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. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.
Every summer, I complete my annual pilgrimage – to The Jake, as it’s lovingly known, on the corner of the Carnegie and Ontario to watch the Cleveland Indians play baseball.
It’s a process that is highly romanticized in my mind. Baseball was my first sports love, the Tribe my first sports team.
It’s the ultimate draw of baseball – a warm, slightly humid summer night, squinting into the sun dropping not-quite-rapidly-enough off the skyline eliminated by Terminal Tower from the third base side of the stadium – a long evening, accompanied by family and hot dogs and popcorn and that pastoral magic of the national pastime.
At least that’s how I see it in my mind. I should know better. Because I’ve seen a lot of Indians games in my life.
I’ve made the drive from the pretty outskirt of Shaker Heights to the gritty downtown, as the scene fades from sun-splashed serenity with trees and big houses to the spray-painted garages and falling down billboards that provide the backdrop of poverty for a city that has fallen so far, so fast, that it’s not even half the size of Columbus now.
The uncomfortable truth is that if the NBA, MLB, and NFL were starting right now, Cleveland wouldn’t have any professional sports teams.
And if Cleveland didn’t have any sports teams, there would be no Cleveland.
Remember when I was sitting up there at the Boys & Girls Club in 2010? I was thinking, This is really tough. I could feel it. I was leaving something I had spent a long time creating. If I had to do it all over again, I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left. 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 will 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.
Cleveland is slipping, drowning, clawing for something. This is a city that been bludgeoned and weakened so many times over the last fifty years, hammered and splattered against the canvas of an America growing out from the heartland to the east and the west and the south and the north, with Cleveland being left in the dust.
For god’s sake, they lost the Browns! This city that inexplicably and unbelievably loves its football team like a brother loves his brother. They took the Browns, that one pillar of Cleveland that should never have been moved, never been touched, was picked up, and moved them Baltimore.
Art Modell was the man responsible. He ripped Cleveland’s heart out of its body. After the team’s last home game at Municipal Stadium in 1995, grown men regaled in body paint and Browns construction helmets stood in disbelief in the old stadium, the Mistake On The Lake, as it was known, and sobbed.
People punched the air in desperation, howling, inconsolable. Some hurled seats onto the field, while others ripped up parts of the stadium and clutched them tightly, ready to carry them home. Still others sank into their own malaise, an abyss parts dismay and horror.
No city, anywhere, ever deserves anything like that.
That it happened to Cleveland surprised no one.
There was something else too. In 1994, the Browns went 11-5 under a young head coach named Bill Belichick, and made the playoffs. The next year, ’95, the Browns had a damn good team that was tipped by many to make the Super Bowl for the first time in Browns history.
Then, halfway through the season, Modell announced he was moving the team to Baltimore. The Browns collapsed, losing their next six games, and seven of their last eight – including their last game, to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.
The day after Modell announced the move, the city overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure requested by Modell for more than $150 million dollars to refurbish Municipal Stadium. It didn’t matter.
Of course, the Browns would return in 1999. In the end, it cost Cleveland $300 million dollars they didn’t have to tear down Municipal Stadium, and build Cleveland Browns Stadium to get their team back.
The next year, the Browns that became the Ravens won the 2000 Super Bowl. Since the Browns came back in 1999, the franchise has only made the playoffs once. They’ve never won a playoff game.
That’s just one of the stories. You know the names: Red Right 88, The Shot, The Shot II, The Drive, Joel Skinner holding Kenny Loften, Jose Mesa, The Catch, The Fumble, and yes, perhaps worst of all, The Decision.
The Cavs, the Browns, the Indians, they’ve all killed this city over and over again. LeBron, the man who was supposed to save this city, killed them too. In front of a worldwide audience.
Cleveland is a great sports town, a blue collar, hard-working, hardscrabble city with sports at its heart the way Miami holds its florescent night-life.
Like all great sports stories, this has so little do with sports. It’s about a sick city that finally, finally, has a reason to smile.
Witness, huh? Yeah, we all witnessed that night. Witnessed the hometown boy napalm his team, his state on national television in front of a worldwide audience.
"I’m taking my talents to South Beach."
Now, he’s coming home.
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.
I get it. People leave Cleveland.
My parents left. They grew up here, and took off for greener pastures. Portland was their choice, hence my strange civic and sports dichotomy between two cities with about as little in common as any two major cities in the country.
Portland is my home, but I cherish the part of me that is Cleveland through and through.
We come to visit every year, and much of my family is still here. There’s too much history here to be ignored.
One of the first trips back after my mom and dad got married was for one night: Game 5 of the 1995 World Series. Jim Thome hit a home run. The Indians won 5-4. They’d lose the series in Atlanta two nights later.
The Midwest has it’s charms: Those slow, golden summer evenings, and those bitter, tough, cold winter nights are who I am too.
When Cleveland hurts, I hurt for Cleveland. I’ve spent enough time in the city to know.
At one point, Cleveland was the fifth most populous city in the United States. In less than a century, it’s fallen all the way to 43rd at the time of the 2010 Census, with no end in sight.
There’s widespread corruption in local politics. When I was young, I remember half the city council being tossed out of office. During one period of renaissance in the late 1990s, Michael R. White was the mayor – one of the most well-liked, successful politicians in the history of the city.
Turns out, White was accepting bribes from contractors. He’s currently under federal investigation. Corruption dogged the state in the election of George Bush as President in 2000 and 2004, and in local elections as well.
Since 2000, more and more white people have fled the city limits for the suburbs, leaving a predominantly African American population of a city with a school system that languishes near the bottom of all public school systems in the country. The crime rate is high.
Clevelanders are still proud. They’ll tell you about their lakefront, and the Rock Hall, and the Cleveland Clinic, and they’re pretty darn excited about the new casino downtown too.
At the end of all those Cleveland jokes is a city that is still proud and smarting – in need of a pick me up, not another putdown.
LeBron was their guy. He knew, like me, that Cleveland needing help.
He grew up in Akron, went to St. Vincent - St. Mary High School, and was drafted by the Cavs number one overall in the 2003 NBA Draft. It was the perfect storm.
And for seven years, LeBron was loved. He didn’t win a championship for the city, but he dragged average teams kicking and screaming through playoff series, making plays and shots and memories that we all thought would live forever.
But LeBron was immature. He never went to college, or had a father, and he had some growing up to do.
He left, and that stung. But the style of his betrayal made the anger. It was like your wife announcing that she was divorcing you on Oprah. Want to talk about putdowns? The Decision was the worst of them all.
The lights show – not four, not five, not six, blah, blah, blah, didn’t help either.
In Miami, James had his friends, and a strong organization to support him. And LeBron did what he set out to do. He won two championships and made the NBA Finals every season he was in Miami.
But he also grew up. He realized that one title in Cleveland would mean more than five anywhere else. He realized that he could be more than a basketball player. He could be a hero.
And if you think that’s cheesy or fake, you don’t know Cleveland.
Over the last year, the hate for LeBron ebbed away. The booing when he came back to Cleveland wasn’t as vicious or vulgar. Over his "college" years, LeBron was still running camps and events for kids in Akron. He became harder and harder to dislike.
LeBron left a kid. He returned a man.
Cleveland – scratching, clawing, drowning Cleveland – has been ready to forgive its chosen son for a long time.
I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. After the season, free agency wasn’t even a thought. But I have two boys and my wife, Savannah, is pregnant with a girl. I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown. I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.
The truth about my annual pilgrimage is that I go to The Jake knowing the Indians will lose. They’ve lost every game I can ever remember there. I’ve seen sparse crowds that make you wonder whether the city has finally given up hope.
I’ve seen sellout crowds empty before the seventh-inning stretch, staring at some eight run deficit and a long drive home.
I don’t follow the Tribe religiously by any means. I don’t claim to be a diehard fan.
But there is one time the Indians won when I was there to see it. One summer, I tempted fate and went to two games. In truth, I was desperate for a win. I wanted to see just one win, one time.
It was a low-key game between the Indians and Toronto Blue Jays. Tribe Manager Manny Acta was just a few months away from being fired, and the Indians were in the midst of a tailspin that would see a competitive team finish the season some twenty games under 500 by the end of the year.
I went to this game with my Uncle Paul. He’s been around the block – seen it all, every failure, every bad bounce, every horrible mishap.
When Paul was a kid growing up in this booming city on Lake Eerie, his father got tickets to go to 1954 World Series game. Paul was out riding his bike. He didn’t get home in time and didn’t go to the game.
That was okay. He figured the Indians would be in the World Series every year. He’d have another chance. Well, Cleveland hasn’t been back in the World Series since.
This was no World Series game. And the Indians were losing, 3-0 in the top of the ninth inning, when they gave up a solo home run to Jose Bautista.
It was an insurance run. Paul floated the idea of us leaving the stadium, beating the crowds, and getting away. I said no. Never leave a game early.
And then in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Indians got hit after hit after hit. They pulled the score to 4-1 and had the bases loaded when Travis Hafner stepped to the plate.
Hafner is no longer in the big leagues. He was a product of the steroid era right down to his nickname: Pronk. But on that night, Hafner looked at the first pitch he saw, swung, and blasted it into the thick Cleveland air.
It must have traveled for about five seconds. It felt like five hours. And then there was that moment when I knew it was gone. When the some 15,000 of us who stuck around in a 45,000 seat stadium that opened in 1994 and proceeded to sell out 455 straight games, a Major League record, knew it was gone, it was magic.
I jumped. I screamed. I hugged strangers. My voice cracked so many times it must have sounded like an incompetent DJ was in control.
Tribe 5, Jays 4. Walk-off Grand Slam.
But what I’ll never forget was the glint in Paul’s eye. He was around for the last championship, in 1964. And yet, he was still there with me almost 50 years later, subsiding on scraps, waiting, hoping, praying, deserving any slice of fortune that could come his way.
I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver.
The allure of home is so incredibly powerful. It is more potent than money or power or any drug. Very few are immune from its pull. Home is a magnet. Often, it’s a true north.
What makes Cleveland so giddy that they signed a free agent? It has everything to do with this: For once, someone chose Cleveland.
Not South Beach. Not New York. Not LA. Cleveland. Cleveland, O-H-I-O. Not just anyone either. LeBron James. His letter made it sweeter.
It conveyed to us that he gets it now. He understands. He cares. That letter was smart. It was poignant. It was emotional. It was mature. It was perfect.
Maybe he tried to forget it, but he’s one of us. He can’t help it. LeBron knows the scale of who he can be in Northeast Ohio and what he can mean.
For four years, LeBron tasted life in the big city. And he chose – despite that Dan Gilbert letter and all the acrimony and animosity that accompanied his departure in 2010 – to come home.
That is a championship in itself.
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.
The night LeBron came home, I tempted fate. I went to The Jake.
It was a stupid thing to do. An inevitable Indians loss would just dampen the mood, temper the enthusiasm I felt all of the sudden for my close cousin of a hometown.
It all washed over me again on the drive downtown. I pined for the first lights of the stadium, and then for that beautiful, cavernous yard to dominate my field of vision. I wanted it to wrest my attention away from the streets, cracked and stained, lined with vacant brick buildings that seemed to come straight out of The Wire. But on this night, the depressed city bounced. It leaped. Homeless men on the streets didn’t beg, they talked about LeBron.
As we listened to 92.3 Cleveland Sports Radio, and people’s voices broke with unmistakable pride and happiness, my mind drifted away to Eat At Jakes, a little lunch joint where you can get an egg salad sandwich and chips for $4.00 in the city. I thought they were happy there, and I liked that.
The old LeBron jerseys were everywhere. "I’m Coming Home" by P. Diddy blared from loudspeakers.
And you know what? The Indians couldn’t stop hitting. They beat the White Sox, and as fireworks blasted into the sky, I sat back in my seat down the right field line, put my feet up and thought to myself, "Man, this hope stuff is pretty addictive."
I was here four years ago when LeBron left the first time. When he broke everyone’s hearts. Took his talents to South Beach, took his ability to be a savoir, and tossed it into the streets of Akron.
The front page of the Plain Dealer the next day was a blank newspaper white canvas, with a solitary picture of LeBron, back turned the camera, head hung, under the headline, "Gone."
I saved that front page. Every time I look at it, I think about how in the aftermath of The Decision, I talked to my family about what it would do to the city. Not who would replace #23 at small forward, but what would happen to the restaurants downtown.
It was a sad time.
Tomorrow, the front page of the Plain Dealer will be a black canvas with an excerpt from LeBron’s letter in SI above a picture of the Akron kid, returning home all grown up after four years away in Miami he didn’t get when he skipped college to enter the NBA lottery and join the Cavs almost ten years ago.
This time, he’s facing the camera, tossing chalk into the air in his new Cleveland jersey. It all hangs under the headline, "Home."
Tomorrow, I figure I’ll run out and buy every copy they have in the newspaper dispenser like Christopher Moltisanti in The Sopranos.
Then, and only then, will I allow myself to cry.
- Excerpts taken from LeBron James’ letter as told to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated announcing his return to Cleveland.