Yesterday, as the sporting world waited for Miami Heat superstar LeBron James to decide where he would continue his professional basketball career, a friend from college messaged me on Facebook with an idea. This friend had grown up in a declining industrial city, and always intended to return there after college. But upon graduation, he came around to the idea that he needed to go elsewhere to pursue his career and to gain the resources and experiences he needed to truly make a contribution to his home town.
James’ announcement in Sports Illustrated this afternoon that he would return to the Cleveland Cavaliers suggests that my friend got the psychology of James’ decision exactly right. “Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids,” James told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. Also keep in mind that James is not quite yet 30 years old.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now,” James elaborated. “My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”
James, who in recent years has stepped forward on political issues like the shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and Donald Sterling’s continued stewardship of the Los Angeles Clippers, is not alone in his diagnosis of Ohio.
After a survey found that 51 percent of college students born in Ohio who were attending college in the state planned to move elsewhere after completing their degrees and 79 percent of out of state students felt the same way, Columbus, Ohio’s business leaders and local officials started an initiative in 2009 to try to get them to stay. Their efforts may have had some results: between 2007 and 2014, Central Ohio experienced a net gain in college graduates and residents with graduate degrees.
There are some other positive signs, too. A Gallup poll conducted earlier this year suggested that Ohio may not be the most desirable state in the country for its present residents–that pride of place goes to Montana–but it is not a place they are overly eager to flee, either. By contrast, 50 percent of Illinois residents said they would move away if it were possible for them to do so. Between now and 2040, Ohio’s Development Services Agency projects a modest increase in the state’s population. The number of young people in Ohio is also on the rise.
In his announcement, James was measured in his estimation of what it would take a championship to Cleveland. And the expectations for what he can do for his home state should probably be modest as well. But just as James’ relationship with Northeast Ohio “is bigger than basketball,” his career plans seem to stretch beyond his tenure in the NBA. And his return to Cleveland reminds us that the impact of sports can stretch beyond the end of the season.