Thank you, LeBron

Thank you, LeBron

By Nick Shook
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LeBron James celebrates against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Photo credit: Curtis Compton/Associated Press)

Five years ago, they burned his jersey in the streets.

He was leaving them, leaving behind his home and their grand visions of supremacy.

He encountered the vitriol of a population scorned. He departed and twice reached the pinnacle elsewhere as Northeast Ohio watched with envious eyes and pained hearts.

Scorned Cavaliers fans burn their LeBron James jerseys after he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

He’s been a hero. A rallying point. A villain. Public enemy No. 1-B. The prodigal son.

He’s as polarizing as they come among sports fans, simply because of his sheer greatness. You either love him, or you hate him because he isn’t yours. Rarely is there an in-between.

He is a man whose broad shoulders carry the weight — and at one time, the hate — of an entire region’s hopes and dreams. He sparked them. He robbed the people of them. And he restored them.

He is LeBron James.

When he departed for South Beach in 2010, it struck a chord rarely uncovered, and even less often reached.

For me, it was personal.

I don’t know LeBron James, but my home knows him as intimately as one can.

He was born here. Raised here. Matured here. Stayed here. Flourished here. And he left here.

Growing up in Akron, the sentiment is to gain the education necessary and take the needed steps to set yourself up for success elsewhere.

The area is depressed. It’s region that is so much more than just blue-collared. It is deprived of a better tomorrow.

The steel mills left decades ago. The rubber factories followed them out of town. The economy crumbled, boomed, and busted again. And yet, the professional teams remained, the sole slim source of hope in an area that saw its better days a half-century ago.

It’s a major facet of the Rust Belt, a collection of cities that saw prosperity, and then saw it pack up and skip town for greener pastures, leaving infrastructure behind to urban decay with little revitalization in sight.

LeBron followed that pattern. He flourished here, attempted to uplift it, encountered the same struggles countless others have, and chose a better set of circumstances in a different location. It worked for him, as it has for many. But unlike those who planted roots in places with better weather, prettier people, stronger economies and friendlier weather, he felt the pull to come back.

LeBron James lifts the Eastern Conference championship trophy to a raucous crowd at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland in 2007. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

That pull is strong. It’s something from which one cannot run, a desire that is undeniable.

I know, because I too left town. I found success elsewhere. And I wanted nothing more than to come back.

When LeBron left for Miami, we felt abandoned. Being from Akron, LeBron was one of us. He was us. When the public address announcers read his biography — starting at small forward, from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, in Akron, Ohio, LeBron…James! — I, and thousands of others, swelled with pride.

One of our own, our most famous export, was on the grandest of stages. He was the best on the planet, the greatest basketball player of a generation, and he was from our home. He once looked at a globe while in school and asked why Akron wasn’t listed on the map of Ohio. He promised to change that, and he did.

My father was on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Mexico and was wearing a St. V-M Fighting Irish hat. A stranger approached him and correctly named the school, its location and its most famous alumnus.

Across the planet, in the farthest reaches of civilization, someone knew where Akron, Ohio, was, because of LeBron James.

While attending St. V-M, I was involved in the journalism program. LeBron won his first NBA Most Valuable Player award in 2009, when I was a junior in high school. His ceremony was kept under wraps until the day he was crowned the league’s best.

ESPN and every major network were at St. V-M, where he would accept the honor. Television cameras gathered as the NBA back-dropped stage was assembled in the school gym. Word traveled quickly around the city. Masses assembled outside of the campus as the school day ended. Then LeBron arrived in his silver Ferrari.

In seventh period, I was told ESPN wanted someone from the journalism staff to cover the event and write a story. Being the resident sports writer, I was chosen.

LeBron grasps his first Most Valuable Player trophy at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, in 2008. (Photo Credit: Gus Chan/The Plain Dealer)

Fresh-faced and just shy of my 17th birthday, I entered the reporters pool for the first time, interviewing Zydrunas Ilgauskas, then-general manager Danny Ferry and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

I wrote and filed my story for my first national byline. It was that day I discovered that I wanted to pursue a career in journalism. LeBron directly aided me in finding my passion.

After he left, he kept his mansion here, but departed for the weather of South Beach and the promise of championships and euphoria in a different city.

It made us feel unworthy and unwanted. It made us angry. We had been ditched before by professional athletes — Jim Thome for Philadelphia, Albert Belle for Chicago, Manny Ramirez for Boston — but this one was different.

Yet, even while he was gone, LeBron didn’t forget where he was from.

He continued his work with his foundation in the region. He kept trying to improve Akron from afar. He wore a shirt printed by an Akron clothing company that read “Enjoy Akron.”

He donated new athletic uniforms to our alma mater. He gave $1 million to refurbish the gym in which he developed, and which we now call the LeBron James Arena.

LeBron arrives at Green Street Stadium in a full new Nike football uniform for the Irish. (Photo Credit: LeBron James’ Instagram)

But before that, when he was the new guy in Florida, he still hung around Akron when he could. When the NBA was in a labor struggle, LeBron held his flag football game against fellow star Kevin Durant at the University of Akron’s Stile Field House.

It was a closed event, but being a new alumnus of St. V-M, I was granted access along with my father, who often participated in St. V-M booster activities and announced football games at Green Street Stadium — John Cistone Field.

LeBron had been around at one point and heard my dad announcing. He was impressed enough to personally request my father as his play-by-play announcer for the worldwide, online UStream broadcast of his game. It was the job of a lifetime for my dad, who always held onto aspirations — and talent — for broadcasting.

(From left) LeBron James, a friend who provided color commentary, play-by-play broadcaster and my father, Greg Shook, and Kevin Durant at their flag football game at the Stile Field House on the campus of the University of Akron. (Photo credit: Nick Shook)

Gloria James, LeBron’s mother, was also at the event.

The media has given Gloria a bad rap, painted her as a reckless mother — due to her incidents with police — of a boy born to a single mom in poverty who struck it big when her son grew into a basketball star. While the mothers of Durant and Stephen Curry are made into honorable matriarchs, Gloria is left to the negative character created for her by the media. But the Gloria James I know isn’t that.

She has a penchant for hyperactivity, but she’s a caring, open, warm person who is welcoming to those who are like her — those who are from and live in the same city as her.

Gloria had been to my freshman football games when I attended St. V-M. She became familiar with my father while at the contests. They struck up a casual friendship.

When she saw him, and me, in public, she didn’t hesitate to greet us with the same care. I saw Gloria after the game. We hugged, she gave me a kiss on the cheek and said it was great to see us. As we chatted, I saw the first sign of that longing to return home.

“We’d love to be here, but it is what it is right now,” she said. You could hear her yearning for LeBron to come back.

Any mother wants that. While living in Southern New Jersey and Los Angeles, my mother spent 10 months quietly trying to convince me to move back to Akron.

As LeBron won and lost two titles each while a member of the Miami Heat, Northeast Ohio stewed. Cleveland held onto the pain from his departure. Akron continued to claim him as their own, though they were browbeaten over it. But they didn’t waver.

I sat outside my alma mater with my dad in 2011. We stared at the not-yet-renovated gym from the exterior, and hypothesized. We counted years, looked at his contract with the Heat, his family situation and the timeline ahead.

We concluded that LeBron Jr. — one year younger than my youngest sister — would be nearing high school age in 2014. LeBron had an opt-out clause in his deal, in which he could become an unrestricted free agent.

LeBron would return home in 2014, we decided. We held onto it, and watched the corresponding events unfold.

He opted out after Miami fell to San Antonio in five games in the NBA Finals. The world watched as LeBron remained coy about his next move. I waited for the prophecy to come to fruition.

Days later, while at lunch with fellow NFL Films interns and production assistants in New Jersey, the news broke. Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins had the scoop, with a headline telling the simple message: “I’m coming home.”

LeBron announces his return to Cleveland. (Photo credit: Sports Illustrated)

Fans around the world were stunned. Cleveland rejoiced. LeBron jerseys left their dusty residence in the dark corners of closets and returned to the backs of fans all over Northeast Ohio. I sat quietly, brimming with joy seen only in my silent grin. I was shaking with excitement. He was returning to Cleveland, to Akron. To Northeast Ohio. To where he and I called home.

He explained his rationale. He detailed the struggles our region had endured, and his plans for future success. “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned.”

Even though he was aided by the writing talents of Jenkins, he couldn’t have said it any better.

I watched from afar as he made his comeback at a sold-out Quicken Loans Arena. You could see the happiness, the relief on his face. I exploded with pride. And I longed to be a part of it.

As the Cavs struggled before turning it around to ascend to the top of the Central Division, I planned my return. I wouldn’t get a packed InfoCision Stadium with a concert and fireworks to welcome me back. I didn’t need that. But I did need my family, my home and to be a part of the Cavs’ playoff run, led by the King.

I left my job with the NFL, packed my truck and drove over 2,000 miles. When I crossed the Ohio state line after midnight on my birthday, relief and joy coursed through my veins. I was home.

I imagine LeBron felt similarly when he first took the court at The Q, back in that No. 23 Cavaliers jersey that he made famous, that became synonymous with pride for Northeast Ohio.

I (center, back row) returned to Akron and played in a St. Vincent-St. Mary alumni 3-on-3 basketball tournament at the LeBron James Arena in Akron, Ohio. (Photo credit: Nick Shook’s Instagram)

The first thing I did after coming home was play in a 3-on-3 alumni basketball tournament at St. V-M. I stepped into the LeBron James Arena for the first time and marveled at the wonderful changes made thanks to his prosperity and generosity, and his promise to never forget where he came from.

I watched the Cavs take down the Chicago Bulls. I attended Game 5 andcheered loudly for the kid from Akron.

My view from the upper deck at Quicken Loans Arena for the Cavaliers’ Game 5 win over Chicago. (Photo credit: Nick Shook)

I became fully engrossed in their Eastern Conference Championship victory over the Atlanta Hawks. I took in their NBA Finals battles from my new job at the Akron Beacon Journal — a return home to somewhere I had once worked while in college — and from my dad’s couch, hands clenched and heart palpitating as he secured a hugely important Game 2 win at Golden State.

I joined the masses in Cleveland for Game 3 and watched with delight as LeBron’s Herculean performance helped the Cavs take a 2–1 lead. And I watched in despair as they dropped the next three and lost their chance at ending Cleveland’s 51-year pro sports title drought.

I drove home through Akron hours after the Warriors clinched their first championship in 40 years. Jae Millz’s April 2010 release “Verbal Intercourse” played through my truck speakers, concluding with the line “It’s playoff time, I’ll holla slime, the Cavs is on. I mean, LeBron is playing…”

It reminded me of LeBron’s first run in Cleveland, carrying a team filled with role players to a conference championship and multiple years of title expectations forever unfulfilled, but loaded with great memories.

I passed a bare party tent affixed to a street corner. Hours and days earlier, it was packed with Cavaliers postseason memorabilia for sale.

A party tent affixed to a street corner in Cuyahoga Falls houses Cavaliers playoff memorabilia for sale. (Photo credit: Nick Shook)

Patrons flocked to it to get their piece of history, their shirt they’ll unpack years from now and don, stretching over larger waistlines due to the bloat of aging. They’ll regale their younger family and friends with tales of the great LeBron James and his efforts in leading the Cavaliers to basketball’s biggest stage.

And now I sit, awash in sadness as I ponder his basketball mortality. He’s 30 years old, has played the most minutes in NBA history at his age, and just finished participating in his fifth straight Finals.

He won’t be superhuman forever. The clock is ticking on their title chances. Their window of opportunity is closing. If Cleveland’s curse — imagined or real — has anything to do with it, the odds are against him.

In the postgame press conference, he lamented the injuries to All-Star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. He recalled the loss of close friend Anderson Varejao to a torn Achilles tendon. They were stark reminders of the fragile nature of professional basketball, potential perpetually teetering on the edge of disaster, more reminders that this ultimate victory might never actually happen.

But whether he ever brings a title to the city, as he likely desires more than anything else, he’s already done enough to be forever immortalized in this region, the place we know as home.

He’s positively impacted thousands of lives. He’s uplifted the area. He’s left us with everlasting memories.

He’s changed my life for the better. He’s improved our alma mater. He’s helped my dad live out a dream, even if only for a day. He’s helped guide me on my path, in both my career and in his serving as a role model for me and countless others.

For that, I am eternally grateful.

Thank you, LeBron.

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