LeBron James, a player so great that he somehow both invites and resists all parables, especially those about prodigal sons, is coming home to Cleveland after two weeks of speculation, Internet sleuthing, and rampant workplace distraction. (Between the World Cup and LeBron, how many hours of productivity were lost to sports?) LeBron’s big decision—his second—started with reports from anonymous sources, quickly moved to jokes about anonymous sources, then to discussions about the legitimacy of anonymous sources. Just past noon on Friday, the tension finally broke, when Sports Illustrated published an essay by LeBron, as told to the peerless Lee Jenkins. “Before anyone cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” the essay begins. “People there have seen me grow up,” he continues. “I sometimes feel like I’m their son.… My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
The sportswriting scolds of America have had their Red Weddings over the past ten years at the hands of the quants, the über-scolds, and the sort of writer who feeds sports (and everything else) through the postmodern machinery of his or her liberal-arts education. (As someone near the last of these camps, I would like to say that I miss the old scolds. Vive le Mushnick!) And so, while I’m sure there will be some column space filled about how Cleveland fans should not “accept” LeBron back and some catastrophic metaphors/cosplay-narratives about jilted girlfriends and dignity, the overwhelming mood among basketball fans waiting for LeBron’s announcement felt both anxious and celebratory. Fans of the underdog couldn’t help but root for Cleveland, a city that hasn’t won a championship since 1964. Lovers of family, small towns, and happy endings must have teared up a bit at the thought of the embattled hero, still stinging from a humiliating defeat at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, limping back home.
Much of this good will comes from the N.B.A.’s ongoing labor debacle. In January, Forbes released a report that placed the average value of an N.B.A. franchise at six hundred and thirty-four million dollars, a twenty-five-per-cent increase from 2013. That number would quickly be made irrelevant in May when the Milwaukee Bucks, which Forbes had valued dead last, at four hundred and five million dollars, sold for five hundred and fifty million. Then, last month, after the N.B.A. commissioner Adam Silver forced the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers from the disgraced owner Donald Sterling, Steve Ballmer, of the Microsoft fortune, purchased the team for two billion dollars (Forbes had the value of the Clippers franchise listed at five hundred and seventy-five million dollars). The rush of N.B.A. money has made the deal the players got at the end of the 2012 lockout—which, with its restrictive salaries, seemed bad enough at the time—look downright appalling.
Over the past year, there have been signs of change. Perhaps for the first time in the history of American professional sports, the public sentiment seems to have swung to the side of the players. It’s too early to assess the full fallout of Sterling’s ugly saga, but I can’t imagine there were many N.B.A. fans who watched the Clippers players and their coach Doc Rivers come out to play Game Four of their playoff series against the Golden State Warriors—their first after the Sterling news broke—and not feel the full force of the N.B.A.’s power structure. Black players make up roughly seventy-five per cent of the league. Michael Jordan is the only black principal owner. The tired mantra that every labor fight in professional sports is a battle between “millionaires and billionaires,” and therefore should be cast aside as frivolous, fell apart when it came up against that absurd scene: a black team with a black coach playing in front of tens of thousands of fans whose ticket money would eventually find its way into the pockets of Donald Sterling. There was no way any reasonable person could watch Doc Rivers trying to coach his dejected team and conclude that the problem with the N.B.A. was that the players had too much power.
“There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league,” LeBron told a reporter in the early days of the scandal. Later, he said that he would lead a player boycott if Sterling still owned the Clippers at the start of the 2015 season. In his move toward political engagement, in his transparency, and in his willingness to speak his mind, LeBron has gone far beyond the safe, say-nothing, commercial-friendly template offered up by Jordan, Derek Jeter, and the mid-career Tiger Woods. He is becoming something that we hardly see at all in sports—a sponsor-friendly superstar who has figured out how to safely yet provocatively pick his fights.
How refreshing, then, that LeBron would resist the outdated demand from fans and sports media that a player who has no expectation of loyalty should still be endlessly loyal to his franchise. Sports is a business only when it needs to be ruthless. When it needs to control a player, a sports team presents itself as a family or an edict with which you can raise your children. LeBron witnessed this dynamic first hand, in 2010, when he made a business decision and left the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had surrounded him with an unworthy supporting class, to go win championships with the Miami Heat. It’s telling that in the Sports Illustrated essay, LeBron was the one talking, sincerely, about the kids of Northeast Ohio. “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.”
Compare the vitriol that LeBron endured for what was admittedly a doomed PR campaign surrounding “The Decision,” his broadcast announcing the move to Miami—the attacks on his character and the overwhelming sense that he had betrayed an entire city—with the shrugs and the “business is business” statements that meet any loyal, hard-working player who gets cut by his team. Due to the disastrous collective-bargaining agreement reached at the end of the last lockout, LeBron will make somewhere in the range of twenty million dollars, when all reasonable estimates have his annual worth to a franchise at somewhere between forty and seventy-five million dollars. Again, does that look like a system in which the players have too much power?
By leaving Miami to go back home to Cleveland, LeBron, who is worth far more to the N.B.A. than any owner, has taken back a fraction of the power he and other players have earned and continued the trend that he, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade started whereby players, still working within a restrictive and draconian labor system, can scratch out a small measure of autonomy. In professional sports, the players are the business. The league is stronger when it remembers that.
Photograph: Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty.
LeBron James is setting an example and sending a powerful message we should all pay attention to: after you've made it, don't just give back, go back. Whether you're a basketball fan or not, this is an important lesson to take away from LeBron's decision to leave the Miami Heat and return his talents to Northeast Ohio and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In making his return to the place of his birth and the birth of his career, LeBron reveals that he's not simply concerned with winning championships but that he's also a family man, a leader in his community, and a positive example for millions of youth and adults.
Though much of the media and many people missed it before, LeBron was already a solid role model when he went to Miami four years ago. The failure to realize this after he left Cleveland in 2010 shows a collective misunderstanding of young African American men in the United States, which continues today.
The Decision (2014): "I'm Coming Home"
In his recent Sports Illustrated article done with Lee Jenkins, LeBron says:
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. ... Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
While the decision in 2014 was certainly handled in a more mature manner than The Decision in 2010, LeBron does not need to be lauded for his supposedly newfound humility. We need to get rid of this idea that African American men, among others, need to constantly show deference to avoid vilification. This idea is deeply connected to the expectations held of African Americans both in slavery and the Jim Crow South.
What should be important is that LeBron has always been a giving and respectful person. The maturity he has shown with the decision in 2014 is that he better understands the media and is mastering the adage his former high school coach taught: "Use basketball. Don't let it use you."
Sports analysts will dissect all aspects of LeBron's second foray into free agency and his return to the Cavs for some time to come, but these discussions should expand beyond sports talk and delve into the social issues that surround LeBron's return home to Northeast Ohio.
"Just a kid from Akron, Ohio"
LeBron James grew up in the heart of the Rust Belt in Northeast Ohio, a region that has seen steady economic decline over the past several decades. Since the 1970s companies have routinely closed down factories in Ohio and surrounding states that were once at the center of U.S. industry. High unemployment in the area has increasingly led to poverty, crime and a slew of the other social ills that touch the lives of the area's residents.
LeBron intimately understands U.S. deindustrialization and its effects because he grew up dealing with them firsthand in his hometown of Akron, Ohio (he actually considers himself to be from Akron, which is Cleveland's neighbor 40 miles to the south). Beginning his professional career for the Cleveland Cavaliers was the closest thing to home for LeBron. He brought hope of championship success to a city that currently has the longest drought of any other having three-professional sport teams, as they haven't won a ring in 50 years.
After seven years in Cleveland, he ventured into free agency for the first time. Amidst great anticipation LeBron went along with a proposed plan to reveal his choice to join the Miami Heat exclusively on ESPN. The Decision (2010) television special was poorly organized from a PR perspective, and even by LeBron's own admission, he could have handled the announcement to leave Cleveland better.
Though LeBron is by no means perfect, his mistakes and shortcomings hardly seem worth mentioning next to the outright blunders of other athletes. Many people forget that The Decision (2010) raised several million dollars for charity, including $2.5 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. One wonders how much people were really upset about LeBron leaving Cleveland or irritated by a powerful African American man so boldly exerting his (free) agency. Certainly, LeBron wondered the same.
In comparison, U.S. corporate leaders are financially rewarded and sometimes applauded for making "sound business decisions" to lay off thousands while downsizing companies or moving factories overseas. These same decisions helped create the economically impoverished environment where LeBron was raised.
Ironically, these conditions helped LeBron cultivate a winner's mentality as he worked hard to succeed in basketball and in life; this is what compelled him to go to Miami four years ago. Growing up under the poverty line also fostered in him the humanitarian qualities that compel him to return to Cleveland now.
Sadly, when he decided to move to Miami to pursue his dream of a championship he was called a betrayer, selfish and narcissistic.
What will he be called now?
Where we're "supposed to be"
In 2010, many in Cleveland vilified LeBron James for leaving, which included journalists cursing him, fans burning his jerseys, and the infamous comic sans letter by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Four years later, LeBron found a way to forgive all of this by looking outside of himself, asking: "What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?"
Many people don't realize that LeBron never turned his back on Akron. He routinely returns to donate time and resources to his community. The LeBron James Family Foundation serves as an umbrella for other organizations primarily focused on youth and education in other areas. Also, his I Promise campaign encourages youth to do well in school, be respectful, and make smart choices in life. In return LeBron promises to be the best role model he can be.
Giving back to others should be just as much a part of the American Dream as becoming successful in this country -- something that many of us miss in this age of rugged individualism. When's the last time we visited a low-income area to get involved in the lives of youth? While many of us have family roots touching these places and we might donate money to charities that work in these areas, most of us rarely go back to give of our time. LeBron James does.
Certainly, LeBron is not the only athlete giving back. Kevin Durant, who LeBron could have easily shared MVP honors with this past 2013-2014 season, is doing important work as well with his foundation. Durant's MVP acceptance speech also shows that he and LeBron share similar perspectives. "Basketball is just a platform in order for me to inspire people," said Durant. Twice in the speech Durant stated that he "wasn't supposed to be here."
These words mirror those of LeBron after winning his second championship in 2013. As celebratory confetti fell in Miami's stadium in the minutes after the final game, LeBron confidently explained on national TV that he wasn't concerned about his critics: "I'm LeBron James from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city. I'm not even supposed to be here."
African American men know exactly where they're "supposed to be" -- caught up in the so-called justice system (i.e. prison). This is simply one of the realities for many young men of color growing up in single-mother households on the terribly low-income side of the wealth divide.
It's no coincidence that James and Durant have such outstanding character: they were shaped by young, single mothers who struggled to provide their children with food, clothing, housing and security. The top two basketball players in the world today (sorry Kobe) have both risen out of poverty, which has motivated them to address social and economic inequality in their work off the court.
James, Durant, and others recognize that these issues continue to affect millions of U.S. families as they donate their money and time to various forms of community building. This is why Durant and James are not simply philanthropists, but also humanitarians.
If LeBron James is unable to help deliver a championship to Cleveland some may call him a failure or a fool for returning. If he does bring a ring to Northeast Ohio, LeBron will become legend.
Either way, we are watching one of the great U.S. stories in our lifetime unfold. Regardless of the outcome and how others spin LeBron's return to Northeast Ohio, the story is already a success, not because of what he has done or will do on the court, but because of who he is off of it.
Each time LeBron returns to Akron and Northeast Ohio he brings pride and self-respect to those who consider him their son. We can bring similar pride by following LeBron's example: returning to and contributing to our own communities, wherever they may be.
Follow A. B. Wilkinson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrABWilkinson