You won’t recognize my name in your 31.2 million followers, but I’m actually one of your former neighbors. We lived in Copley, Ohio, just a few streets over from your house in Bath. When we first moved there, my kids were 7, 5, and 2. The perfect age for the bribe “Kids, act good here [insert name of store/church/school/library/restaurant here], and I’ll take you past Lebron’s house!” Man I milked that bribe when they were little. I never stopped, just drove past slowly—fearful my regular visits to your street would have the police haul me off when the kids just wanted a glimpse of greatness. On your street, we’d wave. To the guard. Or whoever was in the guardhouse. My kiddos loved it. (My preschooler, not so much. Bored by the whole thing. She would’ve rather had a Strickland’s cone.) But the boys loved you. They’d pepper me with questions: Mom, where is he right now? Does he have a gym in there? Does he play outside? How many burgers does he order at Swenson’s?
We went to some Cavs games and ate up the electricity of the Q. The boys were entranced, the games were intense, 20,000 people jammed with hometown pride. You made an entire city come alive, bristling with hope. As Browns, Indians and Cavs fans who have never seen a championship in our lifetimes, who endured empty Indians stadiums in the 70s (where you’d have your own vendor), and the torture of The Drive and The Fumble (we still love you Ernest Byner), we watched you, LBJ, bring all that excitement back.
Your first time around with the Cavs, my kids began growing up, in your shadow. You kept them healthy: they wanted to play ball like you. They played in leagues; they played in basketball tournaments held at your alma mater St. Vincent. They went to a Cavs summer camp (which we thought would include an ACTUAL PLAYER for the couple hundred that we paid, but alas, we got the Scream Team.) They took the University of Akron basketball camp every summer by your former coach Keith D’Ambrot.
You rubbed off on my oldest child educationally, too. I could use your stats for math practice, and this kid who did not love to read, read a Lebron biography. Again and again. He then used it for a book report…in each grade. (Sorry Ft. Island teachers). I prayed you would teach when you retire, and decided all pro players should do this.
And then, that fateful Decision day, July 8, 2010. We can all still hear it. “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” echoes in our minds, and I can still see that ugly scene in my family room. My oldest was then 12, and he yelled out from his gut, a pain I remember feeling when the Browns first broke my heart at 12, in Red Right 88, causing me to write a letter to Brian Sipe, expressing my sympathy. Now my boy was escaping to his room, the emotion too much to bear. My middle son was 10, and, tears flowing, followed his big brother upstairs– doors slamming, inspirational book thrown. I can still hear the rip of the posters.
I will admit to being one of the ones to call you Lebronedict. For, um, the next 4 years. Please forgive me. It was Cleveland Fan Anger speaking. The Decision hurt; but it always hurts for those who stay. You said people will support you if they were real Lebron fans. But it wasn’t about you, it was about Cleveland. We still wanted to show the bullies of the world that the underdog can win. The taunts Clevelanders have endured for decades. How could it not be our time? We’d suffered enough, hadn’t we?
Clevelanders watched you win with D-Wade and Bosh, and it jabbed at us, like seeing an old flame when your hair’s a mess and you’re eating Oreos. Yet you get stronger. Pass us a hot dog with Stadium Mustard.
Fast forward to two years ago. That same kid who you indirectly helped read, through your story? I was driving that teenager home from an exam he had to repeat. And it came on WTOP that you had written an SI piece and would sign with the Cavs again. We screamed. We may or may not have pulled over and offered a sacrifice to St. Dan Gilbert. You never saw a kid read—through a link off of Twitter–so fast.
And you brought back something more: conversations about forgiveness. What kind of people couldn’t forgive you down in Miami, but would welcome you back now? (For the record, we never burned your jersey. Though we may have sold it in a garage sale.) What kind of family forgives the prodigal son? Us. We all do in Cleveland. #Forgiven. Can we forgive ourselves for being shallow–that we forgave only when you come back? Is the lesson yours–or ours? What did you teach us about us? You taught us that we’re loyal. That we stay Cleveland fans. We love our hometowns.
Last year was incredible. We saw some unbelievable play, and we ached when Kevin Love was injured by the Celtics’ Olynyk. But we were absolutely floored by your play and the players who stepped up in playoffs, like Delly. What hustle he showed! He’d do anything for the ball! Didn’t he just personify the dreams of Ohioans who just want to win? My son and I made a road trip to Cleveland for a watch party. When we lost, it was sad, but the memes soon trumpeted: “We’re still #AllInCle.” We were.
And so now we meet the Warriors again in the 2016 Finals. The thing I most appreciate about you, LBJ, is you have rid the city of the mentality that accepts losing. The old joke in the 216 is “maybe next year,” but those of us in our forties are sick of it. You taught us to not be ashamed of saying we want to win. We’re not being selfish; we’ve never known any championship here, if you’re under 50. We. Want. To. Win. After all, these days you can delete via a click, you can place forgiveness on speed dial, you can move on…and you want to win. It’s ok!
You and the Cavaliers are teaching us about being-in-the-moment, and edge-of-your-seat-crazed-anticipation, and so we thank you. What great playoff series you have given us.
And those little boys, who stayed diehard Cleveland fans despite our own move to DC, who were #forgiven by their friends eventually for moving too, are now 18 and 16. Little girl is now 13, and though not a big sports fan, she points out the boys in her school who are bandwagoners. She told them she used to live by you. One of them said, “Nuh-uh. Lebron never lived in Virginia.” So much for boys asking where you grew up.
And that 8-year-old boy who idolized you, hoping you’d come out of your house like Cal Ripken did on those Century 21 commercials, asking Johnny to play ball? He’s graduating high school the night of Game 3, the first game in Cleveland. As hard as it will be missing tip-off, he may peek at his phone for a score. A good basketball player himself, who played everything from rec, travel, school ball, CYO and AAU, he learned lessons from playing…and watching you and the Cavs.
And you know what else I see, @KingJames, ole neighbor? A boy who is still growing up, figuring out his future. Of course, you grew up, too. The whole city did. Thank you for the wider conversation in families about who are our heroes and why? Lessons about the human under the player, and trying to understand their layers. Thank you for teaching fans about ourselves, about forgiveness, about coming through dark times by working hard and #winning. Growing up—whether it’s through the eyes of a city and its’ hero, or of its kids– is such a process, isn’t it? Thank you for making us talk about it. GO CAVS!
Your former neighbor,
Kristine Meldrum Denholm is a freelance journalist and writer, published in magazines, newspapers, websites and newsletters, and a diehard Cleveland sports fan. Her most important job, though, is as a mom to 3 more Cleveland fans, who quickly learned the cycle of misery and hope.