Growing up in Ohio is truly a test, a curse dare I say. The burden upon burden pile up each day as one either commutes 30 minutes from the suburban areas of its larger cities or walking 15 minutes down the block to reach their daily duties.
Nobody in the national spotlight has embodied this stereotype quite like LeBron James, who grew up merely a drive up I-75 North away from yours truly.
James brought a feeling of excitement like no other to Ohioans once he burst on the scene in 2001, during his sophomore season at St. Vincent-St. Mary.
During just his second year of prep basketball, the Akron native averaged 25.2 points and 7.2 rebounds with 5.8 assists and 3.8 steals per game, taking home Ohio’s Mr. Basketball honors and was selected to the USA Today All-USA First Team.
The attention surrounded this young phenom was unbelievable. The Fighting Irish moved their home games to the University of Akron’s 5,492-seat arena to satisfy demands. Fans, celebrities, as well as college and NBA scouts were in line to see this kid play.
Little did anyone know what the high school phenom and the city of Cleveland would evolve into nearly 20 years later.
Today, while James may have taken his talents to the west coast followed by the dismantling of his famous promotional Nike billboard downtown, there’s plenty of LeBron to go around.
Just three days ago, James opened up the I Promise School in Akron, a public education program providing 240 underprivileged children in his home area with an opportunity to grow academically in a secure environment that includes transportation, a free bicycle, free meals as well as free tuition to the University of Akron upon graduation.
Before James left for Miami in 2010, Vox.com reported that there were more than 190 restaurants and bars within one mile of Quicken Loans Arena. Following the airing of The Decision on ESPN, that number steadily decreased to less than 170 over the next four years.
Upon his return, the number skyrocketed to over 210. According to Forbes, the Cavaliers franchise value dropped from $476 million to $355 million in the span of fewer than 365 days. That’s a 25 percent drop in value equalling approximately $121 million.
Analysts scoffed. Fans groaned. Children and adults alike wept in sorrow as smoke trails that were once wine and gold no. 23 jerseys trickled over the night sky. Dan Gilbert’s infamous letter immediately followed and doubts began to rise if Cleveland would ever recover.
While James was busy appearing in four consecutive NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, the Cavaliers compiled a record of 97-215 and failed to make the playoffs during any of those seasons.
The closest resemblance of success any of those teams had was Kyrie Irving’s All-Star Game performance in 2014, gathering 31 points and 14 assists while taking home MVP honors. Tristan Thompson was not a household name at the time and Anthony Bennett may go down as the biggest flop in the history of first overall picks.
The shocking turn of events that occurred in early July 2014 that saw James return to the shores of Lake Erie was met with adoration from fans, reporters, and analysts everywhere. Just two months before James made this announcement Cleveland ranked dead last in terms of job growth in populous cities.
Just two months after his return, the business of eating and drinking establishments increased by 13 percent and employment by 24 percent in Cleveland and the surrounding areas. Gilbert, known for his deep pockets, felt comfortable enough to finance a $140 million renovation to the Q.
Many called it a fairytale ending when the Cavaliers overcame a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals against a Golden State Warriors team that set the league and record books on fire with a monstrous 73-9 regular season.
Over those seven games, James led every player in every statistical category possible, coming up with the series-saving block on Andre Iguodala before Irving iced Golden State with one of greatest clutch shots in NBA history.
Aside from the block or shot, the most resonating moment was watching the 250-pound freak of nature slumped over with his head in his palms, weeping tears of joy. Growing up in a state that suffers countless disappointments in professional sports each year, it was almost as if I felt the same burden being lifted.
While the experience of being Cavaliers fan evaded me growing up, I felt the same type of suffering watching the Cincinnati Bengals disappoint their fans in the same fashion on the football field, a pain that fans of that franchise still feel to this day.
Nearly every individual within the 220×220 mile radius of the Ohio borders never dared to mention James’s name before the summer of 2014. Now, his name is forever engraved in Cleveland and Ohio lore as the native son that returned home and ended a 52-year championship drought.
He delivered on his promise, and we will forever be witnesses to one of the greatest feats in sports history. No matter how long the separation between him and the Cavaliers, there’s no doubt James will remain Ohio’s favorite son for decades to come.