If I had a fattened calf, I would have slaughtered it on Friday afternoon. LeBron James – the greatest basketball player on the planet – announced that there is no place in the world that he would rather be than back home in Cleveland. The St. Vincent St. Mary High School graduate broke the news to the world through a beautifully crafted, humble, heartfelt essay posted on SI.com. Northeast Ohio hasn’t been the same since.
Now before anyone starts accusing Clevelanders of being idolaters or asking me if I understand that Lebron is not really the King because Jesus Christ is the true King, please take a deep breath and allow me to explain a few things. First, I am a Catholic priest and I understand full well that LeBron James is a human being, and like all of us a fellow sinner. And I honestly don’t think anyone in my hometown actually worships LeBron, or thinks that he is the Savior of the world. But you have to understand – and unless you were actually born and raised here it’s a hard thing to do – that Cleveland is like Nazareth. People often wonder if anything good can come from here.
Four years ago, when Lebron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, our city was crushed. It was bad enough that LeBron decided to leave home and chase rings with the Miami Heat, but what really hurt was the way that he did it while the whole world was watching. We’ve had other great athletes leave our city before – Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, C.C. Sabathia – but none of them were homegrown. When LeBron left us back in 2010, it wasn’t just about sports, it was about our city, our region. Which is why when he posted his letter on Friday, it couldn’t have been more perfect.
If you haven’t read the letter yet, add it to your to-do list this week. Here are a few of my highlights:
Rather than making his decision a spectacle on ESPN, or calling a press conference, or throwing a party, LeBron simply decided to write an essay. In doing so, he said everything that he needed to say in a format that reminded the world of the power of the written word. He went old school, like St. Paul.
In the very first paragraph LeBron makes an important distinction between being a basketball player and a person, and for him, the person takes priority – “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio.” He goes on to say that he feels like a son to the city, and then proclaims that his “relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.” He then admits that he didn’t understand this reality four years ago, but that he does today.
James also admits that the way in which he left Cleveland back in 2010 was difficult, but that if he could do it all over again he would still have gone to Miami (although he would have done so differently.) He speaks of his time in Miami as being like college for most kids – he was away from home for four years, made some great friends, and learned a lot about the game of basketball, about life, and about himself. But after four trips to the Finals and two rings, he knew it was time to come home.
For LeBron to come home, he needed the support of two important women in his life, his mom and his wife. His mother gave birth to LeBron when she was sixteen, unmarried, and living in the projects. Props to Gloria James for choosing life. And his wife Savannah is currently pregnant with their third child, their first daughter. LeBron has said that he would like to send his children to his Alma Mater, St. Vincent St. Mary High School in Akron, which is here in the diocese of Cleveland. But in addition to concerns about his own family, James is also concerned about his regional family of Northeast Ohio. And this concern is what makes his move so special.
James writes, “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. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundred of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.” I know grown men who teared-up reading that paragraph for the first time. Truth be told, I was one of them as I read James’ essay from my phone to my 89 year-old, legally blind dad while he sat in his wheelchair at the nursing home on Friday, listening carefully to every word with the help of his hearing aides. His response? “That’s good, son. That’s very good.”
Perhaps what makes LeBron’s homecoming so great is that it seems too good to be true. He and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert had a terrible falling-out back in 2010 and most of us thought LeBron James was gone forever. But the seemingly impossible happened. Gilbert and James met, apologized, reconciled, and now the fruits of their humility and reconciliation are literally tangible here in Northeast Ohio. People are walking with their heads high and their chests out, not because we are cocky or arrogant or proud (in the bad sense), but because our son has returned home.
Now it’s just time to put a ring on his finger.