LeBron Comes Home?

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around
this is your hometown

                                 –Bruce Springsteen

It’s old news now. Actually, it is a very old and repeated story that goes back to Odysseus and his fantastic journey across the seas. The man who has conquered the world’s most formidable opponents finally returns home, yet all is not quite the same.

Four years ago, when LeBron James made “The Decision” to leave his hometown of Cleveland (the neighboring city of Akron, technically), Ohio, it was to begin a journey away from home, as every young man knows in his heart he must do at some point in his life. Of course, for Mr. James it was not in the spirit of heroism as defined by great personal sacrifice, as when one goes to war. Nor was it a moral conviction to a greater humanitarian cause. What seemed clear back then was that he felt the need to change horses and became defiant in the face of public criticism.

In his open letter recently published in Sports Illustrated, LeBron likened his tenure in Miami to going away to college (something he never did, as his talent led him straight into the NBA). In some ways this is an apt analogy; he might have been feeling what so many high school seniors feel: if I am to become a man, I must leave the dull familiarity of home and go out into the world and accomplish something great. For him, it was to win a championship, something he had not done in Cleveland but would do so in just two seasons in Miami.

There is no question that his return to the Cleveland Cavs was more than a business decision. He could have made max money in several cities, and his relationship with the public would have been much less complicated. There is little doubt that his mother and his wife and kids were factors—perhaps the Miami glam scene was not to their liking. Or maybe they became hip to the potential effects of Climate Change on a city that sits a few feet above sea level. There are many possible reasons for LeBron’s departure from South Florida, but it is clear that his decision was based largely on sentiment and emotion. Certainly over the next two years, as he amps up his game in Cleveland, he will be the centerpiece in a dynamic and electric sports atmosphere.

Clevelanders, after weeks of cliff-hanging, are both ecstatic and skeptical. Their ambivalence is understandable, especially given the nose-thumbing manner in which James left town. He, like so many great athletes, is by necessity both arrogant and defensive. He will wear the public mask for the most part, covering the frequent bouts of disdain for the common asshole-fan. Cleveland will love him and hate him alternately, and only the team’s degree of success will tip the scales one way or the other.

But what interests me is not so much about whether or not he wins. Rather, I wonder about the kinds of memories and images of the past he might hold in his mind and heart that qualify this not-so-vibrant city on the shores of Lake Erie as his true Home. In a recent article for Time magazine about the James decision, six-time NBA champion Kareem Abdul-Jabbar defines home as “a symbol of our innocence, a place where we dreamed limitlessly and were loved unconditionally.” I am reminded of Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel You Can’t Go Home Again in which protagonist George Webber, a man who has risen from simple roots to international fame, becomes obsessed with the idea of home:

“[W]hy had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”

Does LeBron James reminisce? Does he wax nostalgic and think about his best friend in grade school, or an inspiring teacher, or a coach, or some mischievous cousin? Does he re-envision his first crush? Does he recall going to an Indians or Browns or Cavs game, or to Cedar Point amusement park with his family?  What about Akron itself—can he conjure the smell of burning rubber from the tire plants? Or the wild college scene on Exchange Street? Does he get philosophical and conjure up images of troubling moments, like his first encounter with a racist or a bully? Or of the “brother” who called him a traitor to his race? Is it possible that the idea of returning to the source of these memories provides him with a more palpable and meaningful sense of who he really is as a human being, as opposed to the larger-than-life iconic public image and all its trappings?

I don’t know the answer, and I doubt LeBron is dwelling on such memories, choosing instead to take his recent “schooling” at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs as incentive to plan a winning strategy in Cleveland. But I must confess that the whole discussion has stirred my own fleeting sense of what home really means. Like most Coloradans, I am not from here. I do not visit my ancestors in a local graveyard, and I do not feel an affinity for the cowboys and gold diggers of the Old West.

I grew up near Buffalo, New York, the next steel town down the lake from Cleveland, and very similar in terms of history, climate, and culture. Despite the terrible winters, the lack of job opportunity, and the general factory mentality of the people there, I still consider Western New York State my home. It is, after all, where I had a best friend named Lamont, a smart cocker spaniel named Casey, some inspiring teachers, a childhood crush named Bonnie, a first love named Lynnette. I watched O.J. Simpson run wild once at the “Rockpile” and heard Mohammed Ali rant about Vietnam at a local college. I suffered through four consecutive Buffalo Bills Super Bowl losses. I remember swimming in Lake Erie when the pollution was not too evident, and digging for crayfish along the creek that ran through town. I remember vividly my father dying, and, soon thereafter, a week-long television broadcast following the assassination of JFK. Most importantly, I remember my mother, grandmother and four sisters, and Christmases when we somehow found détente and came together as a family around the tree, happy to be safe inside, away from the howling blizzard that rattled the windows.

Sometimes here in Colorado when the sun is too harsh and the river runs too shallow, when the mountains are merely giant rocks and I-25 is an endless procession of soul-less machines, I lose faith. I want to escape, sometimes to a place I’ve never been, perhaps where there is a great river. And sometimes I just want to go home.

Truth is, I already tried that trick, and it didn’t work at all like I had imagined. And I bet that LeBron will experience something similar as he tries to re-attach himself to a place that, like everything in the universe, has changed, and will continue to change even more in the face of the man who has also changed. Despite all the great notions surrounding the “return of the king”—atonement, just rights, rebirth—the reality will be something very different.

A friend recently told me that he was spooked by an image on Google Earth. Assuming the images were a live satellite feed, he was checking out his grandfather’s farmhouse, which he had not visited since the old man died two years earlier. There in the image standing in the back yard was his grandpa! Momentarily startled, he thought for a moment he might see his childhood self appear there in the yard some thirty years ago, chasing fireflies in the twilight.

We can shuffle through a big box of old photos and reminisce until the cows come home, and we can conjure up a thousand mental “selfies” to get ourselves into the picture, but as H.G. Wells hauntingly reminds us, we cannot travel into the past. It is folly to dwell on memories, we all know that. Perhaps it is best to take the advice of one NBA player and LeBron critic, who said simply, “Home is where you live, man.”

But then again, if we believe in the individual soul and that, upon death, it becomes part of the Greater Soul, maybe our location on the planet means something. Maybe it’s like on the original Star Trek series—for Scotty to beam us back up to the Enterprise, we need to be in the place where we can be found. Maybe that place is home.