Bigger than Basketball: The Transformative Power of LeBron James

If we've learned anything in the days since LeBron James announced that he'll return to his native Northeast Ohio to play again for the Cleveland Cavaliers, it's that the reports of locals burning his jersey had been greatly exaggerated.

Not only did the majority of Cavs fans never burn their gear, they didn't throw it out or hand it off to Goodwill, either. Hell, even Dan Gilbert and his family hung on to their LeBron gear, per the Cavs' owner's (possibly apocryphal) tweet: "My 8-year-old: 'Daddy, does this mean I can finally wear my Lebron jersey, again?'...Yes it does, son. Yes it does!"

No, those jerseys at Gilbert's house and others were tucked safely in closets and basements, tacit reminders of the hope Northeast Ohioans held that LeBron might one day come home and they'd wear them again.

Last Friday night, they did.

Despite all the sensational vitriol that Cavs Nation had directed at James since he left in 2010, it's hardly an exaggeration to say that every fifth person walking the mobbed streets of Cleveland that evening was decked out in his No. 23, with two-fifths of the rest wearing some other type of Cavs or LeBron-branded gear. All the better for identifying strangers to hug in what was as big a victory celebration as the town has enjoyed since 1964, and nobody had to win a single game.

All for the return of a basketball player who'd attained Cleveland villain status on par with Art Modell just four years ago -- the so-called "Whore of Akron," also dubbed a coward, a quitter, and a traitor by Gilbert in the infamous open letter that was incredibly well-received by a majority of Cavs fans, if not by anyone else.  

 But as much as the region has been electrified by the Prodigal King's return, some wonder if the narrative has flipped too easily here. In a piece titled "LeBron James Tells the Sports World Exactly What It Wants To Hear," Deadspin's Drew Magary writes that, "If you cast aside all the 'I'm coming home' shit, what you have is a story of the NBA's best player ditching a loyal group of aging teammates for a bigger salary and a franchise with better and younger talent and more maneuverability under the salary cap."  

Others, like legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier, have questioned LeBron's decision to go back to the employ of Gilbert after the way the Cavs owner "disrespected him" and "hated on him" for so many years. Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News points out that Gilbert led the charge against the NBA's star system in the 2011 labor negotiations between the players and owners, with his "rantings ... nearly cost[ing] the league a full season in [that year's] lockout." That "Gilbert stands to benefit [from LeBron's return] after years of immaturity and lack of foresight," writes Goodwill, is "a true fly in the ointment of what appears to be a heartwarming situation on the surface."

Beyond these criticisms, the staggering amount of attention paid to one athlete's free agency should be enough to make anyone squeamish. The Plain Dealer was little more than a glorified sports page even before LeBron's return, rarely breaking from that form of cheerleading to do more than serve as a mouthpiece for the region's corporate elite.

Of course, as exciting as things might be downtown, no mere basketball player could make a dent in Cleveland's real problems – a hemorrhaging job market and massive and growing inequality that's resulted in a decaying school system, a disappearing middle class, a rotting housing stock, poverty at more than double the national average, and a third-world infant mortality rate.

Naturally, our leaders would like us to believe otherwise, with County Executive Ed FitzGerald already having held a press conference to lay out James' economic impact on the region -- somewhere near $50 million annually, by their hazy estimates. "I think there is a measurable economic value," FitzGerald said. "When people say this is just about an athlete making money, there's more to it than that. Other people will make a living." But even that's less than 0.5 percent in North East Ohio's $100 billion economy.

So in a world where the influence of money on politics is as insidious as ever, what if the boosters of Cleveland's unsustainable status quo were just handed the ultimate Weapon of Mass Distraction in LeBron? Even if, as James wrote in his Sports Illustrated essay announcing his return, his "relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," how much bigger could it be?

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