My home town of Akron, Ohio, is known for being the former “Rubber Capital of the World.” In basketball circles, though, it will forever be best known as the home town of LeBron James — the NBA superstar who kicked off a national controversy last summer when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers to play here for the Miami Heat.
The Heat are now tied 1-1in the NBA Finals, meaning that James is within striking distance of a championship. That was a goal that eluded him for seven seasons in Cleveland, despite the team’s great chances, high hopes and the city’s adoration for its homegrown star.
James’s decision to sign with Miami as a free agent last July immediately branded him a villain in Cleveland, where he had enjoyed something far above hero status as the NBA’s two-time most valuable player and greatest local athlete in history. The local anger against him — spurned fans even burned his replica jerseys in the streets after his announcement on national television — may be natural. Unfortunately for the region, so was James’s choice.
The dilemma James faced was emblematic of the one facing so many young professionals from Ohio. Firmly in the Rust Belt, our state has been battling a talent and brain drain for decades, one made only more severe by the challenging economy in recent years. It may have been an agonizing decision, but in the end James made the same choice thousands of people in Ohio have made: He left because he felt there were better circumstances elsewhere. He merely followed the trend, upsetting as the trend might be.
I understand this dilemma particularly well, because, on a much smaller scale, I experienced something similar. Like James, I currently live in Miami (where I cover the Heat for ESPN.com), and like James, I left northeast Ohio last year after spending my whole life there.
James and I attended the same private high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, in downtown Akron. We graduated seven years apart. I began covering his career when he was an unknown 14-year-old and later wrote about him extensively as the Cavaliers beat reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
James is a multi-millionaire African American who never knew his father and spent much of his younger years in housing projects. I’m a white sportswriter who grew up in a middle-class household a couple of miles from where James grew up on Akron’s west side. We could not be more different, yet in some respects we both embody this generation of Ohioans.
The 2010 census showed that Cleveland’s population had hit a 100-year low. Overall, Ohio’s declining population cost it two seats in the House of Representatives. By 2013, the state will have its fewest delegates in Congress since 1832. Last fall, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) lost his reelection campaign in large part because of the number of job losses in Ohio during his tenure.
Anecdotally, many of my peers from high school, including many with advanced degrees, have left for jobs outside the state. More than 90 percent of my class attended college in Ohio, but many make their living elsewhere. I am now one of them.
James, who always remained an Akron resident and made the 40-minute drive to Cleveland daily during his years with the Cavaliers, said he left to play for a team that had more talent. The chance to play with friends and fellow all-stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh was also a major draw. The Cavs had the league’s best regular-season record the previous two seasons but had not reached the finals since the 2006-07 season. His new team’s home in winterless South Florida, where James routinely vacationed, was a factor, too.
On the front lines of James’s departure, I became a sounding board, and later a target, for the frustration of Cavaliers fans. The e-mails, online comments and tweets poured in, many of them from former Ohioans who were supporting the team — from someplace else. I felt the anger about James’s departure from places as far-flung as Tampa, Austin, Chicago, Atlanta, San Diego and Washington. Leaving home, many of them said, was a stain on James’s character — even though they apparently had left, as well.
As a professional athlete, of course, James didn’t have any concerns about his job prospects. In fact, under NBA rules, James could have earned a higher salary by re-signing with the Cavaliers. Had he accepted Cleveland’s six-year offer worth more than $120 million, it would have been a wonderful story, embraced locally and across the nation as a case study in loyalty and the enduring appeal of home. Someday, James might have had highways, buildings or parks named after him in Ohio — maybe even a statue outside Quicken Loans Arena. And with team owner Dan Gilbert, a fellow Midwest native, aggressively spending on players, there was a possibility that James would have achieved his ultimate goal of winning multiple championships.
However, when surveying the NBA landscape and his options, James concluded that he would have been at a competitive disadvantage at home. Both Wade and Bosh, who were also free agents, said they would not consider signing with the Cavaliers. With other major free agents going to the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks, and with the Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics returning intact, James was concerned that he might have been on only the third- or fourth-best team in the conference had he decided to stay.
So, like so many of those transplant fans who now despise his decision, James left. He knew full well that his actions — even though he believed they would advance his career — would make him massively unpopular back home.
“I did what was best for me, what was best for my family and what was best for me being a professional athlete,” James said after his team defeated the Bulls last month and advanced to the Finals. “You know, I’m happy. In anyone’s job, they always try to find some way they can do their job and be happy doing it.”
When it comes to sports and regional pride, passion usually wins out over perspective. People from James’s home are now rooting for his opponent — the Dallas Mavericks — because they do not want him to succeed. Why? Because he left.
Like James, I’m living outside Ohio for the first time. Like James, I am fiercely proud to be a product of Akron. Like James, I root passionately for Ohio State’s football team, even in these tough times. Like many people in our generation, we consider coming back home someday. Ultimately, James was just the most high-profile resident ever to decide that Akron is a great place to be from.
Brian Windhorst covers the Miami Heat for ESPN.com. He is a co-author of “The Franchise: LeBron James and the Remaking of the Cleveland Cavaliers” and “LeBron James: The Making of an MVP.”