Hickory Street couldn’t be further from South Beach. With as many vacant lots as standing homes, it’s a tired stretch, three parts pothole, one part asphalt.
Up there on the telephone pole, Wanda Reaves points out, is where the neighborhood boys would nail a milk crate, and that nearby street light would allow them to play late into the evening.
“It all started here,” says Reaves, 68. “I don’t think he’ll ever forget that.”
LeBron James was born just a couple of houses down and lived the first years of his life on Hickory Street. His life and basketball career moved down the road, then to another part of town and then on to Cleveland before settling into South Florida last summer. Now he and his Miami Heat team are two wins away from an NBA title, much to the chagrin of many in Ohio, a passionate and wounded fan base that bears the emotional scars of a spurned lover.
Up the road in Cleveland, Cavaliers fans walk around wearing Dallas Mavericks shirts. They boo their former hero in sports bars. A Twitter account called @CavsForMavs popped up last week and quickly collected more than 5,000 followers. No, it isn’t difficult to gauge Cleveland’s feelings about James, who abandoned the city in dramatic fashion last summer and less than a year later is wearing enemy colors in the Finals.
Barely 45 minutes down the road, fan sentiment is easy to measure, too. Akron is an old Rust Belt city where the paint is peeling in several places but is touched up in a few others. Everyone here has an opinion about James, and many regard the NBA star differently than the angry fans in Cleveland.
“He’s not from Cleveland. Of course, they’re going to have a different opinion about him there,” says Terry Walker, a 25-year-old barber. “This is his city. If he wants to come down here and dribble a ball up and down the street, we’ll stand outside on the sidewalk and cheer.”
They are Cavs fans here, too. They cheered when Cleveland drafted James in 2003 and wept when he went on national television last summer and broke their hearts. Although they suffered through the Cavs’ dismal 2010-11 campaign, in which a LeBron-less, lifeless bunch won only 19 of 82 games, many were still able to appreciate on some level James’s success with his new team.
Since James infamously took to ESPN to announce his divorce from the Cavs, basketball fans nationwide have vilified the 26-year-old star — with good reason, many would argue. While there are certainly myriad feelings across Akron, locals point out that the animosity tends to soften the farther South you go down Interstate 77 away from Cleveland.
“We’re a different place,” says Keith Dambrot, an Akron native who won two high school state titles at St. Vincent-St. Mary High with James and is now the head coach at the University of Akron. “It’s not like Akron is a suburb. It’s separate, and I think it is different in a lot of ways. I don’t think anyone from Akron says, ‘I’m from outside of Cleveland.’ We’re from Akron.”
Though James worked in Cleveland for seven years, he has made clear since leaving the Cavs which Ohio city he considered home.
When he wanted to thank fans, he placed a full-page advertisement in the Akron Beacon Journal — not the Cleveland Plain Dealer — which read, in part: “For all my life, I have lived in Akron — and for that, I am truly a lucky man. . . . Akron is my home, and the central focus of my life. It’s where I started, and it’s where I will always come back to.”
James explained the difference in the cities last year to GQ magazine, which only inflamed the anger emanating from up the road.
“It’s not far, but it is far,” James said. “And Clevelanders, because they were the bigger-city kids when we were growing up, looked down on us. . . . So we didn’t actually like Cleveland. We hated Cleveland growing up. There’s a lot of people in Cleveland we still hate to this day.”
“This is my home. Akron, Ohio, is my home. I will always be here.”
James still has the key to the city the mayor gave him following the 2008 Summer Olympics. He still owns his mansion in Bath Township, about 10 miles outside of town, and his mother, Gloria, still calls Akron home. And though his paychecks are coming from Miami now, James did his annual bicycle giveaway in Akron. He gave out turkeys here at Thanksgiving, too. And some of the revenue generated by that ESPN special, “The Decision,” is already being put to use at the local Boys & Girls Club, about a quarter of a million dollars worth of upgrades.
“People know him a little bit better here,” Dambrot said. “They know that he’s still giving back to the community and will always give back here because this is home.”
Still, the entire state is filled with Cavs fans, and many just assumed James would be theirs forever. They were hurt when he opted to leave, but they describe it differently in Akron than fans in Cleveland. To Akronites, it was pain was caused by a family member who you’ve no choice but to forgive.
“There’s a little bitterness, but I still want him to do well,” says Jay Nance, a 34-year old insurance adjuster. “I don’t blame him. He was 25, wanted to live in Miami where all the clubs are — I don’t blame him for leaving. It’s the way he did it. That’s the only thing.”
Tom Barracato, 21, is a manager at Swenson’s, a retro-style drive-in burger joint that James has been visiting since he was a kid. Barracato has served the NBA star and says the interactions humanized James in a way that others might not be able to appreciate.
“He’s a nice guy,” Barracato says. “Yeah, the way he did it kind of left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. Not everyone feels this way, but I still like him.”
So in Cleveland, they gather for each game of these NBA Finals and channel their anger and hurt. Down the road, the LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club — a group of more than 200 women across the city — just can’t bring themselves to cheer against someone who made them so proud. They don’t stop loving their grandson when he does something they don’t agree with, and they won’t stop cheering for James.
Back on Hickory Street, Reaves admits she was heartbroken when James chose the Heat over the Cavs. She’s known James and his mother since he was a baby. When James’s grandmother died, James and his mother moved in with Reaves for a few months.
“All he’s ever wanted to do is win. How could I be upset at him because he thought he had a better chance of doing that in Miami?” Reaves says. “It’s not like he just left us. The people in Cleveland were angry because they lost a good player. In Akron, you could say that we lost a player, but we didn’t lose LeBron.”