Before yesterday I did not know Lebron James was a tree. I only saw him as a basketball player. I only saw Lebron as an iconic figure, someone who delivered upon his promises. But cut a tree and watch as it slowly dies when you slice off its roots. And death without oxygen is never a proud thing to see.
I did not know Lebron James longed for such simplistic things now that he is a champion, millionaire and global icon. I did not know the side of Lebron that existed outside of his basketball acumen and skill. I was vividly aware that he liked to pass the ball. He was unstoppable in the post, a terrifying force down low, a legendary figure in this era. I knew the basics of his biography: Akron born, fatherless, married to his high school sweetheart, father, son, generous friend.
I knew all of that but you can’t really know a person you don’t even know. Even if they are famous or written about they are strangers.
And then Lebron James wrote something himself. And that is how I knew what I had never ever known about someone I never met. All of a sudden I knew Lebron James’ soul.
If you have ever been in an airport on Christmas Eve and winter storms mean you can’t get home and that feeling in your stomach sinks because you think of everyone waiting for you and you think about how it feels to be alone in a cavern with strangers, then what Lebron James did yesterday makes all of the sense in the world. Cleveland could be Minneapolis. Or Las Vegas. Or Kansas City. Or Los Angeles. We all start somewhere and some of us can’t help but return.
I live in the same house I grew up in. The boy across the street who went to Palisades High School and who I had a crush on, he lives in the house he grew up in too. The family next door, the one with seven children, a few are still there. One of them went to Loyola High School with my brother. I know the back roads and short cuts and police helicopters and liquor stores. Ten blocks is 54th Street school where my fourth grade teacher had a long career. I saw her in the grocery store one day. Down the block is the library; it is still there, still taking in kids like I was, readers who had chaotic families. Not too long ago I was at the ATM and someone tapped me on the shoulder as I was leaving the bank. “Aren’t you Richard’s little sister”, they asked. Then they said “We went to elementary school together.”
There were two stories yesterday. First the basketball story. Lebron in Cleveland is a work in progress. Some of the pieces fit but there are still a lot of questions. Let’s not forget the Cavaliers locker room was an unholy mess as every player seemed to turn on Kyrie Irving, accusing him of selfishness. Kyrie, as gifted as he is, likes to control the ball and likes to make dynamic plays and likes to be the star. He reminds me a lot of a young Kobe Bryant.
Dion Waiters doesn’t seem to fit the roster. Dion doesn’t like coming off the bench; he thinks highly of himself which isn’t a crime. Most NBA players do. But I’m not convinced Dion has the ability to tone his ego down and fit into a system in which he is a role player. Tristan Thompson is an average power forward. And the Cavs have no size. If Pau Gasol goes to the Bulls, Chicago’s front line will dominate Cleveland.
Lebron wasn’t being coy when he talked about a learning curve in Cleveland. No one on the roster, save Anderson Varajao, has been to the playoffs. Even if the Cavs find a way to lure Kevin Love, he has never been to the playoffs either.
When Lebron was in Miami that first year, half of the team had been to the playoffs. Three players (Dwayne Wade, Udonis Haslem, Eddie House) were champions. And they still lost in the Finals in 2011. So this version of the Cavaliers have a lot of growing to do, Lebron or no Lebron.
But the other story about Lebron James was the human story that resonated all over the world because so many of the world’s citizens long for what they remember about home. All of a sudden Lebron did the unthinkable. He changed our minds about him by quietly orchestrating a move home. A return to the place he loves the most.
Just a month ago the world was rooting for the dethroning of Lebron James in the NBA Finals. There were Built vs. Bought billboards in San Antonio, a quiet dig at the Miami Heat and their architect Pat Riley. There was the open love fest and rooting for Tim Duncan, a Hall of Fame player who stayed in the same city year after year after year. Tim Duncan had a six year NBA Finals drought and not once did he complain.
But in a social media landscape everything is clay. The hordes that Lebron James turned off four years ago have adopted him once again. He came back to us, the person we always knew he was. I guess that says all you need to know about fans, how our attachments are fragile and can forever be altered and reshaped depending on the circumstances.
Athletes are human and imperfect and they need to be forgiven. It is not their responsibility to make us like them. It is their responsibility to be honest, moral, decent and competitive. That is the big picture.
The little picture is we understand more about Lebron James today than we did in 2010. Then, in a moment he surely wants to grab back, he went on national television and decimated the citizens who live in the place he was born. It was a level of cruelty that only a narcissist would find pleasure in.
But if anything is true in life it is that everyone is a work in progress. Everyone. Even the best player in the NBA.