Just like that, I’ve become a Cavs fan. I’ve never even lived in Cleveland. And I never particularly liked LeBron James.
In a way, that makes me an easy sell. Clevelanders will be warier of their returned hero, which is understandable. LeBron spurned them once, and their bitter feelings still linger. His departure for Miami four years ago was, to put it politely, “not handled well.” Burned bridges aren’t repaired overnight. And given that he’s only on a two-year contract, it’s entirely possible his return will end with a failed salary negotiation and yet another ugly departure. If I were from Cleveland, I would be writing a column entitled, “LeBron, don’t play with our hearts.”
I live in the upper Midwest. So I won’t tell Ohioans how to feel. Or Floridians. For the rest of America, I think it would be best to let LeBron play with our hearts, just a little. It’s easy to write athletes off as publicity-seekers, but tame those cynical impulses. This has the makings of a truly beautiful story, and I, for one, am rooting for the big guy.
A Rare Homecoming
It’s actually startling how rare this is. We don’t often see superstars returning to their hometowns at the height of their careers. Mostly, that just reflects the workings of the professional sports world. Few athletes are in a position to choose their own team. Even when they are, most of the greats have other priorities. They want bigger cities and better networking opportunities. They think about coaches and teammates and, of course, salary caps. Far be it from me to criticize the talented for looking after their own careers.
It’s still something of a flaw in the system. It’s also one reason why I especially love college sports, where hometown heroes are a more familiar phenomenon. Nothing can quite match the thrill of watching great athletes compete for something bigger than money or bling. When the greats fight to win glory for their own people, that is truly a thing of beauty. For a moment, it almost that Homeric legends are coming to life before our eyes. The professional sports world doesn’t give us that pleasure very often.
But even that hyperbolic description doesn’t fully cover the significance of LeBron’s return. For Cleveland, James is more than just a local boy who made very, very good. He’s a shining example of what basketball has become in the early 21st century, which is similar to what boxing used to be a hundred years before. For the dispossessed, it’s a ticket out. It’s a big-time dream small people can grasp at. It’s hope.
Basketball: A Ticket to the Big Time
Exceptionally few, of course, have the natural gifts to rise to James-like heights of athletic greatness. Many will be doing well if they graduate from high school and get a steady job. Even so, these Cinderella stories have real power. One of the most insidious things about a welfare-heavy and class-riven society is the way it teaches the poor to give up. Kids grow up seeing nothing but brokenness, and believe that that’s all that awaits them. They live with a seemingly-pervasive legacy of despair and failure.
Any chink of light through that dark cloud is potentially a force for good. It cheers all virtuous hearts to see the humble exalted. Kevin Durant has long stood out as someone who made it into the stratosphere without forgetting the slums, and his story is truly inspirational. Now we see some evidence that LeBron remembers, too.
They’re both incredible basketball players, but both have the potential to be even more. Of course, LeBron’s return to Cleveland isn’t truly a return to the slums. He’s still rich, famous and well connected. But don’t sell him short on that account. Practically every major city in America would have been thrilled to set out a lavish welcome mat for him, but he chose to face his past. Perhaps he has the foresight to realize that youthful vigor is fleeting and that, once it dies, he’ll have decades more to live with whatever legacy he’s made for himself. Perhaps he saw that there was a lot more honor to be won by bringing hope to Cleveland than by being yet another big-city celeb.
It’s too early to tell for certain, but I for one hope it works out. For this next season, I’m rooting for LeBron James. I hope he wins glory and honor for his people. I hope little boys in Cleveland wear his jersey and speak his name with reverence for a century to come. I hope he gives them hope that this is still their America, and that somewhere, somehow, a window may be open for them.