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LeBron James Complicates Cleveland's Comeback Story

Returning to Cleveland, LeBron James contends with a city’s past and conflicting views of its future

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Chuck Glihas, 60, a carpenter from Slavic Village, got the news while he was cruising down Interstate 77 Friday afternoon.

On electronic road signs, the Ohio Department of Transportation, apparently in a celebratory mood, relayed the message: “He’s back.”

Within hours the Cavs had unfurled a 40-foot banner on a building in downtown, showing LeBron in his old uniform, wearing the number 23. Local media reported that the lower bowl of “the Q” had already sold out all season tickets for seats between the baskets. There were just a few “club seats” remaining.

People, reportedly, were just standing outside the arena clapping.

“LeBron is forgiven by Cleveland,” declared Stephanie Kuzydym, a reporter for Northeast Ohio Media Group.

Despite all the vitriol spewed over the last four years, plenty of people hadn’t given up on their hometown boy. Andrew Zelman, publisher of the local alt-weekly Scene, said, “it’s amazing how many people still have their LeBron jerseys. They’re all over the place downtown.”

For days, the city had been awaiting the Decision Part II like one might await news of the results of a loved-one’s surgery. Some people claimed to know days before. Some people proclaimed proudly not to care. Some people blamed Dan Gilbert and his famous Comic Sans letter.

When the news broke, a lot of people couldn’t let go of the bitterness, even when the news came in the form of a humble and relatively flattering letter James published on the Sports Illustrated website.

An Onion story titled “The Prodigal Asshole Returns” got passed around.

And perhaps some skepticism is warranted. The Washington Post reports LeBron’s return is expected to have a $50 to $80 million a year return for the city. But as Alan Berube at the Brookings Institution points out, Northeast Ohio has a more than $100 billion economy; the LeBron share only makes up about 0.05 percent.

But the LeBron news, as well as this week’s announcement that Cleveland would host the Republican National Convention, carries exaggerated local importance for a number of reasons. For one, the region, as its manufacturing base has declined, has actively sought to realign its economy around tourism and entertainment.

Positively Cleveland, the local tourism bureau, is one of the city’s major power brokers. It pays its chief executive more than $500,000. The city has poured billions into creating a visitor friendly downtown—the Rock Hall, the sports stadiums. It recently completed a $500 million convention center and “Medical Mart” project, in hopes of luring big conventions. As part of that effort, the county has also agreed to underwrite a new Hilton Hotel.

Meanwhile, the news of LeBron’s return fits nicely with the “comeback” narrative touted by many civic leaders. The migration of thousands of young people back to downtown has given a lot of people hope that the city is at the beginning of a turn-around. For those who believe in this narrative, the LeBron news —or any good news, for that matter— will certainly be taken as evidence of the city’s resurgence.

But as the national media has been pointing out, Cleveland is far from out of the woods. The poverty rate for children in the city is higher than 50 percent. Between 2000 and 2010 the city lost 17 percent of its population. A study last year found infant mortality rates in some of the city’s neighborhoods are higher than Rwanda and Bangladesh. Within the last five years, the region was rocked by a massive public corruption scandal that put some of its most powerful leaders behind bars.

That’s the context in which you have to understand the reactions to Decision number 1: another public humiliation, more evidence of the legendary Cleveland curse.

Cleveland can be extremely defensive about the way it is perceived outside the region, often mockingly. Sometimes the response can seem vicious. But it’s important to understand that most people who live in Cleveland are from Cleveland, and have lived there most their lives. Most of their friends and family live in the region. Putting down Cleveland can feel highly personal.

Even the way locals perceive the city varies wildly. This is because the way people see Cleveland has a lot to do with their own social standing.

There are some locals who feel, perhaps fairly, very bitter and frustrated. These are people who have personally experienced some of the economic hardships and frustrations that have characterized the regional economy over the last few decades. They make up a vocal minority of some of the region’s less privileged working classes, for whom the whole transition to a post-industrial economy has been very hard. These are probably a lot of the folks who reacted most bitterly to Lebron leaving. Just weeks before he elected to return to Cleveland, the Plain Dealer had to pull an article asking readers to choose the name of his unborn daughter, when the comments section predictably devolved into a racist tirade.

But for others in Cleveland, there’s a strong element of civic boosterism, one that borders on religious. For these generally college-educated professionals, if they are able to secure steady work, life in Cleveland can be pretty good. It’s cheap; it’s easy to get around. For almost all of them, it’s close to family and lifelong friends. This group sees Cleveland as being resurgent. They have never forgiven Forbes for naming the city “Most Miserable,” and they wear Cleveland Clothing Company shirts with little hearts over the place Cleveland rests in the state of Ohio.

For this group, putting down Cleveland isn’t just wrong, it constitutes a public relations crisis that’s their responsibility to put down. This group tends to believe negative perceptions about Cleveland are misinformed, or the result of prejudice, or that they come from “negative” people with personal problems.

Life in Cleveland is hardest, though, on the city’s low-income racial minorities, that live largely in segregated communities on the city’s east side. This group was the least angry at LeBron and many of them rooted for him when he played for the Heat. They also have the least voice in civic affairs.

With his letter in Sports Illustrated, LeBron gracefully attempted to wade back into the issue of the city’s complicated self-perception. As someone representing, youth, achievement, and talent, his personal life became a metaphor for a region’s struggles, and he seemed to understand that it had to be handled delicately.

In the end, LeBron’s impact on Cleveland might be more psychological than anything —and what is professional sports really about if not that? A psychological boost for Cleveland might be just what the doctor ordered, giving everyone a reason, however trivial, to be hopeful. It’s a credit to his skill as a basketball player and cache as a celebrity that he has that level of power. It was smart of him to recognize it.

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