Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Return of the King?

Times have changed, and times are strange.
Here I come, but I ain't the same

I do not follow the NBA really at all, but even living in France it's hard to avoid the circus of the NBA.  So it's with some mild amusement that I read the newest saga involving basketball star LeBron James.  According to various friends on social media, it seems James, a star who plays in Miami, Florida for the Miami Heat, is considering a return to the Cleveland Cavaliers - the team where his career was launched a decade ago.

James is considered by some to be the best player in the league - some even the best since Michael Jordan retired.  You would think that the possibility that the return of such a talent would be met with anticipation and excitement.

But LeBron James has a history, and the rumours of his return are being met, in my circle of friends who follow this sort of thing anyways, with a heavy dose of vinegar.

LeBron James grew up in the city of Akron, Ohio, a mid-sized town around an hour south of Cleveland.  He was a phenomenon even as a teenager, playing in a local Catholic high school, being featured in Sports Illustrated, skipping college and heading immediately to stardom, fame, and fortune at 18. Though he is not actually from Cleveland, he became a sort of local boy does good story when the Cavaliers "won" the lottery to get the rights to his contract.  He was almost a messiah in a city where sports are raised to iconic levels, a great player who was going to bring a title - the first title of any sort for 50 years- to a decaying city who, if we are being brutally honest, has likely seen and said goodbye to its best days.

It didn't happen, of course, as Cleveland never did win a title during his time, and in fact, never even got to the NBA Finals.  Fans had begun to sour on him a bit, booing him during the playoffs in his final season (2010) with the team.  It turns out that a team is more than just one player, even a really great one.

But what earned James (perhaps eternally) the ire of the local fans was his choice in 2010 to sign a contract with the Miami Heat.  After months of courting from the local media, efforts by the team's owner and its fans to convince him to stay, LeBron James announced that he was going to take his talents elsewhere.

The reaction was immediate, and it was harsh.  In my view, incredibly harsh for a guy who, after all, is just a paid circus act when one gets right to it.

I spent eight years living in the suburbs of Cleveland, and attended high school there.  I still have some family in the area (though, they are not basketball fans at all and honestly could not care less about LeBron James or the Cavaliers).  I have many friends back there as well.  One is even an employee of the Cavaliers.

To say that people seem to hate him seems mild.  I recall words like "traitor," "coward," and worse were frequent.  People spoke of how he had betrayed them, as if the decision was a personal affront.  All during his time in Miami, the chorus did not weaken, and during the playoffs, rose to a crescendo of vituperation.  People openly celebrated his failures in Miami (the Heat won two titles during his four seasons there, losing in two other closely-contested finals).

Now that James may be coming back to Cleveland, the anger machines are warming up again.  People are vowing that they will never want him back.

I did not understand it then, and I do not understand it now.

Professional athletes are in a strange space - sports fans identify with them, speak of their exploits in tones of what "we" need to do to win the Super Bowl, or great it is that "we won" the World Series.  These guys are nothing more than well-paid gladiators, who generally have little to no connection to the cities that their teams play in (the teams don't really represent the city in any ral way).  They take contracts for a number of years, and then if they play well and can command more, go elsewhere.  If they don't play well, they are released and tossed out like expired cheese.

The guy made an ass of himself with his televised-live announcement on ESPN.  But let's be honest - the NBA is a spectacle, and it earns millions and millions of dollars because it is a spectacle.  We watch guys covered from head to toe in tattoos, who display abominable sportsmanship, strut up and down like fools and talk trash into the faces of their opponents.  Good taste is discouraged for its players - and indeed, I would not be surprised if somewhere in the league charter, it was explicitly banned.

So why do we get excited when a guy with a high school education (at best) who is paid millions of dollars to act like an adolescent acts like an adolescent?

The irony is, most of those who call LeBron James a traitor and a coward themselves left Cleveland for greener pastures.  I, too, left Cleveland in 1992, and I have not been back. Would it not be hypocritical for me to get angry at LeBron James for making the same decision as I did?

I suppose it boils down, to a degree, to what I observed a while back about the obscene amount of money Brazil spent to build palaces for the World Cup; these venues will almost immediately become massive white elephants in a nation where the need for basic infrastructure is desperate.  Having successful sports teams and facilities make a city feel like it is "big league."

We may have a weak job market, dying industries, a government rotten through with corruption, and abysmal schools.  We may have neighbourhoods so decrepit that they have begun to be reclaimed by wilderness, blocks of abandoned buildings that are the subject of urban decay porn, and residents so poor that they actually request the UN to intervene to ensure access to clean water.  But we have a winning football team and a brand-new stadium, so we're still a big league city.

As another mile marker, the city of Los Angeles refused to build a new stadium for the Raiders or the Rams, and both fled the city.  I was by then living in the Bay Area, and Oakland, another city that has aspirations to remain "big league" footed the bill to the tune of a hundred million dollars to lure the Raiders back.  Los Angeles remains without professional football, apparently convinced that it does not need the Raiders to be big league.  Indeed, it's strange to consider that Dodger Stadium is now the third oldest facility in baseball - only Wrigley Field and Fenway Park are older.  Anaheim Stadium, the home of the Angels, is the next oldest.

I don't know whether LeBron James will return to Cleveland.  As a former Cleveland resident, I would be happy for the city to celebrate a winner.  Cleveland has had five decades of punches to the gut - and I am not speaking at all about losing sports teams.  If LeBron James, the prodigal son of sorts, can help, then I for the life of me cannot see what sense it can make to be anything but positive about the potential that he will come back.

It's only basketball.

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