CLEVELAND — The news traveled fast down Euclid Avenue, eyes fixed on phones as the lunchtime crowd walked through Public Square and into the shadow cast by a 125-foot monument that honors some of northeast Ohio’s heroes — those who once left and never returned.
“Hey, did you hear this?” Kevin Tucker, who has spent all of his 23 years in Cleveland, said into his phone. “You got the TV on or what?”
LeBron James, they all kept reading and hearing, was coming back. But Tucker wanted confirmation. They all did. This kind of thing doesn’t happen here, in a city that has grown used to losing and desertion.
Abandoned and left to rot were the factories that built the city, which more recently was kicked when it was down by the Great Recession, with little in the way of sports to wash hope onto the banks of Lake Erie. Its last championship came in 1964, when the Browns won the National Football League title, before such a thing as the Super Bowl even existed.
“It’s Cleveland,” Tucker said after he hung up.
But Friday was different, and their hope, for once, hadn’t been in vain: James, who grew up in nearby Akron, spent his first seven National Basketball Association seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, then rubbed his hometown fans’ noses in his 2010 departure by announcing that he was taking his talents to the Miami Heat, was returning.
Or as he put it in an essay published by Sports Illustrated: “I’m coming home.”
With those three words — and, it bears pointing out after several days of cloudy reports and a feeding frenzy of information and falsehoods, his own words — one of the world’s transcendent athletes and the NBA’s most valuable free agent soothed a burned fan base, scratched a personal itch to return to Cleveland and personally addressed his own plans.
“Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio,” James, 29, wrote. “It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming.
“But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
When Haven Ohly, 35, read James’s announcement, convinced it wasn’t a hoax, he dropped everything at his office on East Ninth Street and, because it was the only thing that made sense to do, sprinted five blocks to Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers’ home court. He stood at the corner of Ontario Street and East Huron Road, clapping until his hands were red; he was so overcome with joy that he didn’t feel the pain until his hands stopped slapping into each other.
“Nobody has had it like us. Everything has gone wrong,” Ohly said, still in his dress clothes. “So this is a chance to make it right. This means so much for the people who live here.”
When James announced four years ago he was joining the Heat, his departure became the most personal of Cleveland’s many misfortunes. The 1997 World Series, lost in Game 7 after a blown save, was a dagger. NFL seasons came to be confusing, difficult ways to pass the fall and winter months, long after Jim Brown faded away. But James was from here, and that means something. Turning his back on northeast Ohio felt, in July 2010, like an unforgivable sin.
He chased money and store-bought championships, joining fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and if that wasn’t bad enough, James staged a nationally televised special on ESPN, called “The Decision,” in which he publicly dumped not just the Cavaliers but, residents felt, Cleveland itself.
A 10-story banner picturing James, the image a familiar part of the Cleveland skyline and a point of local pride, was removed from an office building and replaced with an advertisement for Sherwin-Williams, the paint chain that was founded here. Cavaliers fans came together and burned their No. 23 James jerseys, calling the kind of support groups “LeBron-fires.” The Cavaliers’ owner, Dan Gilbert, showed his bitterness by penning a letter in which he ridiculed “King James” and referred to his “cowardly betrayal.”
The years passed, resentment toward James intensified and eventually weakened, residents watching as James and the rest of the “Big Three” won two championships and reached four consecutive NBA Finals.
Meanwhile, Cleveland became a symbol of a shaken economy; Ohio’s unemployment was higher than the national average in 2013, and economic growth came only in baby steps. The Browns stunk, replacing coaches and executives year after year, and the Indians came to epitomize small-market limitations. As for the Cavaliers, they finished with losing seasons in each of the four years after James headed south.
“Oh, we lost again,” Eric Baisden, a Cleveland attorney, said as he sat at a sports bar as televisions aired pieces of local sports history, most of it disappointing. “That’s the northeast Ohio way.”
Then last month, James opted out of his contract with the Heat, at the time believed to be nothing more than a move to drive up his 2014-15 salary. But there was a chance, and so even the most disappointed fans started wondering about a reconciliation.
As the rumors intensified that James might be interested in returning, Mike Kubinski designed three T-shirts with James in mind. The owner of a store that focuses on Cleveland pride, Kubinski created Web pages for each shirt, keeping the addresses hidden until the news was official. One of Kubinski’s designs included a list of local sports disappointments — “The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, The Decision” — but capped it with “The Return.” But this being Cleveland and all, he designed a similar one in case James returned to Miami, replacing “The Return” with “There’s Always Next Year.”
Kubinski, traveling to Denver on Friday, managed to activate the Web pages between flights, minutes after James’s announcement went live. “It’s good for business,” said Laura Kubinski, the store founder’s wife.
Indeed, as the afternoon advanced Friday, businesses looked for ways to capitalize on the good cheer sweeping through Cleveland. Signs welcoming James back went up over bar entrances, and, in a nod toward James’s “King” nickname, a man sat in front of a noodle shop and drew a chalk sketch of a lion wearing a crown. “The king of noodles, I guess,” the young man said.
Fans gathered and applauded and cheered across Huron Street from Quicken Loans Arena, the horns still honking two hours after Ohly ran from his office and started the parade. Some of them debated which jersey number James would wear, which fellow stars might join him in Cleveland and where the inevitable statue would be erected. They talked about homecoming and forgiveness, and, boy, did you read James’s essay? Written like a true, red-blooded Ohioan.
“I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my home town,” James said. “I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.”
The people here liked that, relieved that James pointed out he and Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner, had met and overcome their differences.
“All is forgiven,” Baisden said, and a few minutes later, a woman wearing a James jersey pushed a stroller toward the arena, and 23-year-old Jim Brabenec stood in the crowd in one of the jerseys he had recently unearthed. The friend who had vowed never to support James again had a change of heart, Brabenec said, and was headed downtown to join the celebration.
And Tucker, the lifelong Cleveland resident, said shortly after the announcement he was taking the rest of the afternoon off. He had burned two of his jerseys four years ago and kept one, just in case a day like this ever really happened — that bit of hope that, in places like this, might be the last thing to ever leave.