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LeBron James Returns… Because it’s Cleveland

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For those of you who weren’t born and bred here, or who have never lived here for any length of time, LeBron coming back was probably more of a surprise to you than it was to us.  Sure, 99% of us assumed that he would return to Miami, head to Dallas, or choose to sign with Maccabi Tel-Aviv… it’s our nature; we’re Clevelanders, we never get to have nice things.   Still, we knew deep down in our hearts that LeBron would return, because everyone always returns.

As long as I’ve been alive, Cleveland has been the red-headed stepchild of cities. Turn on a TV show, crack a magazine, Redbox a movie; it doesn’t seem to matter which medium you turn to, Cleveland is usually, at best, held in high disregard, at worst, viewed as a laughing stock. By now you are all aware that we haven’t won a championship since 1964. The media constantly reminds you of that, usually while dwelling impishly in our latest sports misfortune.  Any time that a Cleveland team starts to sniff the playoffs, let alone a championship, the Yakety Sax is queued up and we are bombarded with clip after clip of our past failures.  Our river caught on fire, Art Modell, The Fumble, The Drive, The Shot, The Blown Save, The Decision, Red-Right-88. The hits keep on coming, but we keep getting back up…because we’re Cleveland.

Like I said, if you aren’t from here, you probably won’t understand. We’re a bit different here. Yes, you may love your city and think that it’s the same, but it’s not. Cleveland is less of a city as it is a brotherhood, a bond, a curse, a Spartan-like trial, but it ours. It’s been 50 years since our last title.  Out of the cities with at least 3 professional sports teams, the next closest is Minneapolis-St. Paul at 23 years.  Think about it this way, there are about 315 million people in the United States, and there have been about 180 million people born since 1964. Rudimentary math suggests that about 60% of the current US population has never been alive to see a Cleveland win a pro sports Championship of any kind.

All of this being said, why on God’s green Earth would LeBron want to come back to this place?  Because when you’re from here, it’s what you do.  Everyone I know from Cleveland has hated Cleveland… for a little while.  We can’t understand why our families chose to live here, why we’ve stayed so long, why we put up with the snow, the endless clichéd jokes, and the sports failures.  Then something happens. Inevitably we all reach the same crossroads; there is a point in our lives where we are given an out, a chance to go, to blaze a new path, to leave Cleveland in our rearview mirror.  Some of us do, most of us don’t.  The ones that do end up coming back, they always come back.

There’s something about this city that inexplicably defines you.  Maybe it’s the seasons, maybe it’s the self-deprecation, maybe it’s getting a glimpse of the sun after 5 months of hibernation. I can’t explain what it is, but I can attest that every place I’ve ever traveled, if I yell “O-H” or am wearing anything related to Cleveland (which thanks to the amazingness of GV Artwork, is most of the time),  I’m immediately met with multiple “I-Os” and endless streams of “Go Browns!,” “Go Tribe!,” and “Go Cavs!”

LeBron started his decision essay in this fashion: “…I was a kid from Northeast Ohio… People there have seen me grow up. 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.”  To non-Clevelanders, this may have been a throwaway paragraph, but to us, to those who live and bleed the city, this was the first time that we’ve ever heard LeBron proudly admit that he was one of us.  This wasn’t the guy who wore a Yankees hat to the Indians playoff game, nor was it the guy who stood on the Cowboys sideline when they came to town to take on the Browns.  This was a man, with Northeast Ohio blood running through his veins, standing up and saying, this is who I am, and this is where I need to be.  Not where I want to be, not where my family would like me to be, where I need to be.

We’re a special kind of loyal here in Cleveland. We sell out Browns games year after year despite having a 77-163 record and only making the playoffs once since returning as an NFL franchise in 1999.  Lord knows this loyalty isn’t based on winning; it’s based on rooting for something that’s ours, not something given to us, not something that we stole, or something that everyone else thinks is cool… it’s deeply rooted in the fact that, although it may not be a flawless product, or the sexiest thing you’ll ever see, it’s ours. Win or lose, this is who we are, and we are proud of it.

When LeBron left, we were heartbroken, filled with depression, anger, and bewilderment.  We couldn’t understand why one of our own would publicly ridicule us. What we didn’t realize was that he was still fighting what was inside of him. He wasn’t yet one of us. He was a young man at that crossroads, with the world at his fingertips and Cleveland in his pocket. He chose to leave, he achieved greatness both personally and as a team, he cemented his name next to Jordan, Magic, Bird, and Kobe in the pantheon of basketball greatness.  Sometimes it takes being on top of the world to realize there’s something missing.

As I stated before, I don’t expect most of you to understand, in fact, as I’m typing this, Stephen A. Smith, remarked on ESPN: “Anybody that enjoys a social life would prefer South Beach to Cleveland, Ohio, that’s just the fact of the matter.”  I don’t fault Stephen A., he’s just echoing the same tired sentiment shared by non-Clevelanders.  The funny thing is, Cleveland is a vibrant city, rich in culture, with an amazing food scene spearheaded by Michael Symon, but with numerous chefs pushing the envelope in kitchens from Tremont to Ohio City, from Little Italy to Gordon Square, and everywhere in between.  Looking for a place to grab a drink? The craft beer scene, with places like the Great Lakes Brewing Company, is almost an embarrassment of riches.  The theatre district is world renowned, the museum scene is second to none, and the list goes on and on.  The unfortunate part for visitors who don’t know where they’re going, they will end up missing the incredible amount of beauty that this great city has to offer… but then again, that’s kind of how we like it.  This is our place… you are either one of us, or you’re not… and LeBron James finally believes, and proudly declared to the world, that he is really one of us.

Welcome Home LeBron.


2 Responses to “LeBron James Returns… Because it’s Cleveland”

  1. Beautifully written & filled w/ truth beyond measure. My husband & I lived in the Chicago area for 4 years – it was fun; we made some good friends, our first son was born there (I remember listening to the Miracle in Richfield games there!), but our family, forever friends, best real estate market in the nation & our TEAMS were back home & that’s where we returned!

    Posted by Nancy Kovach | July 12, 2014, 9:17 am
  2. Awesome article! I am born and bred in Sandusky but also consider myself a northern Ohio product, though I now live in Colorado. I could never quite put my finger on that sense I have always had that there is something special, almost privately owned about being from this part of Ohio. When I was a kid it was a big deal to go to Cleveland to shop or watch an Indians game. I have never gotten over the pride I feel for the city, for my heritage. LeBron didn’t know it when he left, but that pride is instilled in us forever. Welcome home to the knowing LeBron.

    Posted by Nancy Coburn | July 12, 2014, 6:27 pm

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