The Homeric Epic of LeBron James
Humble beginnings; killer biceps; purpose-driven departure; grand quest...
The following is from David Giffels’s The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt:
On the very afternoon I write these words, the second planet is about to pass directly in front of the sun, an event called the Transit of Venus, which, in silhouette, looks (though it cannot be viewed without appropriate eye protection) like a pea passing in front of a Hollywood searchlight, a minor epic of the cosmos that occurs just once every 105 years, which seems like a very long time until you remind yourself that this is Venus and the sun we’re talking about. And also tonight, June 5, 2012, LeBron James will play an ostensibly meaningful basketball play-off game with the word HEAT lettered across his torso. And he will lose.
Whenever I try to unravel the Homeric epic of LeBron James (humble beginnings; burden of expectation; killer biceps; purpose-driven departure; grand quest; home, home, home, home, home; daddy issues; failure of pride; etc.), I find myself invariably, involuntarily, incessantly tracing a line backward through personal chronology and geography (his and mine), and then conversely forward, toward the potential infinity of those same territories. And I’m still, every time, left wondering whether this is as important as I think it is, and then utterly convinced that it is.
LeBron James was born into an identity crisis. He came into the world on December 30, 1984, and not just the world, but a world, a very particular world, one that would make him irrevocably who he is, and one from which he will never be able to extract himself. He was born into Akron, Ohio, at exactly the moment the city was losing all sense of what it was about, all confidence, all antecedent. He was like Swee’ Pea in the Popeye cartoons, crawling out of the womb, oblivious and innocent, onto an I-beam dangling from a wire, everything falling apart methodically and chaotically behind him.
Two years before his birth, the last-ever passenger tire was built in Akron by a man named Richard Mayo, who paused afterward to look into a newspaper camera, a sturdy man in a V-neck T-shirt, thirty years on the job, his gloved fist perched on his hip, the other against his forehead, hands unsure what to do with themselves. The furrowed brow, the narrowed eyes, the strain at the corners—this was a look shared by men across a vast and hard-to-harness region, one defined ultimately and elliptically by water, by the Great Lakes and the Wabash and Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, routes of entry and departure to and from cities where the certainty of old factories was sagging and imploding.
Until then, for as long as anyone in my city could remember, Akron had been known as “the rubber capital of the world.” Like most manufacturing cities in the industrial Midwest, this was plenty enough identity, and the reputation carried far enough and wide enough for the people here not ever to feel obscure or irrelevant, and this reputation rested on a civic infrastructure that provided solidity and security. Akron was the birthplace and the center of the world’s tire industry, the most singular and therefore the most overtly significant supplier to Detroit’s auto industry. Which, yes, represents a stature something akin to being the Ralph Malph of the American industrial belt, and also a civic identity that requires being inordinately passionate about radial tires. (In defense: the profoundly intertwined, ultimately tragic histories—personal and corporate—of the Ford and Firestone families would have sent Shakespeare positively apeshit.) Anyhow, what more did we need to know? All the major American tire company world headquarters were here. Much of the production. Virtually all the high-tech research and development. The headquarters of the international rubber workers’ union.
Tire-building was the city’s defining profession. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands had made a good living at it, generation after generation. And then, one afternoon in August 1982, suddenly and completely that was gone.
A few months before, a photography exhibit called Factory Valleys opened at the Akron Art Museum. It made the city uneasy. Three years prior, the museum had commissioned Lee Friedlander, one of the most significant photographers in America, to come to Akron and make pictures. Any subject of his choosing. We must be important, the city thought. And lovely to see. Friedlander set off and started shooting. Cracked, empty streetscapes. Forlorn factories. Bent fences. Skewed signs. Punch-clock workers in ragged routine. He went up to Cleveland and down to Canton and over to Pittsburgh and came back again and again, through the monochrome winter of 1979 and into 1980. A pattern revealed itself into a story, and it was a story of ourselves and one we didn’t yet quite know, and that is the worst kind of story: the one about yourself that you ought to know but somebody else has to tell you. Friedlander finished his work, and when executives of the bank that had sponsored his commission saw the grimy, hardbitten black-and-white pictures, they said this was not what they’d expected. This is not what we look like. This is not how we ought to be seen. They paid him his money but never showed the pictures in their branches. While the museum exhibited its collection, the commissioned pieces went into storage, locked in the dark. The bankers never gave a reason, but who can ever put reason to identity?
Then that same summer, a new term popped up in the American lexicon: Rust Bowl. It derived from Dust Bowl, another time, another place, someone else’s eyes, the grim matrons of Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange. Soon it was bent into Rust Belt, and then it stuck like a barb. The first known use of the term was in a politician’s speech in 1982. Akron, because it was so closely tied to a single industry, one that was disappearing like an exhale in the quick of a Lake Erie winter, was feeling a sudden and profound loss of identity. The term Rust Belt was sucked hard into that void and there it would stay.
If you look at a socioeconomic map of the broad Rust Belt region, you find, unmistakably, Akron at the dead center, geographically and philosophically set squarely between the automotive and steel regions. The city was among the first to hit bottom.
As all this was taking hold, right in the middle of that city LeBron James pushed his first basketball up into the air.
I graduated high school that summer of 1982, the same high school James would attend, St. Vincent–St. Mary, home of the Fighting Irish. We had many of the same teachers, sang the same “high atop a hill in Akron” alma mater, idled in the same “learning resource center,” departed through the same glass doors every afternoon into a city we both love, but one best described as “unbeautiful.” In fact, James and I share a unique quirk in NBA history: both of us went directly from St. Vincent–St. Mary to the Cleveland Cavaliers. I was an entry-level ball boy. He was the first pick in the NBA draft. But still. We knew what that meant. We both grew up well aware that Cleveland bears the unfortunate distinction of having suffered longer than any other American sports city without a championship in any major league.
The last time it happened was the year I was born, 1964, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL championship game, which is what it was called then—the NFL Championship Game—which is to say the term Super Bowl didn’t even exist yet. A lifetime like this. That’s what LeBron James and I and our people share. A lifetime, one might say, of loss, but we here recognize something much different, more nuanced, more full of shadows. A lifetime of hope.
And anyone who’s done both—hoped and lost—knows that in many ways hoping is worse.
My professional basketball career was short and relatively uneventful. I served during the worst seasons in the history of the team, some of the worst times ever endured by any sports franchise, an epically bad spell of losing and bizarre management and shabby catering and forgotten players in a time when the NBA was not yet prime entertainment. Eventually, I was fired by Ted Stepien, who is generally considered the most profoundly inept team owner in the history of American professional sports. The highlight of my tenure was the day the Cavaliers’ arena, the old Richfield Coliseum, played host to the NBA All-Star Game and I escorted Bob Hope from his courtside seat to the home locker room so he wouldn’t have to use the public restroom, then stood guard while he did his Bob Hope business at the urinal. My grandmother was stone-cold starstruck when I told her of this.
My tenure was marked by long, mind-numbing nights of home- team loss after home-team loss—twenty-four games straight, which stood as the longest losing streak in NBA history until 2011, when it was surpassed by . . . wait for it . . . the Cleveland Cavaliers. Inside that hollow concrete arena, I came to recognize the peculiar nature of loyalty, the way a small core of people kept re-upping their season ticket packages for a team that you couldn’t give away tickets for. (And I mean this literally. Part of my ball-boy compensation was two complimentary passes to every game, and most nights those sat in the box office, unclaimed.) I came to recognize true loyalty in the likes of Joe Tait, the meat-and-potatoes Cavaliers radio announcer, who, despite Stepien’s attempt to unseat him, returned after Stepien flamed out, and then Tait remained in the announcer’s chair until retiring in 2011.
And in Rick Hofacker, the de facto manager of the ball boys who got me my job and went on to become a foot doctor specifically so he could in some way continue to serve the team he loved, which he has done now for many years, basketball feet being rather like NASCAR tires. And in Andy Bell, the team’s equipment manager, whom I would spot off at the fringes of TV shots for years after my employment ended, still doing his job, much of which involved rich men’s laundry. I saw a sometimes inexplicable but undeniably charming core of support for something that wasn’t easy to support or even understand, and I came to regard it not as charity or mere fandom but something more complex: a symbiotic relationship of need.
The Cleveland Cavaliers of my adolescence needed to be loved. And the people of my place and time needed something to love. The seeds of this understanding were sown as I sat on my bony, polyester-warm-up-clad teenage ass on the hard wooden floor watching the nonsense of sport yearning for relevance, World B. Free gunning rainbows from the corner.
Give us something to root for. We’ll take anything.
As I grew into early adulthood and observed a larger pattern of hope and loss and hope and loss and hope and loss, and the con- current resilience thereof, I came to a begrudging conclusion: neither of these things—hope and loss—can exist without the other, and yet at every turn it is necessary to believe that at some point one will ultimately conquer. And that will be our legacy.
Half a generation after I graduated from that drab, ungarnished school building near the decaying central industrial core, James entered as a freshman and began one of the most star-crossed careers in the history of American sports. As a youth-league player, he had found the group of people he knew he belonged with, a tight collective of schoolyard friends who called themselves the Fab Five and who made a vow to keep their team together into high school. By his junior year, James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the audacious title “The Chosen One.” After that, everything got weird, in a specifically parochial way. James, a local teenager, was also an international superstar, the most promising athlete in the world. He represented a bizarre divide between the hyperreal details of my own place—living two miles from my house, walking the same hallways I had, eating carhop hamburgers at Swensons Drive In, befriending my best friend’s son—and the notion of external identity that had vexed and eluded my home- town since I’d first begun to explore it. We in Akron began measuring James’s personal reputation against our civic reputation, and hungering for the ways those two notions were aligned.
Who was he? Who were we? Were we him? Was he us? Could this be what we’ve been longing for lo these many years?
In 2002, James, then a junior, was named Parade magazine’s high school basketball Player of the Year. I was working as a columnist at the local newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal. Because the paper carried Parade on Sundays, the magazine arranged for us to host a small awards ceremony in a meeting room just down the hall from the newsroom. A number of us made our way to the gathering that afternoon, drawn by the curiosity of this growing phenomenon whose story had become part of our daily working lives.
I sat in the back, watching. James had requested that his teammates join him, and so this group of young men in sweatpants and letter jackets all growing into themselves—one the size of a fifth grader; another who would soon sign as an Ohio State defensive lineman—sat at his flank with the awkward politeness endemic to Catholic schoolboys.
James was young, still slender, uncomfortable speaking in front of the small gathering, but he did his best and thanked his teammates and coaches, and everything he said seemed careful and true, in the give-110-percent-it’s-all-about-the-team sort of way. He has always seemed earnest in such settings (a certain hour-long ESPN special notwithstanding). He has improved at public speaking, certainly, but even then there was an inscrutable purity about him— can one be confidently humble?—which has always been central to his demeanor. That afternoon, he seemed like a young man being fitted for a tuxedo, trying on a shell that didn’t seem natural yet, but one—like this national award—that he was willing to grow into.
LeBron James had become a wrinkle in our journalistic routine. Almost daily, one of us had to answer the phone call, or the e-mail, or the chance query in the grocery store—why do you give so much attention to a high school athlete when there are real problems in the world?
The growing reality, however, was that maybe he was the solution to one of those problems, the answer to the very real, legitimately grave question of postindustrial American cities. Who are we? What are we?
As the ceremony finished and James gathered up his warm-up jacket and his award, I lingered in the room because I wanted to congratulate him. And also to fulfill an instinct left over from my younger days in an NBA locker room. I was curious how tall he seemed up close. (A universal male instinct: literally to size up other males. Once, lingering outside a concert venue, my brother eased in among the autograph seekers surrounding R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry and surreptitiously placed the flat of his palm atop his own head, extending it levelly toward Berry’s, shooting me a revelatory and excited glance: I am taller than a rock star!) As James neared the door, I reached out my hand, and he reached back with a palm the size of a palm leaf. We shook.
“Congratulations,” I said.
He nodded awkwardly, avoiding eye contact. He was either just a kid or he was a burgeoning aloof celebrity. I couldn’t answer which, but I believe it was the former.
“We went to the same high school,” I said. “Or I went to the same high school. That you go to now. I went to St. V.”
He smiled, but he didn’t say anything. I’m sure all those he met, even at that early stage, were looking for some context, measuring themselves against him, as it were. His eyes drew him toward the exit.
And then, through the kind of fate that never, ever, ever, ever happens here, particularly with regard to sports, the woebegone Cleveland Cavaliers drew the first pick in the 2003 draft lottery and selected James, who emerged as a man in full, wearing a suit as white as ice, diamonds in his ears, to become the hero of a team that needed one deep down in its soul.
You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldnt understand him.
What? he said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.
—CORMAC MCCARTHY, THE ROAD
I have spent my whole life watching people leave. This is a defining characteristic of the generation of postindustrial Midwesterners who have stayed in their hometowns. At every stage of opportunity, at every life crossroads, friends and family members and enemies and old lovers and vaguely familiar barflies depart. Piles of demo- graphic and sociological data chronicle this, the term brain drain serving as a sort of catamaran counterpart to Rust Belt. Akron’s population peaked the decade I was born and has dramatically fallen every decade since—from 290,000 in 1960 to 199,000 in 2010. High school graduation, college graduation, career opportu- nity, layoff, coming of age, crisis of confidence, marriage, divorce— the conditioned, perhaps prescribed, response is to go somewhere else. They all leave. A conversational quirk exists among natives of this region: Whenever we hear people say they’ve moved here from somewhere else, we instinctively respond, “Why?”
And so those of us who have stayed through all of our versions of those same life moments have a perpetual reflex of self- explanation, a desperation of identity, an instinctive yearning toward legitimacy and a kind of pride that is a far piece from Chamber of Commerce jingoism. Something that allows us to coolly intone, “It’s a Rust Belt thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
Look, we don’t get to be cool very often. We take it where we can get it.
There may, then, be no professional athlete in the history of American sports more directly connected to the narrative of his or her hometown. Plenty have played for the home team, certainly, but James seemed actually fated to play for the home team, as though he was conceived of this time and place, concocted from the ash of ourselves by some higher power, which power predes- tined the arrangement of those lottery Ping-Pong balls, and which power, if you’re going to play along with this sort of stoner logic, would (if ours is a benevolent God) also have to have known about “The Decision,” thus implying that we need to understand why maybe that was a necessary turn of events. For us.
Once we began to believe we deserved him, we slowly began to recognize that we would also deserve whatever he became.
James grew up with a definition of loyalty much like the one I’d developed watching those shitty old wine-and-gold Cavs. He reveled in his closeness to his childhood friends, to the neighborhood barber, to those Swensons hamburgers. After turning pro, he got the Akron area code—330—tattooed in chunky script down his powerful right forearm: sense of place, writ large. He would repeatedly, in a way that only the true, ear-to-the-ground native understands, make a formal distinction between Akron and Cleveland, two places that stand shoulder to shoulder, thirty- five miles apart, and are entirely similar yet entirely something of themselves. (There’s an old saying here: it’s a half hour from Akron to Cleveland and two hours from Cleveland to Akron. [It’s a Rust Belt thing. You wouldn’t understand.]) We make this distinction in great part as a matter of identity, the way brothers and sisters choose to express their individual personalities, even within the family.
So it wasn’t just that he was from here and identified overtly with being from here. It was the very notion of what that identification implies. Factory towns, places that make things, are defined by work. That should be obvious. But when that is the prime element of integrity, it insinuates into the pores the same way soot once did. Here, uniquely, we do things the hard way on purpose. We recognize a virtue and a necessary creativity in choosing to do things that way. I once heard Jack White—a native Detroiter; one of us—say that he preferred playing plastic guitars that didn’t go into tune, that the challenge was inspiring. If the keyboard onstage needs to be two feet away for him to reach it, he moves it three feet away. The struggle becomes its own aesthetic.
And unto this place comes the most promising athlete in the world, and the most famous (and for us, the celebrity is vitally important), who, if you’re going to do things the hard way, couldn’t have asked for much better than the 2003 Cavaliers. Soon a cliché emerged, about James carrying the team “on those broad shoulders of his.” And not just the team, but all of us.
It wasn’t that LeBron James was the solution to our identity crisis. It was that he was its embodiment.
* * *
I was working in my office on a gray Sunday afternoon near the end of the spring semester, chilly gusts sweeping at the windowpanes. In the middle of a recession that had gutted the industry, I’d left my newspaper job and begun teaching at the University of Akron. There was an echo of commotion from out on the commons, and I rose from my chair and looked down to see a steady progression of people heading toward the basketball arena, one building over from the English department. I was finished for the day and gathered my things and decided to walk the long way back to my car, to see what was happening. As I approached, I saw a big satellite dish above a television truck and realized what I’d just walked into. LeBron James was being awarded the NBA’s 2010 Most Valuable Player award, and he’d arranged for the presentation ceremony to be held at the University of Akron gym, where he’d played many of his high school games. The year before, he’d also been named league MVP and had brought this same event to St. Vincent–St. Mary.
I arrived at a loose yellow police tape, clattering in the breeze, cordoning off the traffic circle in front of the arena. A couple hundred people had gathered, awaiting James’s emergence from the building, hoping for a glimpse, maybe a wave, a handshake, an autograph. He’d led the team, once again, through a stellar season, and now, with a play-off series against the Boston Celtics about to begin, the hope was growing into something like belief that finally, after all these decades, our championship was within reach. He could be the one to take us there. I looked at my watch. I decided to stay.
Soon his teammates, who’d been there at his insistence to share the award, began to emerge, waving and joking as they slipped into expensive automobiles, some with drivers, some alone. The coach, Mike Brown, jogged past in a golf shirt, wiggling his hand in a goofy wave. And then, we waited. A lull settled. The sky bruised over with clouds. A cold drizzle began. Every now and again, a figure would emerge, generating a moment’s excitement before the realization that, no, it’s not him. TV guy. Security. Crew. Nobody.
The crowd began to dwindle. I stayed. I wanted to see him, this person I identified with in unique and paradoxical ways. We, who have nothing and everything in common.
The rain picked up. I reached into my bag for a little pop-out umbrella, soon realizing I was surrounded mostly by Sunday-afternoon dorm students and strays, and that college students, as a rule, do not own umbrellas, and so I felt a little guilty but also a little superior beneath the flimsy comfort of this one. My guilt and my superiority both were soon relieved when a grunt in a hoodie insinuated himself underneath.
Time dragged along. A half hour. Forty-five minutes. An hour. More. A late-afternoon chill had set in. The crowd grew impatient, small jeers brewing with each false alarm. A car pulled up, slowing into an auxiliary driveway right in front of where I was standing, stopping near the entrance where the TV crews had been soldiering in and out like ants after an ice cream social. It was the sort of luxury car that appears not to be a real model, but a full-size toy, a prototype for a movie, a gleaming two-tone sedan, classic yet inscrutable lines, a capped silhouette at the wheel. It sat there for a long time, chrome exhaust breathing papal smoke.
And then, finally, he emerged, in dark glasses, flanked by two hard men shaped like telephone booths. He was dressed in a silvery suit and a robin’s-egg shirt, hurrying toward the car in a now- steady rain. The first shout rang from the crowd:
I looked in the direction of the voice, wondering. You stood out in the cold drizzle? For more than an hour? Just to do that?
James didn’t respond. One of the attendants popped the trunk and James slipped off his jacket and handed it to him. The man laid it out carefully, smoothing the cloth. James hurried around the corner of the car to the back door, raindrops spattering his sunglasses.
He disappeared behind the rain-streaked glass. The car pulled out and away.
The Decision. Yadda.
So I watch him now in these games that he plays for Miami and try to unravel the complexity of my response. Because he’s some- one who still—just as others who’ve moved from Ohio into distant spotlights—represents my hometown, I want him to succeed personally. But not ultimately. Choosing Miami was choosing to not do things the hard way anymore. If there was a betrayal, that was it.
I want him to succeed, that young man from the newspaper conference room, so full of promise, of promises, of the hardest promises. But I want him to wish he were succeeding for us, for the only people who will ever really understand this desire of his to be, more than anything else, an identity.
I have heard James criticized for being more interested in his “brand” than his athletic legacy. But that’s missing the point. His basketball talent, his basketball legacy, is a means to something else, and it’s something unique in the history of sports celebrity. It’s a means to the journey back through his own narrative, to translate the code written literally and figuratively on himself.
* * *
The not winning is the better story, you see, just in the same way that hope is harder than loss.
I say this as someone who came of age, who came to an under- standing, in a city no one else wanted. I explored abandoned buildings in the years I spent downtown while attending classes at the University of Akron. I watched pieces of that ruin be reclaimed, adapted, not desperately, but methodically, through a Calvinist instinct adapted into the genetic code by way of the repetition of a three-shift factory town.
I don’t know if James ever understood exactly why we needed him, otherwise he wouldn’t have left the way he did. But I do think he understood—even (and maybe especially) in those insults— how we needed him. And maybe that’s why he left the way he did.
Three weeks before The Decision, the University of Akron announced that it was launching the country’s first baccalaureate program in corrosion engineering, a program that would soon attract millions of dollars in federal grants, the money indicating the value of research on how to repair and preserve rusting bridges and buildings and military facilities. It was a natural and poetic fit; understanding rust in Akron is like understanding grass in Tullamore. The first stu- dents entered the program just as James was beginning his career in Miami, a place that couldn’t be more different from his home.
The city that had first introduced America to the notion of a Rust Belt was now offering America’s first bachelor’s degree in the subject. We dubbed it the Rust Institute.
We own that shit, and no one can take it away from us.
He’ll be back. I write these words now on the night that it finally happened: James, the Most Valuable Player, leading the Heat to a decisive championship; I, having immediately turned off the television after the final buzzer, not wanting to watch a celebration that feels bitter and wrong. I look at those words and I really believe them—he will come home—but I know I need to qualify this belief. You come from a misunderstood place and you develop a habit of qualifying everything—and I realize “hope” is the only way to do so, to ultimately believe that that is the force that will conquer, and I curse myself for this, for the goddamned hope of it all.
From The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 2014 by David Giffels.