I Thought of LeBron James as a Son
If you live in Northeast Ohio, you’ve probably had your fair share of water cooler and cocktail party conversations about “The Decision” and “The Decision 2.0.” Basketball phenom LeBron James, a native of Akron, Ohio, which is just 30 minutes south of my native Cleveland, spurned his hometown fans in 2010 when he unceremoniously said goodbye to the Cavaliers and took his talents—and enormous ego—to South Beach.
But after four seasons with the Miami Heat, LeBron James did something many in our fair Rust Belt city thought he’d never do. He decided to come home.
I have three children, all of whom play sports, including basketball. I understand the game enough to cheer at the appropriate times in what I hope is the appropriate tone of voice, and that’s about it. But since I live in Cleveland, I know about LeBron James. I know how bad he made us feel when he dumped us on national TV and left our hearts exposed on the floor of that Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Conn. I remember fishing my then-12-year-old son’s wine and gold #23 jersey out of the trash can in the kitchen where he stashed it after yanking it from the hanger in his closet as tears poured down his cheeks.
A lot of people—maybe rightly so—will say that we place too much value on sports in this country and we put athletes on a pedestal they don’t belong on. But this decision that LeBron made felt more personal than sports. He grew up here. He was one of us. And he was leaving us—we thought forever.
When LeBron declared this June that he would become a free agent, people all over the country began to speculate about what he might do. I’m not too proud to admit that I actually became obsessed. I started following #LeBronWatch2014 on Twitter and tweeting semi-informed quips and predictions of my own. I even had a few tweets go viral. (OK, maybe their reach was a little more on the bacterial scale, but you know what I’m saying – for a few seconds, I was sort of relevant.) And much to my surprise, I even found myself turning the dial to sports talk radio—even when I was in the car all by myself. Who had I become?
I was making the two-hour drive back from Columbus, where I had just dropped my son off for a men’s volleyball camp at The Ohio State University, when the sportscaster on ESPN Radio broke the news on July 11: LeBron was coming home. Had an ambulance been in the lane next to me, the driver would have stowed me in the back and taken me to the nearest hospital. I was literally clapping and laughing and crying all at once. I had to pull the car over in order to pull myself together.
In the 250 or so sundry conversations I had with friends and colleagues in the hours that followed, I figured out why The Decision 2.0 affected me so profoundly. Whether it’s rational or not, I thought of LeBron like a son. Sure, he is a native son of my same little piece of the Midwest, but I’m nowhere near old enough to be his mother, thank you very much. (OK, I am … almost. His mother had him when she was 16. I was just about that age when he was born, too.)
But when he grew up and left us to sow his wild oats in Miami, I got a little taste of what it feels like to have your kids fly the nest. He seemed so sure of himself at the time; even arrogant. Not unlike many teenagers who are confident in their abilities to conquer the world. And the truth is, you really don’t know if they’re ever going to be back.
LeBron Back To Cleveland
But LeBron did decide to come home, and he even penned a letter to Sports Illustrated to tell us why. There was none of the pomp and circumstance of a national television special this time. The tone of the essay was serious and thoughtful; it was written by a man who had matured in many ways. Here’s the part that got me the most: Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I’ll always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.
Though he’s long since outgrown it, my son still has that wine and gold #23 jersey hanging in his closet. And when he goes away to college, I’ll leave it hanging there. This way, he can have it whenever he decides to come home.