that’s about 10 points higher than the rest of the state.

LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has been hailed as just another sign of the city’s rising tide. The Browns might not be horrible this year, and the city just landed the 2016 Republican National Convention, a coup that could result in $300 million in rich, white revenue. And they’re making movies in Cleveland now! A lot of them, and big, good ones, like The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And while downtown Cleveland suffered after LeBron’s departure—the restaurants that had boomed during sold-out Cavs games shut down, as empty as the Quicken Loans Arena—that entertainment money could return to the town again with James’ decision. Hell, the Cavs have already sold out their season ticket allotment for 2014-15.

Even though I left Cleveland 15 years ago, I still live there in my heart. I subscribe to Cleveland Magazine and follow dozens of Cleveland-area bloggers on Twitter. I can tell you what movie stars and bands are from Cleveland or have Cleveland ties (Vanessa Bayer, Trent Reznor, Cloud Nothings, etc.), but as a onetime Northeast Ohio resident, I’m pretty much required by law to be able to do that. We embrace our own.

And we embrace them even when it’s difficult. I personally wasn’t ready to forgive LeBron, despite all the “For6iven” T-shirts being sold in Cleveland before (and after) the announcement. In my mind, you have to apologize to be forgiven, and LeBron had never really done that. “The Decision” hurt deeply, and while Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert’s letter apparently scarred James right back, Clevelanders took James’ decision personally. You don’t just up and leave Cleveland with no remorse, no matter how many rings or dollars someone else might offer you. You’re from there, and you always will be.

That’s something I’ve learned, too, over time. I don’t know if I’ll ever live there again, but no city will ever really be my home the way that Cleveland was or is. I’ve been in Chicago for eight years, but I still wouldn’t call it my home. And I’ve oozed that Cleveland pride so forcefully that I’ve even got my Texas-raised husband wholeheartedly rooting for the Browns now, that poor guy.

Look, maybe James’ “I’m Coming Home” piece was a publicity stunt, or a way to spin the star wanting the most money, which the Cavs were able to offer him. (Some sportswriters have been skeptical, especially after James signed a mere two-year deal with the Cavs this weekend.) But I’m going to choose, for once—and this is rare for a Clevelander—to be optimistic. LeBron James’ letter damn near made me cry because it echoed sentiments I’ve had hundreds of times. I want to go home. In James’ letter, I read my own words, my own thoughts, and my own yearning. No one’s going to pay me $42.1 million to move back to Cleveland, but if there were a way to do it—to build my career while living near Lake Erie—I probably would. And the fact that so many young people are still there, resisting the brain drain and building the infrastructure and culture that they want, is a testament to the city’s collective commitment to itself.

As Will Leitch wrote in his excellent James-centric response piece on Friday, Clevelanders just want something to celebrate. James wrote in SI that “there’s no better place to grow up,” and as Leitch notes, that’s a sentiment everyone in Cleveland echoes, “even while they’re grousing about the place and lamenting how much the sports teams always kick them in the face.” That sort of sad sackery could be a punchline—“Cleveland: Come kick us in the face, LeBron James!” (“We’ll take it and ask Josh Gordon for another!”) But to me, it’s a sign of strength. Nothing can beat Cleveland. The city will struggle back, reclaim its LeBrons, and become the kind of place everyone—not just Clevelanders—has always dreamed of living. And maybe, like James, I’ll go home again one day, too.

More For Our Consideration