I truly love my hometown of Cleveland and I’m exceptionally good at holding a grudge. So even though I’m not really a basketball fan, I have never been able to truly shake off that night five years ago when LeBron James went on ESPN and told the world that he was taking his talents to South Beach.
What can I say? While many Clevelanders have long forgiven his controversial departure, some still have complicated feelings about the situation. Yes, obviously LeBron is back in Cleveland, and that Sports Illustrated essay was genuinely moving, and the Cavs came so close to winning the championship this year. For me, it was never about basketball: It was remembering the dread of watching the interview — which played out like a dramatic reality show special — as LeBron announced he was leaving. It was knowing the pain of a city that really needed a win, and realizing it gave people more ammunition to smirk and say “I’m sorry” when I reveal where I’m from.
The situation has been analyzed to death, so I’ll just focus on the surprising conclusion to the grudge I’ve been holding, which arrived in the unlikeliest place: During Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck.”
LeBron has earned rave reviews for his hilarious sidekick role in the Judd Apatow-directed rom-com, in which he plays a (thrifty, “Downton Abbey”-obsessed) version of himself. In the film, LeBron is buddies with Aaron (Bill Hader), a successful sports doctor who falls for Amy (Schumer), a commitment-phobe journalist.
One scene sticks out: Over lunch, LeBron counsels Aaron about his relationship with Amy. During their talk, LeBron tries to relate by comparing Aaron and Amy’s situation to when he a) lost the championship in Miami in 2011 and b) returned to Cleveland. As Aaron notes, the metaphors don’t really connect, but LeBron doesn’t really care.
Their conversation randomly devolves into LeBron accusing Aaron of only visiting him in Miami and never in Cleveland, even though it’s the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the birthplace of Superman. (Yes, Aaron says, he knows this because LeBron texts him about it frequently.) LeBron continues: “Ever seen a Cuyahoga sunset?” he asks, name-checking the famous river. “Cleveland’s great for the whole family!”
If anything, the script went on a few beats too long, like the Cleveland-centric lines could have easily ended up on the extended, uncut version of the movie. The joke is clear: Cleveland is no Miami. (Even if LeBron insists they are one in the same.) Though the “glory” of Cleveland is the punchline, there was something about that scene that made me think that I should probably forgive LeBron already.
First, LeBron’s excited commentary about Cleveland felt very real. Even more importantly, this was no heartfelt Sports Illustrated essay or interview: This was a throwaway scene in a romantic comedy. It’s definitive proof enough time has passed that, at this point, the incident can actually be played for laughs. And if LeBron — at one point the city’s biggest villain — can get away with poking fun at Cleveland in a major movie a mere year after his return, he must know people have forgiven him enough that they’ll think it’s funny, too. Otherwise, he would never risk it.
In the scene, LeBron also reiterated that he has genuine gratitude for the fans that happily welcomed him back home post-Miami. With dialogue that was extremely true to life, LeBron explained to Aaron how he was worried about going back to Cleveland after leaving on such scorched earth terms. Instead of hostility, he said, “They welcomed me back with open arms and an open heart.”
Hearing LeBron deliver that phrase in such a random context, presented as fact, was jarring: And it made me realize that not only is it true, I should probably join their ranks. Thanks to this turn in “Trainwreck,” LeBron has officially established himself as a potential comedic actor. It makes the ESPN incident seem even more ancient — basically two lifetimes ago — and like there’s really no reason to dwell on it any further.
For better or worse, LeBron’s polarizing departure is a part of Cleveland’s history. But if he uses the platform of his famous comeback to acknowledge the fraught history and offer some glowing commentary on Cleveland on the way (hey, those Cuyahoga sunsets are pretty great), that’s something I can definitely root for.