LeBron Raymone James stands six feet, 7.25 inches tall in bare feet, 6’8” when he’s wearing one of the 41 varieties of his signature kicks. He can make a vertical leap over the average six-year-old. He owns enough cars for his collection to be pronounced a “fleet.” He has an estimated net worth of $300 million. He can dunk a basketball with authority. In short, he and I have nothing in common.
The NBA is full of people who are nothing like the rest of us. And from the perspective of a business trying to secure a reverent fan base, that’s convenient. NBA players’ inherent dissimilarity from the world of five-figure-earning, normally sized folks makes it easier for us to raise them up and behold them as icons. The truly brilliant thing is how the NBA toes the line between embracing this notion and rejecting it, keeping its players distant enough for us to worship them and yet close enough for us to feel attached to them. There’s a cult of familiarity around these guys, which is perhaps why I find myself referring to LeBron as “LeBron” and not “James.” This is the appeal of the NBA: if I can wear his same shoes, maybe I can be raised up too.
Of course, this in itself reiterates how fundamentally distant from us these players are. Even as we feel drawn to our hometown heroes, we know, on some level, that this closeness is ultimately a fantasy. After all, we don’t regard the true, actual people in our lives as gods, as kings. But, for a moment, let’s choose not to care.
If you are a sports fan from Cleveland, there are a number of times when you have to suspend disbelief. When it’s been 52 years since any of your professional teams have won a championship, even attending a game is a repudiation of a certain reality. I grew up hearing about The Move, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot. And I grew up fervently believing that those days were behind us, a part of our inherited history as a city, but merely our history, not our DNA.
And so the morning of July 8, 2010, I rose free of dread. It was the day of “The Decision,” the ESPN television special in which LeBron, a free agent, would announce with which team he’d be signing. Half an hour into the special, freelance sportscaster Jim Gray gets to the point. “The answer to the question everybody wants to know, LeBron: what’s your decision?”
The camera slowly zooms in on LeBron’s face. He’s wearing a purple gingham button-down, and when I think back on this moment, it’s the print I remember most vividly, blurring as the camera moves closer. “Um, this fall… man, this is… this is very tough,” he says, and watching at age 16, I felt as though I’d been sucker-punched in the gut with one of his own giant hands.
It’s not as though we could blame him for choosing Miami. He was 25 and looking for opportunities to pass the ball, looking for a chance to play for a team instead of carry one. But we burned his jersey anyway, tore down the massive poster that hung downtown. And then, four years later, LeBron announced he was coming back, all was forgiven, and we put a ten-story, welcome home banner right back up on the Sherwin-Williams building, across the street from Quicken Loans Arena.
Cut to the 2014 home opener versus the Knicks, the first game LeBron played back at the Q. The game is preceded, predictably, by much fanfare. Fans wave Cavs glowsticks. There’s a light display on the court in which a basketball morphs into the Cleveland skyline. And then suddenly the buildings fall away, all lights cut to black, and the video screen alights. Splashes of footage from each starting player’s hometown cut across the screen. We pass under the OH-State Route 2 sign for the “Downtown Cleveland” exit. We pull up to the Q. We follow power forward Kevin Love onto the court. “This is our house,” a voice booms over an image of the wine and gold Cavaliers flag. “And there’s one thing we all know…”
The background strings reach a crescendo and go quiet. And here at last, on our own screen again, is LeBron, wearing his gold Cavs jersey and holding a basketball in front of his chest, raising his eyes to the camera. “There’s no place like home,” he says, and the crowd erupts.
There’s a lot about being a LeBron fan from Cleveland that rings fair-weather. But listen to the fans at this moment and you can sense it, the earnestness of our loyalty. This is our man, and we will accept him back with open arms.
Of course, we all love the story of the homegrown, hometown sports hero saving the day. That’s not singular to Cleveland. But what’s notable about LeBron’s story is how the myth of the sports savior takes on the tenor of fact. It’s much easier to believe that one man can come save your city—this, mind you, is the city where Superman was conceived—when you’ve already seen the impact that one person can have here.
Taking a moment to ignore the fuzzy feelings he generates and instead examine the numbers, LeBron has had a measurable impact on the economic climate of Northeast Ohio. In 2010, before LeBron left, Cleveland’s convention and visitors bureau estimated that between the bars, the eateries, and the game itself, the average fan spent about $180 per game to see the Cavs at Quicken Loans Arena. For the four years LeBron was in Miami, attendance was down by an average of 4,000 each game: if we assume that fans’ spending habits wouldn’t have changed in those years, we can extrapolate that the city lost out on $720,000 per game in that span. When LeBron came back, downtown bars generated between 30 and 200 percent more revenue on game nights than they did the previous season.
True, the figures do get a little squishy when you consider where this money is coming from. Most folks coming downtown for games are from Northeast Ohio, so it’s not like this is money pouring into the region that wasn’t there before. Perhaps the biggest impact LeBron has had on Cleveland’s economy is simply keeping the seats filled at the Q. The Cavs place an 8% admissions tax on their tickets, all of which goes to Cuyahoga County and the city of Cleveland. In the Cavs’ final season without James, the Q had five sellout games, and the city and surrounding territory stood to take in $2.03 million. The next year, his first season back, all 41 home games were sellouts—and the region pulled in $3.66 million. And that’s not to mention LeBron’s salary. He pays over a million dollars a year in income taxes, half of which goes to greater Cleveland. In short, with LeBron on the team, the Cavs can afford to pay greater Cleveland an extra $2 million per year.
Obviously, LeBron James is not the only person doing good things for Cleveland. But he’s certainly the most famous. Consider, too, that when you do something good for Cleveland, the degree of your benevolence automatically magnifies. In a world that largely chooses to ignore Northeast Ohio, even thinking about Cleveland is itself an act of generosity.
In Cleveland, which lacks so many forms of wealth, your main social capital is your commitment to the city. For those of us who are young, who don’t have the lived, felt memories of when the Rust Belt was battered into the post-industrial age, that commitment takes the form of your undying faith and pride in the city. Did you go to the Flats before all the clubs came in? Have you frolicked in the Cuyahoga River, despite the fact that it’s so polluted it’s caught fire 13 times? Can you hold back your laughter about the fact that we have a city organization called Destination Cleveland, formerly known as Positively Cleveland, whose employees are paid in actual American dollars to spread good news about this region? Do you love this place enough to stay?
If you’re from greater Cleveland, it’s ingrained in you since you’re a kid: if you leave, you forfeit the opportunity to mean it when you say you love this place. (LeBron, born and raised in Akron, gets it: at one point during “The Decision,” he says, incredibly, “I never wanted to leave Cleveland.”) If you leave, you’ve already slapped the city in the face. There’s nothing left you can give. Except for one thing, which LeBron must have also known: If you leave, you’re imbued with the power to decide to come back.
All of this rightly smacks of the quest narrative, or maybe the quest narrative turned hero’s journey. For me, it conjures up a maudlin image of a clutch of beleaguered Clevelanders stretching out their calloused hands toward LeBron, himself in the middle of his trademark chalk dust clap, descending from lake-effect clouds. The problem is that this understanding of LeBron’s return—here is our prodigal son, or maybe our prodigal father, back to save us again—oversimplifies the reasons why we welcomed him back instead of shunned him. It wasn’t just because we believed in him. His homecoming flipped the order of things on its head: his choice to come back to Cleveland meant that he believed in us.
Most icons, in our minds, are made of marble. They’re larger than life, or at least certainly larger than us, and they don’t regard us personally, or in real time, or even at all. But LeBron seems to have put a significant amount of effort into crafting a persona that is almost comically engaged with his fans, even beyond the typical Instagram or Twitter tactics. On the website for his I PROMISE initiative, which is sponsored by the LeBron James Family Foundation and which will provide some 2,300 kids eventual full scholarships to the University of Akron, he writes monthly messages to his sixth grade mentees and signs off, “Your friend.” An excerpt from a March 2015 entry about responding to failure with hard work reads, “I want you to be as proud of me as I am of you (for the record, that’s impossible because NO ONE is as proud of someone as I am of you).” The same website boasts an entire section called “MOM’S FUN FACTS,” in which, ostensibly, Gloria James shares tidbits about young LeBron’s habits and preferences. “Like all kids,” writes Ms. James, “LeBron enjoyed cartoons when he was growing up. His favorite Super Hero was Batman. Still to this day he loves Batman.”
For a celebrity, to be known is to play without the protective shield of mystery. For himself, LeBron has willingly shattered it. An icon does not send cupcakes to his neighbors as an apology for the increased traffic caused by his arrival, as LeBron did. An icon does not cycle with you, as LeBron does each summer, or share your love of Batman. But this is why Cleveland works so well as the backdrop to the LeBron spectacle: every time he thinks about us, every evening he spends in our city, he earns cred, simply because most citizens of the world actively try not to do those things. That he is still here means he still regards us highly. And so, paradoxically, the very thing that lifts him up to messiah-level is his closeness to us.
In the second century, Emperor Hadrian was known for traveling to every province of the Roman Empire on foot. Really, he rode on horseback, but he’d dismount a mile or so out of town and hoof it the rest of the way, so the effect was the same. He wanted to be seen as just another citizen of the empire, but at the same time, the fact that it was so notable a thing for him to do dispels that very notion. And, true, LeBron’s familiarity loses some of its punch when you consider the possibility—honestly, the likelihood—that it’s all part of the act. I was raised in the most doggedly optimistic city in America. A family friend from ten blocks down, a grown, reasonable man, last year earnestly posited to me that the reason why the Cavs had lost a string of recent games was because our team was too good, all of a sudden, and coach David Blatt didn’t know what to do with all that talent. But I live on the East Coast now and some of its culture has seeped into my veins—love of seafood, respect for variable topography, a healthy amount of abject cynicism—and with some distance from home I can’t help but wonder if we, the fans, aren’t the ultimate fabricators here, fashioning an idol who believes in us right back. Is being a LeBron fan in Cleveland simply a means to bear out our own self-importance, as a community sans any quantifiable means of assuring ourselves?
Because here’s the thing: LeBron is not one of us. He makes national news for sending cupcakes, and those cupcakes came in varieties that were designed in his honor. He makes headlines for doing yoga, for dancing, for not wearing a headband one day, for playing the violin, for biking to work. And if I’m being honest with myself, there’s no way his mother actually wrote those fun facts on his website.
But of course, Clevelanders already know this. We’re not naïve; we know he’s got a whole different experience from those of most folks in our city. He doesn’t personally have to face the blight or navigate the crumbling public transit, doesn’t personally have to worry when the CPD pulls him over. He’s the King, after all. The beauty, though, lies in how he navigates this tension, how he’s figured out how to move about the world and the city such that most of the time, there is no tension at all.
And so the other way to understand our veneration for LeBron, then—the beautifully un-cynical, Midwestern way—is to recognize that in worshiping him for simply believing in Cleveland again, we have quietly decided to place the emphasis not on celebrity or status but on faith. The question of whether or not it’s all a sham or a PR stunt at the end of the day is made irrelevant, overshadowed by the purest form of being a fan that you’ll ever find.
His fans get it, even the ones who live outside of Northeast Ohio. It turns out that to cast off all the cynicism and loudly, wholeheartedly believe in where you come from is not, in fact, Midwestern, but actually just feels nice.
As any sports fan knows, there are two distinct ways to cheer on your team. The first is your standard shout-your-lungs out adoration. And then the other is when it gets serious, when there’s only a few seconds left and you’re minimally down, or tied, and you stand up, and things are still quiet, and there’s something at stake. To be a Cleveland fan is to have the tensest of those moments pass into a tiny sigh every single time. Which is exactly the opposite of what happened last night when Kyrie Irving made a superhuman three-point shot and the clock ticked down to 0 in the Cavaliers’ Game 7 win over the Golden State Warriors.
The city and its sports teams have historically paralleled each other. After World War II, Cleveland’s economy flourished. Our population peaked. The Indians won the Series in ’48. The Browns dominated in the ‘50s. And then: white flight, free trade, shrinking opportunities in manufacturing. To close out 1978, we became the first major city in the U.S. to default on our federal loans. Our baseball stadium, and then the city itself, was deemed The Mistake on the Lake.
But that was a while ago. Nobody from Northeast Ohio is all that concerned about making our city seem revitalized; it already is. We’re home to world-renowned hospitals, a booming local food scene, the largest theater complex outside New York. Our metropolitan school system has made unprecedented improvements. Old news, all of this—but still, there was the nagging thorn in our side that was this 52-year-long championship drought, and thus, somehow, the need to defend ourselves.