My first LeBron James experience came in December 2002, when his St. Vincent–St. Mary High School team played against Oak Hill Academy in Cleveland on ESPN2. James had been on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior earlier that year, and I had a vague sense of who he was because of that. But high school basketball players had been on SI covers before, from Rick Mount in 1966 to Kevin Garnett in 1995. That alone wasn’t enough to get me to buy into the hype. It wasn’t until I learned that he would play the top-ranked high school team in the nation in a game airing live on ESPN2 that James had my full attention. I can’t stress enough how inconceivable this sort of thing was back then. If you don’t believe me, read the postgame column written by Jay Bilas (who was part of that ESPN2 broadcast along with Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale, and Bill Walton) in which he wrestled with his conscience over whether it was appropriate to shine a national spotlight on a high school kid.
At the time, I was a freshman at Brownsburg High School who had been raised in Indiana with a full-blown obsession for high school basketball. The idea that ESPN was broadcasting a prime-time game that I theoretically could have been playing in blew my mind. I swear, I turned the TV on two hours before tipoff, watched every single second of the telecast, and then stayed up until midnight to watch SportsCenter replay all the highlights. I even recorded the game on VHS and rewatched it at least a dozen times. I know how ridiculous this is going to sound, but it’s true: St. Vincent–St. Mary’s 65-45 win over Oak Hill in 2002 remains one of the five most memorable basketball games I’ve ever watched in my life.
A big part of why that game has stuck with me for so long is because I distinctly remember the thought that kept running through my mind as I watched LeBron dismantle the no. 1 high school team in the country: I can’t believe this guy is from Ohio. My brain couldn’t process it. Even though I grew up thinking that Indiana was the epicenter of high school basketball, I was smart enough to realize that many NBA superstars came from East Coast hubs such as New York and Washington, D.C., or other major cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. But the guy on national TV making Oak Hill Academy look like kindergartners was from … Akron, Ohio? It made absolutely no sense. I had no idea where Akron even was in Ohio then, and that was kind of the point: So much of LeBron’s appeal for me was that I, a dim-witted 15-year-old from a Midwestern dot on a map, had tricked myself into thinking he lived right down the road. I’m from Indiana, LeBron’s from Ohio, and Ohio and Indiana are neighbors. He’s basically from where I’m from! This is wild!
Less than four years later, through a series of unrelated events, I moved into my freshman dorm at Ohio State as LeBron was beginning his fourth season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ve lived in Ohio ever since. I lived here when a 22-year-old LeBron single-handedly beat the Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals and carried a bunch of nobodies to the first NBA Finals appearance in Cavs franchise history. I lived here when he won back-to-back MVPs in 2009 and 2010. I lived here during The Decision. I lived here when he disappeared in the 2011 Finals against the Mavericks. I lived here when he finally got over the hump and won his first title with Miami in 2012. I lived here when he won his second consecutive NBA championship in 2013, and I lived here when he decided to come back home in 2014. And I lived here in June 2016, when he fulfilled his destiny of bringing a championship to the most title-starved city in America.
With the Cavaliers staring down elimination in the 2018 playoffs and an exhausted 33-year-old James in the familiar position of carrying a mediocre coach and supporting cast, conventional wisdom says that LeBron will once again leave Cleveland via free agency this summer. Even if the Cavs can find a way to beat the Celtics in Friday’s Game 6, win in Boston in Game 7, and clinch LeBron’s eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals, he still seems likely to leave this offseason, given that Cleveland would probably get steamrolled by either the Warriors or Rockets and remind him that his run with the Cavs has plateaued. The writing is on the wall: There’s a good chance that Friday will mark the last home game that LeBron James will ever play in Cleveland.
When the first chapter of his Cleveland legacy was written against Oak Hill, I was a Hoosier who was indifferent to the Cavaliers and cared about LeBron only in the same way I cared about other phenoms before him, such as Tiger Woods, Danny Almonte, or Adam Banks. More than 15 years later, I still wouldn’t consider myself a Cavs fan or even a huge LeBron fan, at least not in the sense that I ever feel compelled to engage in profane arguments with anonymous Twitter users about his legacy. But something has most definitely changed during that time: I have become an Ohioan. And with that, I have not only gotten an up-close look at the biblical saga that has played out between LeBron and the place that he calls home—I have also, through seemingly no choice of my own, become invested in it.
The story of LeBron’s impact on Northeast Ohio and, by extension, the entire state, has been told a million different times by a million different people. Many of them are more qualified to speak on the topic than I am, from Scott Raab, who wrote two books on LeBron, to whoever put together the “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism” videos. The thing that always seems to get lost on a national audience, though, is that the relationship between LeBron and Northeast Ohio over the past two decades has, at its core, never been about basketball. This seems impossible, I know. The man is one of the greatest basketball players of all time and famous for his ability to put a leather ball through a steel hoop, so I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking that LeBron’s story is a basketball tale with some other elements thrown in, rather than the other way around. But the truth is that basketball is just the vehicle driving the story. If everything about LeBron stayed the same, only he was a world-famous surgeon, musical savant, or stand-up comedian instead of an NBA star, his story would remain every bit as compelling.
I’m sure of this because of the severity to which I’ve been sucked into the LeBron vortex. It’s impossible to be an Ohio resident and avoid it. For 12 years now, I have told myself that I am not a Cavs fan and that I’m a LeBron fan only in the sense that I enjoy watching great athletes perform at their peak. And for 12 years, I’ve learned that statement is much less accurate than I’d like. This becomes evident whenever I travel outside the state, strangers learn I’m from Ohio, LeBron’s name is inevitably invoked in a discussion, and I find myself voicing strong opinions on a topic I claim to not care about. That’s because the first (and sometimes only) thing many people think of when they think about Ohio is LeBron James. And while reducing an entire state’s identity to one man is far from ideal, the prideful part of my brain kicks in and says if he’s what we’ve got to be known for, then dammit—I’m going to rally behind him and be as proud as I can be.
I should probably pause here and admit that for many people in Northeast Ohio and beyond, everything involving LeBron has always been about the basketball. I’ll concede that the reprehensible behavior shown by a sizable chunk of Ohioans in response to The Decision was entirely derived from the belief that LeBron owed Cleveland a title and wasn’t allowed any semblance of freewill until he delivered one. But as someone who never gave a squirt of piss about the Cavs and still had a visceral reaction to the words “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” I can say there was so much more to it than that. The feeling was never that LeBron owed Ohio anything. What made his exit such a betrayal was the eight-year build-up to that point.
The Decision seemed to invalidate the “Chosen 1” tattoo on his back and the way he’d long talked about his home and his people. LeBron’s entire brand revolved around the notion that he was the local boy turned savior; that not only did Ohio love him, but that he also loved Ohio back. Maybe I’m speaking only for myself, but the resentment from The Decision was never about the future and what it meant for the Cleveland’s NBA title hopes moving forward; it was more about what it meant for the past. For Ohioans, The Decision felt like a declaration that everything to that point was built on a lie and that LeBron only pretended to care about the people who supported him since puberty because some ping-pong balls bounced a certain way.
That’s exactly why his return to Cleveland in 2014 was so impactful. I didn’t care about whether he was going to finally bring a title to Cleveland. What I cared about was that, for the first time in his life, LeBron actually chose Ohio. He didn’t live here because he was born here or because a random NBA draft order sent him here. He lived here because he wanted to. The best athlete and one of the most famous men in the entire world was at the absolute zenith of his powers and could have chosen to live anywhere on earth, and yet he chose a place that’s a punch line everywhere else. He chose the place nobody EVER chooses. He chose the same place that I did.
Suddenly, all of the anxieties that bubbled over and manifested themselves in regrettable ways when he left in 2010 disappeared, and a sense of pride was restored in Cleveland, Northeast Ohio, and the entire state. And on top of that, the local economy was immediately impacted for the better. All because the prodigal son came home.
That’s what I mean when I say the LeBron saga isn’t about basketball, and that’s why the thought of him leaving Ohio for good is so bittersweet. It simply cannot be overstated what this man has meant to this state. He’s the most famous living Ohioan by a significant margin and is among the most accomplished Ohioans to ever live. If there has ever been a child prodigy of LeBron’s caliber who was born and raised in a widely dismissed region of the country and had the hopes of that region dropped on his shoulders as a teenager, I can’t recall it. And LeBron has not only delivered on everything that has been asked of him—miraculously, he’s exceeded the expectations. Ending Cleveland’s 52-year title drought was nice enough, but the millions his foundation has raised for the youth of Akron, the scholarships that he’s providing to more than a thousand Akron kids, the strong associations he’s built with the University of Akron and Ohio State, the way he’s plugged into the community as a leader and ambassador and given so many people hope that they can come from a place that the rest of America thinks is a shithole and make something of themselves—all of that is so much more important than the trophy he won in 2016. And that’s why I, a man who claims to have only a marginal affinity for LeBron, keep finding myself in these awkward situations where I realize I’m an enormous hypocrite.
The consensus from all of my friends and family who are die-hard Cavaliers fans is that, should LeBron choose to leave Cleveland this summer, the local reaction will be much different than the response to The Decision. The fact he already won one for the Land undoubtedly plays a huge part in these feelings, as does the notion that his announcement won’t come via another nationally televised hour-long ego stroke. But more than that, LeBron coming back to Cleveland for the past four seasons has left no doubt that he’s one of us, and that’s the most important point of all. No matter how irrational it may be, that’s really all any fan wants of any team: to feel an authentic bond with the athletes they spend so much time and money supporting. As he does with most things, LeBron has gone above and beyond in providing that during his second Cavs stint. Regardless of where he goes this offseason or what he does for the rest of his life, coming back to Cleveland to play for an owner and fan base that had forsaken him when he had every reason not to is proof enough that LeBron will always be an Ohioan. That’s why there will be no hard feelings if he chooses to pursue a better opportunity elsewhere.
But we’ll still be sure to leave a light on, just in case.