I like to watch basketball, though I can’t say I follow any team or player closely. I hadn’t been paying attention to the whole LeBron James saga until it exploded all over my Twitter feed Friday.
The general consensus was that he left Cleveland poorly 4 years ago, with a lot of bad feelings, or even if the feelings weren’t particularly pronounced, they got hyped up a lot. I gave a speech to the women’s network of the Cleveland Bar Association (it has a slightly different name) in the fall of 2010 and it even came up then — though in an indirect way. This was one of the most fun speeches I have ever given. It was in a hip martini bar where they were doing specialty chocolate martinis for the evening, and had manicure stations and the like. Afterwards, several of these ladies of Cleveland invited me to come out with them, so I spent the evening partying with them and hearing tales of some sports reporter who’d been in town for months chronicling the decline of Cleveland without LeBron James. It turned out he’d been out partying with the lawyers too. I think perhaps harder than I had. Good times.
But I digress. LeBron James left Cleveland with a TV special. The team owner, Dan Gilbert, posted a petulant letter online about it. After four years and 2 championships with the Miami Heat, but a thumping in this year’s NBA finals, James decided to try free agency and figure out where to go.
As we all know now, the answer was Cleveland. But he announced this decision in a much more restrained, mature, and frankly, poignant fashion than his departure. He laid it all out in an essay (ghostwritten by Lee Jenkins) on Sports Illustrated’s website.
The essay was great. It was human. It made sense. “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio.” He and his wife are expecting their third kid; “I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown.” As for the bad blood with Dan Gilbert, “I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man. We’ve talked it out. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well. Who am I to hold a grudge?”
A winning team has a way of lifting a town, and maybe it would encourage other professionals to come back. “Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
There’s something very inspiring about an amazingly talented player promising that what he wants is to work. He wants to build a team. After 10 years and 2 championships, you could start to coast. Or you could try something more epic. I wasn’t expecting this whole saga to involve a great example of the personal essay, but I wasn’t expecting a late night of chocolate martinis in Cleveland either. Sometimes life surprises you.