LeBron is back, and so now it’s time to figure out how that makes us feel.
A story: The hood and roof of my car have a few long scratches in their paint. They showed up sometime this winter, long silvery gouges on the otherwise-pristine field of metallic blue. The scratches in the roof sit just above the driver’s seat and are obvious to anyone who may be getting into the driver’s seat. That person is usually me, and I see the scratches every time.
My wife pointed out the scratches to me sometime in the late winter, maybe early March. Our initial theory was that our car got keyed. This seemed plausible, and was infuriating. Random damage happens to cars parked in cities; one of my tires had been slashed just a few months prior on Thanksgiving weekend. It sucks, but it’s part of city life. The idea that someone came onto our property and damaged my vehicle angered me, but that anger quickly subsided. C’est la vie.
One morning a thought occurred to me: I had used a metal shovel to clear snow off of my car. The metal-on-metal friction likely caused the scratches. Another thought occurred to me: I’m a goddamned idiot.
So I sulked for a while about it, and looking at those scratches every day served as a reminder of just how much of an idiot I really am.
A few weeks ago, my wife was a bridesmaid in a wedding. The matron of honor was pregnant, and one of the groomsmen had a two-month old baby. Our daughter was five months old at the time, so our conversation at the rehearsal dinner gravitated towards the common ground we had: pregnancy and babies.
Eventually, my wife and I discussed our experience getting to the hospital on the day our daughter was born. In telling the story, a forgotten truth came up: in my rush to remove the ice that had come down the night before, I had used the shovel to clear the sidewalk and the car. Those scratches in the paint were there because the fastest way to the hospital involved clearing the car with the metal shovel that was already in my hands. I inadvertently damaged my car because the snow stood between us and the hospital and the snow needed to go.
Now, every time I look at my damaged car, I smile and think of my daughter. My vehicle is flawed, but I prefer it that way.
The NBA, for those of you unfamiliar with my “work”, was a source of absolute delight for me during the LeBron/Cavs years. The Cavs were solid, albeit flawed. They were propelled by a man so absurdly talented that sometimes watching him felt like a personal accomplishment. Jokes abounded, and everything was mostly good, except for that time that the Cavs suddenly lost to the Orlando PEDs Magic. That really sucked.
Then that whole unfortunate thing happened; mistakes were made. My over-correction was severe: I watched the Decision, drank some more spirits, wrote some words, and more or less left my NBA fandom behind.1 I’ve spent the past few years dealing with that and have mostly been fine with it.
It’s never a wise thing to expect a high level of rationality from Cleveland sports fans,2 but the actions of a significant number of Cleveland fans in the fallout of The Decision 1.0 were enough to cement the notion that I was done with sports for a while. I knew that nameless, faceless Cleveland Fans would do stupid, petulant things. What I didn’t expect to see were people I know from high school calling LeBron James the N-word on Twitter dot com. These were people not so different from me, and they were saying the worst possible things to another human being—because of a professional decision that only directly involve one of the parties involved (hint: the person directly involved wasn’t the person I went to high school with).
Ugliness like that made me ashamed to be a Cleveland fan. It’s ugly, and inexcusable, and ranks high among the worst possible outcomes of entertainment. I wanted nothing to do with that sort of garbage, not even a tangential association.3
The past few days have made me think a lot about how I feel about LeBron, the Cavs, and Ohio. LeBron’s maturation has been evident over the past few years, and it’s been increasingly difficult to not like him. Note I did not say ‘not despise him’: LeBron has been somewhat at ease since the Heat won their first championship. He became comfortable in his own skin, serving as a leader for the players’ association and acting as a fantastic ambassador for the sport—as well as the City of Akron—while in Miami. He’s grown into a very respectable man. The Decision was the only blemish on his career.4
The energy surrounding the Cavs with LeBron pulled me in. I was excited that the team’s new owner was aggressively pursuing options. Sure, Dan Gilbert trotted out his team to lobby for his casino, but whatever: the Cavs were great, and that was easy to look over. Then the Gilbert made a fool of himself with his letter, and his petulance became a rallying cry for the fan base. And then he became more the face of the ‘team’ than any of the players, with frequent and questionable front office/coaching moves all for the sake of Making The Playoffs. All of that was very off-putting.
Now, at least from a team identity standpoint, the owner is no longer the focal point. Sure, he can do PR interviews explaining how wrong he was in 2010 and how much he’s learned, but this is LeBron’s team now. LeBron chose the Cavs and NE Ohio as his destination. LeBron is taking up the rallying cry. And that’s remarkable and refreshing and heartening.
Which brings us to Ohio: I have not lived in Ohio since 2006. I do not plan to live in Ohio any time in the near or distant future, nor do I particularly want to raise my child there. But Ohio is still important to me because I am from there, and I very much want for Ohio to thrive. I think that’s where a lot of my initial excitement about LeBron’s return comes from: the idea that Ohio will thrive. That there will be tens of thousands of people in Downtown Cleveland for 40-plus Cavaliers home games every season for the foreseeable future. Sure, most of those people will immediately flee the city back to the suburbs, but maybe a few people will decide they like it in Cleveland Proper and will move inside the city limits and make Cleveland great again.
I want Ohio to thrive, but I do not want to live there. More accurately, maybe I’m not willing to give up the life I enjoy in the District of Columbia to ensure that Ohio does thrive. This feels somewhat hypocritical and more than a little cowardly at times, but it is the bare and honest truth.5 I like where and how I live and do not see any opportunities to live similarly in Ohio. So it is rather heartening and exciting to see Ohio immediately improved by the presence of one LeBron James. It’s nice that he decided to fill in for me in my absence.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why the hell I told you about my car. It is a mostly fine vehicle: it hums along without issue and is generally in good shape. It gets me from place to place. It is big, and heavy, and can cause terrible and irreparable harm when not operated correctly. It is vulnerable. It is an outward extension of me in some ways: the make and model might, to some, say a great deal about me.6
My car is also damaged in ways that are familiar and somewhat comforting. That damage reminds me in convoluted and personal ways about things that matter to me. That car is very much like my relationship with sports.
For a long while, I haven’t really cared about professional sports. If we’re keeping with the forced metaphor, I thought that LeBron ran a shovel (and then maybe a chainsaw) across my sports fandom car. In actuality, I’m the one who did the damage—blaming LeBron was the easy and false way out. I still can be a fan if I feel the need to, however damaged those feelings may be. Every now and again, those scratches on my car can unexpectedly hit me hard right in the feelings. Sports still have the potential to do the same, even as I’ve actively limited my exposure to them in order to avoid just that.
I think LeBron’s return hit me right in the feelings. It’s hard to say for sure, but I’m excited in a way that I haven’t felt in years. I’m excited to see good basketball played in Cleveland. I’m excited to see Cleveland come alive. And I’m excited to see LeBron lead the whole thing. More than anything, I’m excited to start enjoying the Cavs again. My relationship with the Cavs is more than a little damaged, but that damage has a backstory, and that backstory is comforting if I want it to be. Maybe it’s better that way.