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Posnanski: LeBron James proves he’s a true Clevelander

Jul 11, 2014, 8:15 PM EDT

There was something about LeBron-to-South-Beach that is hard, perhaps impossible, to explain to people who are not from Cleveland. I suppose there are things about glitz that cannot be explained to people not from Los Angeles, things about cheesesteaks that cannot be explained to people not from Philadelphia, things about barbecue that will only make sense to Kansas Citians, things about motion and action that do not quite translate to non-New Yorkers.

See, many people thought that Clevelanders were unreasonable after James left for Miami. In a way, we were. The jokes about it — “Who wouldn’t leave Cleveland for Miami?” and “Did they expect LeBron to serve a life sentence?” and the like — were not funny, but I could understand why people made them. Cleveland doesn’t have a beach. Cleveland doesn’t have sun. Cleveland doesn’t have so many stars’ homes that they sell maps. Heck, they call the region the “Rust Belt.” Nobody missed the point. The videos of burning jerseys played on a loop and did not help the Cleveland image. The inane spurned love letter written in Comic Sans by owner Dan Gilbert didn’t help either. 

Many people around the country despised LeBron for the WAY he left Cleveland — with that soulless television infomercial — but the act of leaving Cleveland, well, who could blame him, right? He had a chance to play with two superstars on the beach or stay in Cleveland with a dysfunctional team that had never won a thing. This is a choice? He had played seven years for Cleveland, and now he wanted something new … and many thought Clevelanders were unreasonable for lashing out at him.

Like I say, in a way we were. But there’s that something else, something that’s hard to explain if you are not from Cleveland.

It has been 50 years since Cleveland has won a championship in any sport. You probably know that. The last one was the Cleveland Browns in 1964. The city’s population was close to 900,000, Cleveland was one of the 10 biggest cities in America and Jim Brown, the greatest athlete in America, ran the football for the Browns. 

And then it all went wrong, all of it, the river caught fire, and factories began layoffs, and people began to flee, and the city defaulted, and neighborhoods started dying. More people fled. Jim Brown retired in his prime, the Cleveland Indians threatened to leave every other year, the Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien was so incompetent the NBA itself was forced to veto his bizarre trades. More people fled. Winters seemed to get colder. The snowdrifts seemed to climb higher and they looked like rust. Potholes seemed to get bigger. John Elway drove. Ernest Byner fumbled. Art Modell yanked out the city’s heart. More people fled.

Almost a half million people have left the city of Cleveland over the last 50 years, most of us because we really didn’t have a choice. There were no jobs. There was no future. My dad followed work down Interstate 77 to Charlotte back in the early 1980s. When we got there, it seemed like every other person we met was from Cleveland.

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Then we all left a part of ourselves in Cleveland. There is something about the city that gets inside you and never lets go, something about what it feels like the first day you can see grass poking through the snow after a long winter, something about Cleveland blue skies, something about the way the streets intersect and the many accents you cross, something about the way the restaurants and bars are given first names like “Eddie’s” and “Corky and Lenny’s,” something about the sports mix of hope and gloom that swirls like gin and tonic.

When LeBron James came along, we thought he understood that. He grew up in Akron, which is really Cleveland — Akron, Canton, Wooster, Warren, Elyria, even Youngstown, they’re all Cleveland in a sense. Everything about James coming to the Cavaliers was miraculous in the first place. Here was this basketball Mozart from Northeast Ohio, and he came out just when the Cavaliers needed a savior, and the team hit the lottery. It was so, utterly unCleveland. 

He was probably one of the top three players in the NBA by his second year. In his fourth year, James dragged and pulled and yanked a scruffy team with a 7-foot-3 outside shooter and a frenetic Brazilian all the way to the NBA Finals. There, predictably, they were swatted down in four straight by the no-nonsense San Antonio Spurs. The Cavaliers promised to get LeBron some help, and for the most part they did not. They brought in a steady parade of old guys like Shaq and young guys that didn’t take. James was good enough to make the team a championship favorite. Even he, though, was not good enough to take them there.

All along, though, we thought he was one of us. A Clevelander. A Northern Ohio guy. That was our connection. Sure, he offered a few clues that maybe he resented the Cleveland connection. He wore a Yankees hat to an Indians playoff game, said he’d been a Yankees fan all his life. A Yankees fan? Kid from Akron? He lashed out at the fans who he thought expected too much of him. In his last playoff series for the Cavs, he seemed beaten down by those expectations … and he stopped. 

But in the end, underneath it all, we still thought he understood what it is to be a Clevelander, what it is to have watched the city wilt and try to fight back, what it is to endure all the sports heartbreaks and still hope for better days. When he went on his free agency tour, we thought it was all well and good but surely he would come back home. The guy was one of us.

Then he left — no, he didn’t just leave, he left in the most publicly humiliating way. It hit us between the eyes. When outsiders make their lame Cleveland jokes, it doesn’t matter. They know it’s a cliché. They cannot see underneath. But James? Well, it turns out he didn’t understand at all. THAT was at the heart of Cleveland’s pain, I think. He wasn’t one of us.

So … what happened on Friday? Well, four years, can change a man … especially the four years LeBron James had. At first, it was clear, he could not even understand the feelings swirling around him. He resented those feelings. He lashed out. How many titles would they win in Miami? Not five. Not six. He played with an edge. He took the Heat to the championship in Year 1, and he froze up. The taunting cheers renewed his anger. 

The second year he made SURE the Heat won the championship — this included a 45-point, 15-rebound game in Boston with the season on the line that was as extraordinary as anything I’ve ever seen in sports. People wanted him to be a cold-hearted crusher like Jordan or Kobe? Well, OK, he could do that. The third year, the Heat won the championship again. And LeBron, again, was irrefutable and undeniable. 

Gradually, it seemed like James began to see the world a little bit differently. He expressed regret for the way he left Cleveland. He smirked when thinking about the LeBron who had talked about winning all those championships. He talked more openly and clearly about what mattered to him in life. He married his high school sweetheart. He accepted responsibility as a role model.

Friday, he did the most surprising and remarkable thing of all: He announced he was going back to Cleveland. In a beautiful article he wrote with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, he admitted that he was a different man four years ago, when he made the Decision.

“But then you think about the other side,” he wrote, speaking of the Cleveland reaction. “What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?”

I’m guessing, of course, but I don’t think LeBron four years ago would have been able to form that thought. That’s not a knock. He was 25 years old, and he’d lived his whole life in one place, and he’d had overwhelming success. The unalterable truth about perspective is that it only comes after you’ve experienced enough to gain it.

Of course I’m happy he’s coming back to Cleveland. I’m happy because he instantly makes the Cavaliers a serious playoff contender in the weak Eastern Conference and good things can and should build from there. I’m happy because my hometown gets a win, something Cleveland doesn’t get enough of. I’m happy because NBA fans — not just Cleveland fans — are in love with this story; I received countless texts and emails from people saying, essentially: “I love LeBron James now.”

I’m happy because as a sportswriter this is an incredible story, perhaps even unprecedented, a superstar at the height of his game coming back home to try and win a championship for a city that hasn’t had one in a half century. There will probably be movies about it. This says so much about the man LeBron James has become that he could see the opportunity in Cleveland for him to do something singular. This sentence in his essay speaks to how LeBron thinks now:

“My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”

It is almost enough to make a Clevelander cry.

But more than anything, I’m happy because James is happy. “The more time passed,” he wrote, “the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.” People will talk about hard feelings and who forgave who, they will talk about Miami’s missteps that might have caused this, they will form theories about it all. But maybe, just maybe, it came down to this. LeBron James is from Northeast Ohio. And he is one of us.

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