Notes From a Native: What the Return of LeBron Means to Ohio

“It’s practical to hope.”

Those are the words of Studs Terkel, a good Midwesterner who understood as well as any American ever has the way people from workaday, unglamorous places think. It’s not romantic to hope; it’s not foolish. Hope is practical, more tied to the grind than to the imagination.

LeBron James came from a place that thinks that way, and that’s why the news of his return to play for his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, transcends the usual hype of professional sports and celebrity. His own understanding of the importance of who he is in relation to where he came from is unique in American professional sports.

James was born in Akron in 1984, just two years after the term “Rust Belt” first appeared in the lexicon. By the time he entered middle school, three of the four major tire corporations headquartered in Akron had been taken over by foreign owners and uprooted from the former “Rubber Capital of the World.”

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He was born well into the worst championship drought of any major sports city — 2014 marks 50 years (and counting) since the last Cleveland championship. He was born amid a precipitous population slide: Akron has lost nearly a third of its residents in that same half-century, falling from 290,000 in 1960 to 199,000 in 2010.

And yet the frustrating thing for so many of us who live here is not all the loss, but the fact that loss has too much become our narrative. When I was a columnist at the Akron Beacon Journal in the 2000s, I spent a lot of time reading and talking and writing about “brain drain,” the distressing phenomenon in Ohio and similar states of losing our young talent to places that seem to hold more promise. As a middle-aged person who has lived in the city all my life, I’m well accustomed to watching people leave.

This is a real and vexing problem, but it’s only part of the story. There are millions of us who have stayed and committed to cities like Akron, and who recognize the value of hoping for them, and of applying the hard work to validate that hope. We know our problems, and we work hard to correct them, to stop them, to reverse them. We know that these are places that need us, and that being needed is both comfort and responsibility.

I speak the native language, and through all of these years when James has been our most famous product (and, for a while, export) I have heard the nuance of his message whenever he talks about his hometown. He doesn’t lean on clichés of the Midwestern work ethic or the importance of roots. Rather, he has deepened those notions. He has quietly and charitably given of himself and his riches to support Akron, especially its children. He has maintained his home here. He had the local area code — 330 — tattooed on his forearm, sense of place writ large. In a postindustrial Midwest that has lost so much power and identity, the importance of being understood outshines the importance of being celebrated.

And so, for those of us here, the “hope” of the past four years, while James famously, often notoriously, plied his talents in South Beach, was not so much that he would come back to play for the Cavaliers as that he would come home. That he would show that the trend of loss is not so linear or simple, to validate that this is both a good place to be from and a good place to be. That this is the true American journey: to know where you belong and the struggle to get there, and to know that sometimes the journey leads exactly to where you started.

In the remarkably eloquent, remarkably mature essay James posted Friday on announcing his return to his home, he wrote, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”

We know here that it’s also dangerous to hope. We know that in many ways, hope can be even more crushing than loss. But we do it every day, pushing for proof. And sometimes it comes.

David Giffels (@davidgiffels) is the author of the new book The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt.

Filed Under: NBA, LeBron James Free Agency, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, 2014 NBA Free Agency