Thursday, July 17, 2014

Readers Speak: Kayla Says Welcome home LeBron

Miami. New York. Los Angeles. Cleveland?
One of these things is not like the other, right? I mean, if you had money and all the power to pick a place to live for give or take the next 4 years of your life, surely you’d pick the sun and beaches of Miami, right? Or maybe you’d choose an iconic skyline in the city that doesn’t sleep, where crooners and rappers pen love songs and new buildings seemingly go up every day.

Los Angeles, the city of Angeles, home to stars and a fashion capital of the world. Sunny skies and some of the best beaches America has to offer. Cleveland? Well…it has character? No, there are no luxurious beaches. It is not a top ten destination amongst vacationers or home to stars. The economy? Well they don’t call this area of the country the Rust Belt for nothing. The weather is very Midwestern. Gray skies and snow in the winter, hot and humid in the summer. Cleveland and Northeastern Ohio aren’t a lot of things, but one thing it is – is home.

Ohio is home to tough, hardworking men and women who helped catapult America to the forefront during the Industrial Age. Once the home to the Rockefeller family, it is currently the home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We offer world class health care in the name of the Cleveland Clinic, the second largest performing arts center in the United States, and an up and coming culinary destination, featured on many television shows. Ohio is also home of Iron Chef Michael Symon. Northeast Ohio is the birthplace of Halle Berry, Toni Morrison, Ruby Dee, Dorothy Dandridge, Bobby Womack, The Levert Family, and yes, LeBron James.

When LeBron left Cleveland 4 years ago, it was a gut punch to fans. It was one thing to leave, but the way he left to “Take his talents” to South Beach, was especially hard to stomach. You see, we here in Ohio knew Lebron before he was introduced to American as a high school junior basketball phenom. He was one of us- a tough, hardworking kid from a town that had seen better days. We all knew his talent would take him to places we ourselves had never seen, and perhaps would never go. When he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003 a new feeling had begun to creep over the region. An unfamiliar feeling. A feeling we hadn’t had in now over 50 years.  Hope.

Cleveland hasn’t won a championship in 50 years. But beyond sports, Cleveland and Northeast Ohio didn’t have much to feel hopeful for. When the steel mills began to shut down and the economy was sent into a downward spiral, there wasn’t much hope. People began to leave Northeast Ohio in droves. No one could blame them. They had to do so in order to better their lives.

Those that remained here struggled. Those who could helped out. We didn’t have much, but we had each other. We were family and sports became a way for us to forget our problems for a few hours and enjoy watching players represent the name on the front of the jersey. Being a Cleveland sports fan wasn’t easy though. This is the city of underdogs. Cleveland sports teams collectively haven’t won a championship in the three major sports since 1964. There have been many disastrous moments along the way: ‘The Drive’, ‘The Fumble’, ‘The Shot’, ‘The Move’, and most recently ‘The Decision’, have all come to define Cleveland sports misery. Finding a bright spot, a moment where we could get away from our problems was becoming harder and harder to do.

When James was drafted by the Cavaliers, the euphoria in the air was unlike anything I had experienced as a Cleveland fan. Sure, we had the wonderful run by the Cleveland Indians in the 90’s that set the city on fire with “Indians Fever”, but this was different. A local kid, a Northeast Ohioan who we watched grow and become a man amongst boys playing high school basketball right in our backyard was going to lead Cleveland. He was finally going to rid us of 50 years of misery. Someone who struggled just like us, someone who understood the importance of family and loyalty, someone who “got us”, was finally going to lead us to sports promise land. What a better way to end it.

As James led the Cavaliers to franchise highs we had never seen before, a sense of pride washed across Northeast Ohio. It was hard to ignore Cleveland and Ohio anymore. We were the lead in on Sports Center, CNN and other national networks came to town to cover the Cavs and what it meant for Cleveland. Movie stars and entertainers began flocking to Cleveland to catch a game and ended up staying a few days. New shops, bars, and restaurants began to pop up. Cleveland had several wonderful ideas to re-invent itself drawn up – and in a way it felt like a rebirth. A Cleveland renaissance.

And then it happened. He was gone. In a way even he says he should have handled better. It was like a sucker punch. The kid from Northeast Ohio, one of our own, someone who knew our struggles had left for the sun and beaches of Miami.

I now understand he had to leave. He had to do what was best for him and his family, yes, but he also had to mature. We all did. When he left there was sadness, anger, and confusion. How could one of our own turn his back on us? Perhaps the best thing that grew out of this situation, maybe even unconsciously was we were no longer going to let the world define us as “the mistake on the lake”. We refused to be the joke of a national any longer. We were #HappyInCle. We may have our faults and problems, we may never be a premiere vacation destination, but this is home. This is Cleveland.

In four years after you leave home you learn a lot about yourself and what’s most important to you. We occasionally wondered while he was here if he “got it”. Does he really understand us? Is he really one of us? While reading James' letter, I can finally say, unequivocally, he understands. He is one of us. James' letter, a beautiful love note to Northeast Ohio highlights Midwestern values like family, hard work, pride, and loyalty.
Outsiders may never get us or why sports mean so much to us. We may not have beaches, the sun may not shine 365 days a year, but its home. OUR home – imperfections and all. 

I’m Kayla. I’m imperfect just like the area I hail from, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m proud to say I’m from Northeast Ohio and I’m proud to have James represent us. They say you can never come home. I say you’ve never been to Northeast Ohio. You’re always welcomed.

Welcome home.