He did it. LeBron James just wrote the greatest story imaginable in modern pro sports. To echo a common refrain about his infamous “Decision” to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010, it’s not just that he ended Cleveland’s impossible 52-year championship drought, it’s the way that he did it. A run-of-the-mill title run wouldn’t have cut it here.
Not after five decades of sustained and regularly heart-wrenching failure that had given Cleveland fans every reason to be cynical about pro sports. 52 years is about as many as a human can expect to be on earth for the same time as her or his grandchildren. With each passing season of failure, another round of Cleveland sports fans passed away without getting to share “just one” with their relatives.
As the losses have piled up, it’s become more natural to question the continued emotional and financial investment in these franchises. The people who own, run and play for these teams hardly live in Ohio, and fly south as soon as their seasons are over. They’ve taken home countless millions and billions in TV and tax dollars for playing ball with “Cleveland” on their chests, while Cleveland itself—struggling as much as any American city in the post-manufacturing economy—was branded a “City of Losers” for their efforts.
With so much about American pro sports franchises being disconnected from and even parasitic to the cities they occupy, LeBron’s Cavaliers are something entirely different. The Kid from Akron exercised his own unprecedented power in free agency to come back and play for his hometown team, despite the Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, having spent years assaulting LeBron’s character in an effort to boost his own public image. LeBron said that he came home because he wanted to bring a winner to the people of Northeast Ohio, and also to be “bigger than basketball.” And then he put the franchise on his back and did it: He picked his own roster, replaced the owner’s hand-picked coach with his own, inspired the best in his teammates, and overcame the impossible drought—as well as a historic opponent in the record-breaking Golden State Warriors, and a 3-1 Finals deficit that no team had ever survived—to bring the long-awaited title to his hometown.
At this point, it’s almost unnecessary to point out LeBron’s philanthropy, unsurpassed by any modern-day athlete, or that these accomplishments came after he was born and raised in poverty, sometimes living out of the back of his struggling teenage single-mother’s car. Except that it’s easy enough to imagine that LeBron absorbed the game of basketball to his level of genius at least in part because of a level of appreciation for the peace of his life in the gym only made possible by the stark contrast of the struggles of his impoverished circumstances away from it.
Which is to say that as much as it’s just a game, everyone needs a dependable refuge, and sports—both playing and watching—are supposed to be just that. It took an athlete like LeBron—who has, like no other, taken refuge in a sport to make it his own—to transform Cleveland sports fandom from an act of self-torture into the opposite: fun.
Cleveland sports, at least when it comes to Cavaliers basketball, are finally fun again, and for the best reason: A genius came home to put his talents to use where he knew they could ease the most suffering.
While this story is far from over, and there’s reason to believe it will get even better, another American athlete is unlikely top it anytime soon (drought-wise Minneapolis/St. Paul is the new longest-suffering 3-plus-sport U.S. city at a mere 25 years without a title). Though it’s nice to think that future generations in all professions will be inspired to try.