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?

Here there's reason for hope in that so much about this basketball story is unprecedented, not least the star's stated reasons for coming home.

LeBron's free agency leaves no choice but to grant that, for better or worse, sports represent the most accessible (if not commanding) common narrative in America today. From here, even the most cynical should appreciate the difficulty in imagining a more positive sports story than the one that LeBron is writing in Cleveland: The most celebrated athlete in the world returning to his struggling hometown mainly because he knows that it's where he can make the greatest positive impact. "I feel my calling here goes above basketball," James said. "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."

It's the opposite of Charles Barkley's "I'm not a role model," and it communicates aspirations well beyond anything Michael Jordan accomplished on his run as the world's best basketball player and shoe salesman. When LeBron entered the league he said his goal was to become a "global icon," and his explicit refusal to promise Cleveland a championship in his SI letter underscores his intention to transcend sports. He doesn't have to win in this city to have all eyes on him; he only has to be here.

If America needs anything, it's a leveling, and nobody has ever really become a global icon for doing anything else. The New York Times' Ross Douthat described LeBron's SI statement "a kind of communitarian manifesto, implicitly critiquing the values underlying elite self-segregation in America." And here one shouldn't fail to appreciate how many steps James has already taken to walk this talk. In a world where celebrity worship has such an isolating effect, LeBron – a guy who dropped a $17 million dollar mansion smack in a middle-class neighborhood in Bath - has chosen to insert himself back into a place where everyone has a LeBron story. Maybe you went to high school with him, or know someone who dated him or played against him as a prep. Maybe you were at the same party or shopping mall once, or served him an Appletini, or fixed his car. Or maybe you're one of the thousands of inner city kids whose lives he's touched through his philanthropy. You're at least friends with one of his cousins, or one of his agents, or one of his cousins' agents' friends, because here, everybody is. To spend any time in Northeast Ohio is to know that a celebrity of such magnitude could hardly be less removed from the people than LeBron James is here.

Yet the star's leveling power goes beyond his potential to bring a shiny trophy to the longest and worst suffering city in American sport, or even his ability to counterbalance Johnny Football's weekend junkets to ride inflatable swans and party with the Biebs. The hysteria over this free agency – one that froze not just the NBA but the entire sports media complex for a full week in anticipation of his decision -- was a powerful reminder that the Association is a players' league. After four years of obstinate refusal to apologize for his actions in the wake of LeBron's departure, Dan Gilbert went immediately into groveling mode as soon as he realized there was a chance the star would come back. "After a few months, I would re-read [the infamous 'open letter'] and just be full of regret," Gilbert claimed, for the first time last week. "I didn't mean most of the things I said in there. The venom it produced, from all sides ... I wish ... I wish I had never done it."

ESPN was another multi-billion dollar entity feeling sorry last week because of LeBron. The choice to break the news of the decision through Sports Illustrated is seen as a reflection of James' displeasure with the way ESPN handled the disastrous broadcast of the first "Decision" in 2010. The sight of the World Wide Leader's top NBA reporters stunned, blankly reading and then "confirming" printouts of the SI statement on air, will go down in media circus history.   

As for altering balances of power outside of the sports world, it's surely only a matter of LeBron's will, not ability. Imagine, for example, how easily an LBJ Election Day bus tour could neutralize the Ohio Republican Party's Herculean efforts to suppress the minority vote. Maybe such a thing is a bit too hard to picture for now, but James is only 29 years old, as independent a superstar athlete as there's ever been (imagine if Jim Brown or Muhammad Ali had hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank at that age, or ever), who turned his childhood friends from Akron into a high-powered sports marketing firm. For all the hope that his return has engendered, the best is the hope that he stays true to his word, as well as his roots in the Elizabeth Park projects and the values of the community that took him in and raised him when his single mother was struggling to do the same.

Of course, even if LeBron does set off the unimaginable Parade Down Euclid with a Cavaliers championship, we'll all, more or less, "still have to wake up [the next day] and have the same life that [we] had before," as James famously reminded his haters (Clevelanders) after his NBA Finals loss to Dallas (the Mavaliers) in 2011.

But if the enduring lesson of "The Return" is found in the importance of being where one "means more," it's a completely different story.  

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