May 19, 2010

Boy, I sure am glad I was never the 25-year-old repository for the hopes and dreams of an entire region of the country.

What’s it like to be LeBron James? I have no idea. I’m just grateful that I was allowed my youthful missteps in private and that the only hoops I had to hit were the ones set by my parents’ high expectations.

Imagine being 25 and weathering the storm of blame and speculation that swirls around James. Yes, he’s rich, but he’s earned enough millions to know that money can’t buy peace, and the largest trophy in the world won’t love you no matter what.

All this hand-wringing in Cleveland and gleeful fist pumping everywhere else because our star basketball player may dump us after he becomes a free agent makes my head hurt. I’d hate for Cleveland to lose him, but we can’t hinge our happiness on the career of a man who’s entitled to his youthful ambitions.

Besides, we are our biggest problem. I love this town, and I don’t understand why we always think so small. When one of our own succeeds, we expect him to leave. We’ve got abandonment issues, and they have nothing to do with LeBron James. He’s just a convenient scapegoat for our own low self-esteem.

James wants to be rich and famous. It’s a young person’s dream. Not the most honorable goal, but he’s got time to change. It takes years before material obsession becomes the pathetic substitute for a meaningful life.

It’s not as if he hasn’t shared the wealth. He’s in the prime of his life, and he’s lived all of it right here in Northeast Ohio. He and his Cavaliers have given us more to cheer about in the past few years than all other Cleveland sports teams combined—and he always has made clear to the entire world that he’s proud to be one of us.

“James wants to be rich and famous. It’s a young person’s dream. Not the most honorable goal, but he’s got time to change.”

In his memoirs, “Shooting Stars,” co-written with Buzz Bissinger, James described how it felt after Sports Illustrated anointed him “The Chosen One” on a 2002 cover before he had graduated from high school:

“The cover pushed me onto the national stage, whether I was ready for it or not and whether my team was ready for it or not.”

He admitted that he let it go to his head: “I was arrogant, dubbing myself ‘The Chosen One.’ In hindsight I should have kept quiet, but I also was what I was, a teenager where every reporter in the world seemed to be rushing toward me at once.”

Now we’re doing it again.

Is he full of himself? Well, maybe. Frankly, I think he’d have to be superhuman not to get caught up in all the attention, all the courting. But I also hope he’s offended by some of it. He’s not, after all, up for auction. And he’s got his principles.

Last week, only hours before the Cavs’ dream of a championship withered like lilies in a drought, I was headed to the gate for a flight home from Washington, when a cover of New York magazine stopped me in my tracks.

There he was, our guy LeBron, lugging a Knicks suitcase and bent over this headline: “Hey LeBron, welcome to New York.” The astute reader might be tempted to point out that this is a doctored photo, but that would just mean you aren’t in a New York state of mind, you hayseed you.

The chest-thumping story offered reasons James should ditch Cleveland for Manhattan, including this promise from actor John Leguizamo: “There’s no strip club like New York strip clubs. You can have whatever dancer you want.”

Perfect illustration of the disconnect between a New Yorker’s version of success and the real-life values of the Midwest, which always will be his first home. By all reports, he remains in a committed relationship with the mother of his two young sons. There have been lots of opinions about his lack of a marriage license, but nobody claims James doesn’t love his boys.

LeBron James may leave us soon. I won’t hold it against him. He’s given me so many moments of pure joy—and considerable pride. In the past year alone, he’s helped me close the distance with total strangers by saying two words: LeBron James. It prompted smiles in Texas, California and Kansas—and in Tanzania, the Congo and Hong Kong, too.

I’ll miss being able to say he’s one of ours. Truly. But I am thankful that I can always say I knew him when.


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