LeBron James brings hope to Cleveland – ‘the most tortured sports city’ in the USA

NBA star has gone from hero to villiain to hero again in his native Ohio

LeBron James: that rarest of commodities – a prodigy who lived up to his advance billing. Photograph: Hans Deryk/Reuters.

LeBron James: that rarest of commodities – a prodigy who lived up to his advance billing. Photograph: Hans Deryk/Reuters.

 

Beats by Dre headphones began running an evocative television commercial last weekend showing basketball superstar LeBron James returning to his native Akron, his trip back through the hardscrabble Ohio city soundtracked by Wicklow’s own Hozier belting out Take Me to Church.

The ad is equal parts homage and autobiography, with shots of James’s work-out routine interspersed with images of a house being demolished, a child opening an almost-empty refrigerator, and his mother Gloria reminding him, “This is the city that raised you.”

James was born in Akron in 1984, a detail now garishly tattooed across his collarbone, when Gloria was just 16 and a single mom. He never knew his dad. More than one of the places mother and child lived in met the wrecker’s ball and, between LeBron’s fifth and eighth birthdays, they moved 12 times. Before she eventually sent him to live with the family of his basketball coach at age nine, James knew well what it was like to go to bed hungry at night.

“Don’t ever forget where you came from,” says his mother at the end of the ad. The implication being that even a six-foot- eight, 18-stone athlete who now takes investment advice from Warren Buffett never could.

Signing with Cleveland

Three months ago, James, a free agent after four seasons playing for the Miami Heat, signed a two-year contract worth $42.1 million with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers play at an arena 40 miles north of Akron, but this was very much a homecoming.

Despite offers (some definitely more attractive) from just about every club in the NBA, James wanted to return to where he started his career. The symbolism of the move had a significance far beyond sport.

“I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realise that there’s no better place to grow up,” wrote James in Sports Illustrated magazine.

“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. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”

Like Detroit and so many other manufacturing hubs strung across the Rust Belt of the American midwest, Cleveland began to slump in the second half of the last century. Factories closed, jobs soon migrated elsewhere and the population shrunk accordingly.

The decline in the city’s sporting fortunes traces a similar timeline to its economic travails. The 50 years of hurt since the Cleveland Browns won the NFL title (the precursor to the Super Bowl) have been so pockmarked by failure that Cleveland was once voted “the most tortured sports city in the nation”.

James made his own particular contribution to this uniquely painful aspect of this heritage. He almost single-handedly turned the Cavaliers from also-rans into contenders but couldn’t quite deliver a championship.

Then he abruptly departed for Miami in 2010, a move announced in a live, made-for- television event called The Decision. The production was so cringeworthy that it alienated neutrals long rooting for the put-upon city to win a title with the local kid as the lynchpin. Predictably, the natives took it even worse. Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert captured the mood when he called it a “cowardly betrayal” by a narcissist.

“They burned their jerseys right after your hour-long ESPN smarm-fest, when the world saw you for the soul- dead, stunted bumpkin you are,” wrote Scott Raab in his book The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James. “Those Cleveland fans knew for the first time what fools they had been to believe that LeBron James ever gave a damn about anything but LeBron James.”

If that spectacular level of vitriol is what makes James’s decision to come back all the more remarkable, it’s also the type of passion that explains why the city is in euphoric form ahead of the start of the NBA season next week.

City returning

Whether or not James can end the title famine (and, in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, he does have a superior supporting cast this time around), the fact that he is willing to even try has given a beleaguered city a vote of confidence. With a new casino and a new convention centre downtown, Cleveland’s fortunes suddenly seem to be ticking upward both on and off the court.

James remains the rarest of commodities in all of sport: the prodigy who lives up to his advance billing. More than 12 years have passed since Sports Illustrated placed a 17-year-old high school phenom on its cover and labelled him “The Chosen One”.

That’s the sort of hyperbole that can suffocate a career before it even begins, but not this one. Having won two titles in Miami, James has already earned his place in the eternal sports talk radio debate about the identity of the best NBA player of all time. It only remains for him to bring the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy back to Cleveland.

“I’m LeBron James,” he said when winning the fourth of his MVP awards last year. “From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here.”

Today, he is exactly where he was always supposed to be.

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