By Matt Stansberry
I was born in Akron. My deathbed request for a final meal would be a Swenson’s Galley Boy, and I’d wash it down with a California. My grandfather retired from the Firestone Tire Factory, and as a kid I worked for Goodyear doing park maintenance at Wingfoot Lake. My mom graduated from Akron Public Schools and Akron University, and taught Special Education in those same city schools.
I know almost nothing about basketball. But I can speak to you as a son of Akron.
LeBron James. I write his name over and over. I say the words like a prayer in the silence of my kitchen, the day after LeBron won it all for us.
Never in professional sports has an athlete meant so much to a city.
In his now-famous “Nothing is given” Sports Illustrated essay, James wrote:
Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son.
In July 2014, I was at my aunt’s house in Portage Lakes on the Friday afternoon that LeBron James announced his return to Ohio. I heard a radio from somewhere nearby, not even the words, just excitement in the announcers’ voices carrying over the water, and I knew what had happened.
I rolled in the grass and screamed in joy. My aunt tried to explain to my very young sons what was happening to their father. But again, I don’t love basketball or the Cavaliers. I love LeBron James.
Sunday night James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to become the first team in the history of the NBA to make such a dramatic comeback. Through tears in the postgame interview, he said, “I don’t know why we take the hardest road. . . I strive the most when everyone counts us out.”
This is the Akron ethos, even more so than Cleveland or any other city.
There is no place more self-conscious than Northeast Ohio, a place with a chip on its shoulder.
Last night James said “I understand what Northeast Ohio has been through the last fifty years,” and you knew it was the truth.
In the same breath, he said he kept the pressures of our hopes and expectations at bay these past two years, and you knew he was kidding himself.
Even as he executes superhuman feats of athleticism, you see him processing everything. You see it in the strain on his face and the new gray hair in his beard along his jawline.
When the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran the headline after the NBA Finals in 2015 “Not Enough Grit” I lost it. I wrote to the editors. I called and screamed like a lunatic at the unfortunate woman in customer service as I cancelled my subscription. We in Akron are fiercely protective.
When the shitheel critics complain about his relationship with the officials, or mock his hairline, his cramping legs, I feel a visceral pain and protectiveness, the way I would if someone had hurt my child.
But I am unnerved by the responsibility of what I feel I need to say here. I am not qualified to write about race. My privilege and upbringing do not disqualify me necessarily, but my lack of any depth or rigorous thinking on this subject do. I will try to do this next part justice.
Two of the men in the world I admire the most are young black guys with absent fathers.
In December of 2014, President Obama praised LeBron James for following in the path of Muhammad Ali toward raising racial consciousness by wearing a shirt during pregame warmups that read “I Can’t Breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died while in a police chokehold.
When asked about the shirt, LeBron said, “As a society we have to do better. We have to be better for one another no matter what race you are.”
Everyone knows the story of LeBron James growing up in poverty in Akron and becoming the world’s greatest sports icon. But the day after the championship was clinched, I spent time meditating on a photo I saw making the rounds on social media.
In this photo James appears to be the same age as my oldest son, wearing a cardigan and clutching a stuffed elephant.
This image of a vulnerable boy reminds me of a note I had read that LeBron wrote to the young kids of Akron earlier this year, the kids LeBron is working to get into college programs.
It’s tough to get out of the bed in the morning when it’s cold and dark. Sometimes, all I want to do is stay in bed and watch cartoons, so I know how it feels. No matter what, we have to get out of bed and go to work. Understood?
I hope you guys have an incredible week. You’ll be on my mind, I PROMISE.
A lot of people argue that LeBron has a messiah complex, a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that he or she is, or is destined to become a savior.
In most cases, the definition above relates to a delusion of grandeur, but in this case it is practical. LeBron’s messiah complex is not that he’s not going to save the world. He’s saving Akron. He’s saving us.
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish.