By Carl Finer
Unlike many Cleveland sports fans, I was glad when LeBron James finally won his championship. Well, perhaps glad isn’t exactly the right word. Not glad like when you get a postcard in the mail from an acquaintance in a faraway place, or see an old friend, or when someone you respect gets a promotion. Relieved is more like it, relieved like when that old girlfriend, the one you cared about but always knew it would never work out, the one who still sends cryptic messages out of the blue about missing you, finally gets married and you know for certain you can move on with your life.
I grew up with LeBron. Not like he lived down the street from me, though as a high schooler he did play against a neighbor from down the block. In that game LeBron delivered a dunk so resounding it made the cover of the Plain Dealer sports page. But my journey, and my relationship with Cleveland, paralleled the career of this boy endowed with a freak set of athletic abilities, becoming a man. I feel pride, disgust, restlessness and respect for the ground I am rooted in and dislocated from, just as I respect, resent, and prize LeBron. We raised LeBron in our own imperfect and petulant image. He eventually became his own authentic person, and so did I.
[blocktext align=”left”]We raised LeBron in our own imperfect and petulant image. He eventually became his own authentic person, and so did I.[/blocktext]We all grow up in a small world, a world defined by the convenience store at the end of the street, the city pool where you brave into the deep end, and how far you are allowed to ride your bike before turning back. The center of my small world was the hoop mounted above our garage, at the corner where urban Cleveland and East Cleveland meet suburban Cleveland Heights and South Euclid. As long as there was daylight, that hoop hosted endless epic games of one-on-one with my twin brother, rugged games of three-on-three with the neighbors, and larger games with truly talented players from beyond the block. The only player to ever dunk on that hoop was the one later posterized by LeBron.
The furthest limit of my small world was the Richfield Coliseum, the endpoint of an annual birthday pilgrimage to see the Cavaliers play. It was a long drive in the early winter dark, almost all the way to Akron, past freeway exits into the woods for towns I’d barely heard of, emerging into the bright lights and echoing crowds cheering for Daugherty, Nance, and Price. The next morning I would relive the game by clipping the box score from the newspaper.
[blocktext align=”right”]The furthest limit of my small world was the Richfield Coliseum, the endpoint of an annual birthday pilgrimage to see the Cavaliers play. [/blocktext]Later, in high school and with a car, my brother and I would drive into downtown Cleveland at least once a week and buy the cheapest Cavs seats available. The city was ours: the Shoreway and the lake, the twinkling lights, the downtown skyscrapers looming above the mist and snow, and in the pre-LeBron days of sparse crowds, usually an entire section in the upper deck. We headed downtown early, in time for the pregame shoot-around. Hanging out down by the court, getting autographs from visiting stars, swapping stories about our favorite signatures with the other collectors. After the game, we stuck around and listened to Austin Carr’s live radio post-game show in the arena restaurant. Picking through the media stats sheets and meeting the evening’s guest (usually a team benchwarmer), we felt almost grown-up.
My brother was a stat rat, and I was a geography nut. Our interests dovetailed over the sports page. My brother consumed the box scores and leaders tables of every sport in season, and I devoured the names of all the towns and high schools I’d encountered in my cross country and track meets. By the time we were seniors in high school, the high school sections of those sport pages were full of stories about a lanky kid in Akron leading his tiny school up the rankings. His name was LeBron James.
I went to college at Syracuse, and had trouble adjusting at first. I ached for home. I’d set off in the night on return trips, driving at unconscionable speed, clicking off the cities as I went: Rochester-Buffalo-Erie-Ashtabula. The anticipation would build the closer I got, and I’d mentally race each time to see if I could get home 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes sooner. And then, after hours alone in the dark, I’d arrive. I’d sit at the dinner table with my parents, get all caught up on the latest news on the Cavs, settle in on the couch to watch the end of a game, and be sound asleep before the final buzzer. In the morning, I’d read the sports section, and there each time was LeBron James, slowly rising further towards the front page with each trip.
I finally got comfortable at college, with help from basketball. On weekend nights, the school kept the gym open past midnight. I’d go looking for a basketball game. I joined the small crowd watching the really good pick-up players on the full court in the new gym. On the rare occasions I actually got into their game, I’d chase up and down the court with abandon, try my best to play stingy defense, and never touch the ball. They were much too good for me.
[blocktext align=”left”]I finally got comfortable at college, with help from basketball.[/blocktext]But soon I found a game with some of the other late-night loners shooting around on a half-court in the old gym. They were often international students with a great appreciation for basketball but not much experience. I’d race up and down the court gathering steals and making layups. I was much too good for them.
I joined the basketball pep band, the Sour Sitrus Society. I wasn’t in the marching band or majoring in music, so I didn’t know a lot of the members, but we all had basketball in common. For a few hours, I’d lose myself in the basketball games, blasting away on my trumpet (or faking it when I didn’t really know the music or lack of practice kept me from hitting the high notes), jumping around, and being completely absorbed in the games.
News of LeBron was starting to get around Cleveland. Every time I’d call home, my Dad would mention him. LeBron had gotten so big locally that his games had been moved from his high school gym to a college arena. When my brother and I were both back in town, we drove down to Akron, joined the throngs purchasing tickets outside the University of Akron’s gym, and pushed our way inside and down towards the court.
He lived up to all the hype. Playing an elite team from Louisville, Kentucky, he controlled the game, the crowd, the universe. He saw things nobody else in the arena saw, casually slicing up the opposition with crisp, laser passes through the lane to all of his teammates. He swooped back on defense in a few long strides and altered play at will, taking the ball back through a block, steal, or rebound as if it belonged only to him.
When I went back to school, I told people about LeBron. There was this kid who wasn’t from New York or Boston but from my home in the Midwest who was going to make it big. This kid played unselfishly, who was tough, whose game was all about substance.
That basketball season began under the shadow of 9/11. It ended for me in New York City, after a traveling band was hastily assembled for Syracuse’s games in the NIT. It didn’t matter that Syracuse lost both those games. What mattered was that I was there. I was mesmerized to be playing my trumpet at Madison Square Garden, and overwhelmed to walk through crowds of so many people toward the smoldering hole at Ground Zero.
[blocktext align=”right”]When I applied to the teaching program, I was faced with a list of cities. I could rank my preferences. Cleveland wasn’t even a choice on the list.[/blocktext]I started traveling a lot that year. I started taking classes that expanded my small world. I studied for hours in a dining hall that overlooked an interstate, reading my textbooks and wondering where all the travelers were going. That spring, for the first time, I didn’t go home on a break, instead trekking to a small Florida panhandle town to build houses. I went more out of curiosity than any sense my clumsy nail-hammering skills would do much good. I signed up to be a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters. As my initially awkward relationship with my little brother grew, we spent a lot of time shooting hoops in the gym, and I arranged for him, a budding trumpet player, to sit in with the basketball band. I was proud of my growing world, and would share pictures of my new life with anyone who would listen when I went back for visits in Cleveland.
That year, as a junior in high school, LeBron had made the cover of Sports Illustrated anointed as “The Chosen One.”
The following year, both Syracuse and LeBron became national stories.
Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national championship. I’d had a poor travel band audition and watched the final game on a giant projection TV in the Carrier Dome with my little brother. When the game ended, we rushed the floor and stayed to watch the nets be cut down in New Orleans.
Meanwhile, as a senior LeBron and his team traveled around the country for games shown on ESPN2, with color commentary provided by Bill Walton and highlights shown nightly on Sportscenter. Celebrities were showing up at his games and asking for autographs.
The year culminated with the Cavs winning the draft lottery, and LeBron staying home to begin his professional life.
As I wrestled with my plans beyond graduation, my little brother suggested I try teaching. I found a program that placed recruits with gumption, will, and naïveté in challenging schools around the country. When I applied, I was faced with a list of cities. I could rank my preferences, but if I was accepted, I would have to go where I was sent. I ranked the cities on the west coast highest. Cleveland wasn’t even a choice on the list.
After weeks of waiting, wondering what my plan B might be, I got the large envelope in the mail that said I was going to be teaching the following year . . . in Los Angeles.
[blocktext align=”left”]Seemingly overnight, the comfortable self-indulgence of college was exchanged for the bewilderment of impending adulthood.[/blocktext]Seemingly overnight, the comfortable self-indulgence of college was exchanged for the bewilderment of impending adulthood in an unimaginably complex city. Arteries and tributaries of freeways flowed into neighborhoods with signs in Spanish and Korean and Armenian and Thai. In a shortened summer spent training for my new job, lessons and plans and textbooks and meetings and discussions and reflections spilled into a flooding river of information. And there was the barrage of life tasks: get an apartment, get a roommate, get a phone, get appropriate clothes, get a license and registration, get signed up for coursework, get all the correct paperwork and get it where it had to go. Everywhere flowers bloomed, birds chirped, the sun shone and the mountains loomed and burned.
I was in over my head.
I kept the high-mileage Olds Cutlass with the Ohio tags still on it. I kept in my closet my brothers’ clothes that I had borrowed and never returned, along with an old Cavs polo shirt and my pep band pullover from Syracuse, the one with the autographs of the players from the championship team.
And I kept up with LeBron.
That first semester of teaching was accented by panic, late nights, and a car break-in at work. I’d sit in traffic on the freeway, those glorious mountains obscured and hazy, and feel the city smothering me. When I couldn’t take it, I’d bring my basketball down to the end of the block, to the courts at Lafayette Park (a location for scenes in White Men Can’t Jump), and play in a pick-up game. Or I’d sit at my computer and compulsively read the news from Cleveland, the highlights from an improving Cavs team playing before a crowd full of my people. Often, I’d disappear into my couch cushions, cover myself in a blanket and turn off all the lights, and watch LeBron play on TV.
From a distance, I watched LeBron’s ascent, my mom’s sudden interest in basketball, the sweep of billboards across town celebrating the Cavs. As I confronted the new world around me, I wore a wine-and-gold LeBron jersey I’d picked up at an outlet mall somewhere on the Oregon coast.
In the summer after LeBron carried the team and the entire city on his back to their first NBA Finals, I returned to Cleveland once again. I got an internship with an education reform magazine, and from a desk above Playhouse Square with an expansive view of the lake, I tried out life in Cleveland as a grown-up.
I drove my mom’s car downtown each morning. I participated in story planning, endlessly surprised to be asked what I thought. I called key players in the world of education reform, reported, wrote my pieces conscientiously. I took lunch breaks to wander around downtown. On the weekends I went with my dad to car shows and drove around Amish country and smelled the rain and grass and backyard grills.
At the end of it all, I was offered a job.
And I went back to LA.
I had some worries about the long-term viability of the job I was offered in Cleveland. And my brother had followed his girlfriend to Florida, which made Ohio feel less like home. But the reason for going back to LA was much deeper than that.
I just wasn’t ready to return.
I’d left Cleveland to make my own life, to find my own identity apart from the one I’d inherited from my parents and from the region, and to succeed or fail on my own merits. And I hadn’t done that yet.
[blocktext align=”right”]At the end of it all, I was offered a job in Cleveland. And I went back to LA.[/blocktext]It felt hollow driving those familiar streets, following those familiar routines, feeling the familiar expectations of my family, knowing I had an unsettled life elsewhere.
While I returned to LA to find my own way, LeBron still played at home under the scrutiny of the region that had raised him.. His run through the playoffs early that summer had ended with a sweep at the hands of the Spurs, but the defeat only served to intensify the pressure and expectations on him.
The awards and accolades and expectations piled up, but greater success did not follow. The next year the Cavs lost in the playoffs to the Celtics, despite a heroic effort from LeBron. The Cavs fell the following year to the Magic, and LeBron stomped off the court in a huff, without a polite word to the victors or the media. The following postseason, the Cavs lost again to the Celtics, in a series in which LeBron was widely perceived to have quit.
Every form of media, from newspapers to Facebook, blew up with frustration. The city deserved a championship. The city deserved more from LeBron. The city was owed more from LeBron.
It pained me to watch it play out: The region as overbearing parent, desperately projecting all its unrealized dreams onto its progeny, epitomized in a poster hanging just off Public Square proclaiming “We Are All Witnesses.” And LeBron as the spoiled, frustrated child, basking in his attention-seeking chalk toss, moodily shutting down when things didn’t go his way.
When LeBron’s Cleveland story ended, I cringed at the immaturity of broadcasting “The Decision” and welled with sadness at the jerseys being burned in the streets. It shouldn’t have ended that way.
LeBron had to leave to grow up, and clearly he had a lot of growing up to do.
So did the city. The provincial reaction brought back for me every time I’d been questioned rather than supported about decisions to be different, questioned about why I wanted to see the world when my family never even ventured to the West Side, why I left the state for school when everyone else fortunate enough was heading off to college together, why I’d chosen to work with immigrant kids when I could just get a teaching job in the suburbs. As if by trying to grow I was repudiating the identity of those who’d chosen to stay.
I moved my LeBron jersey and the rest of my Cleveland gear to the back of my closet. I couldn’t bring myself to give the jersey or the clothes away. But I just couldn’t look at it anymore.
[blocktext align=”left”]LeBron had to leave to grow up, and clearly he had a lot of growing up to do.[/blocktext]To hell with LeBron, and to hell with Cleveland.
Like nearly everyone else outside of Miami, I initially rooted against LeBron. It wasn’t that he had left, it was the way he had left. He had crossed a line by going out of his way to disparage our shared roots, our shared connection. While I didn’t want to live under my parent’s roof, I would never insult my family for raising and sheltering me.
I wanted him to fail, to pay for his arrogance and brash immaturity. And he did. His Heat didn’t win the championship that first year in Miami. The Dallas Mavericks did, a team anchored by Dirk Nowitzki, a player who had spent his entire NBA career with one team, leading them from irrelevance to a title.
I watched those games from a bar in Pasadena with fellow Cleveland expatriates, guys I’d bagged groceries with while growing up. We cheered at the final buzzer, as LeBron’s season ended in stunned silence on his new home court.
But my appetite for revenge ended there. LeBron was still a kid. And I wanted him to learn from his youthful mistakes.
[blocktext align=”right”]It wasn’t that he had left, it was the way he had left.[/blocktext]I thought about the bridges I had burned heedlessly, hurtful things I’d said working alongside lifelong employees at the grocery store, mean things I’d said to my parents.
I hoped I had learned too.
LeBron finally won his championship the next year. I felt relieved, like a weight had been lifted.
[blocktext align=”left”]LeBron gave interviews ruing his immaturity, how he’d become somebody he wasn’t.[/blocktext]The title hadn’t come easy. It required LeBron to grow up on the court. His game changed, from a ball handler trying to create shots from the perimeter to a player who touched the ball less but could shoot or pass from anywhere on the court. He toned down the talk and put in the work. He made his teammates better.
He gave interviews ruing his immaturity, how he’d become somebody he wasn’t, how he didn’t want to play angry or to prove something to others, but to play a game he loved the best he could for its own sake.
For a long time I floated along on a false sense of security. It was an extended childhood in which hard work and intelligence always paid off right away, feeding an unspoken and unchallenged belief that I was my own master.
Experience shattered that. First, my father was laid off after nearly thirty years working at the same company. Then, I was let go from the school I’d poured so much of my soul into. And then my best friend was diagnosed with cancer.
My friend made it through that round of cancer. My father eventually found a new job that helped restore his sense of self, and so did I moved to an old house where I can sit on the stoop and hear music and laughter and tacos grilling from a sidewalk cart, a home and neighborhood not all that unlike the one my mom grew up in on Coventry.
And I found as I rebuilt my life in Los Angeles, I also was reintroduced to life in my hometown, but this time as an adult.
Whirlwind trips through Cleveland for work and weddings brought me back in contact with a familiar landscape made new by time, distance, and experience. I watched Cleveland sports with family and friends, balancing a new detachment with a genuine affinity. I bonded with old friends at Nighttown, sharing our tempered yet real adult ambitions: to create art, to teach kids, to make things better. There were drives down the Shoreway towards the twinkling lights of downtown, towards buildings I knew were half vacant, but were beautiful nonetheless, casting shadows over streets bustling with life.
It felt like a healthier place a few years removed from the obsession with LeBron, a community perhaps finally learning to develop its own authentic sense of self, a vision inclusive and supportive of a diversity of dreams.
[blocktext align=”right”]I’m cautiously appreciating LeBron again.[/blocktext]I’m cautiously appreciating LeBron again. With his Heat facing so many injuries as they again march into the Finals, he’s had to shoulder the burden in a way that he hasn’t faced since he left Cleveland. He seems to have accepted it with maturity, handled the pressure with grace, calmly put his role as an athlete and a person into perspective during press conferences.
I hope people in Cleveland aren’t still angry. That they can admire their son from afar, be proud without projecting, appreciate his accomplishments without demanding anything in return. And if that son ever decides to come back, as an adult of his own volition, I hope they welcome him with open arms.
Carl Finer teaches kids to write and run in Los Angeles, and occasionally writes and runs himself. He’s on Twitter @CarlFiner.
Photo by Domenic Careri/Shutterstock.
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