Celebrity worship is a scary, bizarre thing. We saw it play out over the last few days of Lebron James’ The Decision: Part Deux as sports fans, casual and avid alike, tweeted their desperateness to know where a talented 29-year-old would be playing basketball for the foreseeable future.
Fans flocked to his Bath, Ohio mansion to have some faint connection to the story. The anticipation in Cleveland this time around was just a tad different than in 2010 when James famously scorned his home state.
I, like many others, remember where I was during The Decision — in my bedroom trying to tell myself I didn’t really care. I had already spent weeks convincing myself he wouldn’t leave.
“He knows our history,” I thought. “The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, The Move. There’s no way he would deliberately add another ‘the’ moment to our miserable storyline.”
Yet he did.
For me, it was ironic. Here’s this millionaire who can not only change our sports history, but can make a tangible difference in the lives of young Northeast Ohioans with his wealth and celebrity, and he bolts town like so many others have from our region. Meanwhile, I was in Chicago trying to claw my way back to Cleveland after years of disinterest.
“We All Left”
Growing up in the eastern suburbs, my allegiance was only to the Cavs, Indians and Browns. I never went to the city or experienced what a neighborhood is until I moved to Chicago after college.
Still, I never told people that I’m from Mentor. Who the Hell knows what that is? It was always Cleveland.
Needless to say, Chicago never felt like home. Even when I found Cleveland backer sports bars (yes, I came out to Red Ivy in Chicago to yell obscenities at the television during James’ first game in Cleveland as an opponent), it was always sad in a way. Because even as we all shared memories of Northeast Ohio and where we’re from, there was only one similarity that mattered.
We all left. Cleveland, Akron, Northeast Ohio were in our rearview mirror.
This sparked an interest in urban Cleveland for me. I drove home as often as possible, stopping in neighborhoods I never knew existed along the way. Driving became expensive, so I’d take Megabus. Once I took the overnight to arrive in the morning and left later the same day.
As I fell in love with what had always been my home city, even if I didn’t know it growing up, I became as determined as ever to move back. I wanted to make a difference in my hometown, in whatever little way I could. Most of all, I didn’t want to be another statistic either blatantly or subconsciously telling others from Northeast Ohio that the best thing you can do in your life is to get the Hell out of Northeast Ohio.
But my talents, whatever they are, do not generate million dollar contracts that would allow me to more easily enact the changes I know my community of now three years so desperately needs. So I saw James’ departure as telling all those kids who looked up to him the very message that makes me physically ill, multiplied by his unquantifiable celebrity.
Yes, it’s beyond ridiculous that any city’s reputation be tied to the success of their sports franchises. But it is for cities that have major sports franchises. His departure seemed to cement the narrative that life is always better outside of Cleveland.
As life inevitably moved on, so did Cleveland. We booed when he came into town, causing ESPN to inevitably replay their reel of a few fans burning jerseys, but Cleveland has been busy.
We have been busy changing our Downtown to attract businesses and residents. We’ve been busy installing guerilla bike lanes and pushing for better mass transit. We’ve been busy trying to find solutions to gut wrenching poverty that cripples some of our neighborhoods.
So it was only a few days ago that I even noticed the flood of stories and narratives that seemed to be fueling James’ momentum back home. I had always been one who said, “I don’t want him back.” Yet it seemed so many fans were willing to forgive. Was this desperateness for a championship or Cleveland asking to get punched again?
I had also always said that the only way I would welcome him back is if he threw another Decision party, but to this time admit his mistakes and talk about the virtues of living in Northeast Ohio to make up for the damage he had done. Then I decided I didn’t need another ESPN ratings hardon.
What I really wanted was for him to say what I and other Northeast Ohioans — those of us who have and plan to stay committed to this region — already know.
That nothing comes easy in this region, but it’s still a special place to be. That we have lost a lot over the last several decades and need committed individuals to rebuild.
Reading the opening paragraph of James’ Sports Illustrated essay, I had a good feeling.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart.”
Those are incredibly important words. It shows, to me at least, some sort of understanding of life in Northeast Ohio.
No doubt James in his heart always knew more about how rough life can be here than a white, former suburbanite such as myself. But his mega-celebrity seemed to cloud his memory in 2010. Now it seems he has finally realized what his committing himself to Northeast Ohio really means.
“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, 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.”
Indeed, Northeast Ohio needs all the talent it can get. While it is indescribably bizarre the weight and importance we put in celebrity, it does exist. So if we can get arguably the world’s most famous athlete changing the narrative of Northeast Ohio, telling kids in Cleveland and Akron’s private and public schools, and everyone else from sea to shining sea that being from here is no mistake, but a virtue, instilling the kind of pride in home that makes you want to be a hero in your community — I’ll take that.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
“I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
Here’s hoping others who left Northeast Ohio long ago follow his lead.