Photo courtesy of Cleveland.com
After spending the day in Cleveland and then watching Lebron James lead the injury riddled Cavaliers to another improbable win over the Golden State Warriors to take a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals, I had to go back and read his "I'm Coming Home" letter. The whole experience made me realize that the letter was much more than just a good excuse to leave an aging Miami Heat squad for a team with Kyrie Irving and the number one pick, which eventually became Kevin Love. The letter was truly from James' heart.
It is hard to fully grasp James' importance to the city and the area from the outside looking in. I mean he is just a basketball player right? Albeit one of the best to ever play, but why was it so monumental for him to leave and then come back? And that is what I could not understand until I landed at Cleveland's Hopkins International Airport.
From the second I stepped off the plane I noticed just how much influence James and the Cavs had on the people in the airport. Every store was selling Cavs apparel and the majority of the airport staff, from gate agents to bag handlers, was wearing James' jersey. But that still was not too far out of the ordinary, especially given the fact it was game day and Cleveland's first Finals appearance since 2007.
However, what did stand out was the closed down Ford factory and the gray clouds that loomed over the city as I took the RTA (subway) to downtown Cleveland. Those clouds seemed to hover over the city for the rest of the morning. Somewhere in the mid-afternoon the clouds burned away. I know the reality as to why the clouds went away at that time was because it takes hours of daylight before all the clouds either evaporate or shift from hovering over the city, but as corny as it may sound, it seemed like the vibe changed as it drew closer to game time and the gray skies just cleared. When I sat down for lunch at one of the dozens of restaurants/bars that lined Cleveland's 4th street, which was perpendicular to Quickens Loans Arena, the first thing the waiter did before taking my order was to ask me about the game.
As we began to talk he told me how many of the restaurants in the area lost $5000 a game night when LBJ left. That number alone was just astounding to me. With 41 home games and an average of 6 playoffs games that means restaurants were losing $235,000 a year once James left. That is when I started to understand that his presence in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio was much more than just fans wanting to root for a winner. James' presence was single-handedly responsible for the creation of dozens of jobs and business in an area already hit hard by the closure of automobile factories.
Then when I hopped on the RTA again later on in day, as I headed back to downtown, and every person on the train was wearing jerseys, with 7 out of 10 being James', I knew James was carrying more than just the Cavaliers. James was a symbol of what the city of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio can become. James does way more than bring hope to the area that it can end its professional championship drought but instead he brings a belief that together the community can overcome any hard times. It is almost unfathomable that a single basketball player can have that kind of impact, but sports, and James in particular, have that kind of power though.
James and the city of Cleveland made me quickly reminisce on how this past high school season the entire Bronx, New York stood behind Wings Academy, a small Bronx high school without its own home gym, as they won the PSAL City Championship and then the State Championship. With James and these Cavs there was the same sense of the area bonding together for a greater purpose. That is why there "All In" slogan makes so much sense. So regardless of how this series ultimately turns out James' return to Cleveland has been an overwhelming success.
The NBA Finals continue tonight on ABC at 9 pm as James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and all of Northeast Ohio attempt to take a commanding 3-1 lead on the Golden State Warriors.
x Paul Johnson
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photo courtesy of Cleveland.com
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