What LeBron James' return means for the city of Cleveland

Angelo Merendino

LeBron James' return is vindication for fans who have put up with a few rough years, and vindication for Cleveland itself

The Decision did something to me I couldn't have possibly expected. I went from being a casual fan who watched the games but avoided sports media almost entirely to being someone who paid money to register a domain to blog about a team that was in the midst of losing 26 games straight. When others were burning their jerseys and running away from this team, I dove headfirst at it and found an amazing fan base of passionate, awesome people who clung unto the tiniest shreds of hope that this team would get good again. For the next four years we ate tacos, made zines, debated the merits of drafting Anthony Bennett and poured over everything we possibly could related to a team that, at times, didn't seem like they could even find enough effort to care enough to show up for the 48 minutes they were supposed to play. Why did we do this? Because one day, who knew when it would come, the Cavaliers would be relevant again and all that time would be proven to be worth it.

And now that day has come.

We all have our own personal reasons for why we've been waiting and wanting the Cavaliers to return to relevancy and start winning. I can't pretend like I know why other people have been so fanatically obsessed about this team, but I know why I am. I love this city. Cleveland is my home and it's been incredible to watch it turn itself around and become the eccentric, awesome city that it is today. And in a strange way, The Decision helped me find that passion for Cleveland.

I grew up south of Cleveland, pretty much about halfway between Cleveland and Akron. As LeBron James himself said in the letter announcing his return to the Cavaliers, this is where I've cried. This is where I've bled. This is where I call home. I stayed in Cleveland for College, getting my education at Case Western Reserve University. While in school, I found myself tasked with making a presentation for the City of Cleveland where I was basically pitching a new vision for the city. Given that this was in 2008, one year removed from the Cavaliers first and only appearance in the NBA Finals, LeBron James was featured prominently as the image for the newer, younger Cleveland.

For then-21-year-old-me, LeBron James was what I thought of when I thought of Cleveland. Since I was a freshman in High School, whenever anyone mentioned basketball or the Cavs, people would mention this kid from Akron who could be the next Michael Jordan. Unlike older generations of Clevelanders who grew up with The Shot, The Fumble, and the rest of the ESPN failure montage, my image of Cleveland was much more upbeat. The Indians had made the World Series when I was nine. They were back in it two years later when I was 11. By about the time that team was on its last legs, the Browns were back (which honestly I never really cared about, but that's a topic for another day and a different blog) and this kid from Akron was touring Northeast Ohio wowing everyone. Even better, the Cavs were in a position to where he could play for them.

And he did. Just as I was graduating high school and moving to University Circle for college, LeBron James was putting Cleveland back on the map. While he was busy elevating the Cavaliers and helping to undo the damage done by years of burning rivers, Dennis Kucinich mayoral terms and The Drew Carey Show, I was discovering Cleveland as a maturing adult. Little Italy, Coventry, The West Side Market, Lakewood. Every week, I was discovering something cool and unique about Cleveland. All the while, little by little, Cleveland started to stop becoming a punchline for late night talk show hosts and started to become that place where LeBron James plays. A city on the upswing. A city that, while it had been punched pretty hard, was while on its way to brushing it off and standing back up as something new and cool.

And then he left. Along the way, he gift-wrapped his exit and branded it as "The Decision", something which could easily slide into ESPN's Cleveland failure montage off the shelf. While areas like Ohio City and Gordon Square were exploding with new bars and restaurants, as new art scenes bubbled up from the ground, as Iron Chefs were crowned and Cleveland's renaissance continued, the jokes returned. Cleveland was once again "the mistake on the lake". And after enough time and revisionist versions of Cavaliers history, the verdict on the LeBron James era was clear:

"Of course he left, why would anyone ever stay in Cleveland when they can play in Miami?"

It hurt. Worst of all, it hurt because it was caused by someone who grew up here. Someone who knew just how great and amazing and awesome this area is. Someone who got it. Just while Cleveland was getting back up on its feet and getting some recognition, he went on prime-time television, kicked us in the jaw and fled to Miami. If someone from this area could do something so cold and callous, why couldn't someone who's never been here lob a bunch of hack jokes about the city at us ad infinitum?

Sure, Dan Gilbert writing a ridiculous letter didn't help. Nor did the morons who burned jerseys in the streets for attention. But it drove me nuts. After everything this city and area has gone through, after all the improvements, all the people who took a risk and invested in this city in an attempt to make it great again, this is all it took for all that momentum to go to waste. No matter what cool things happened in Cleveland, no matter what area chefs rose to national prominence, no matter what unique local landmarks celebrated centennials, Cleveland was just a bunch of irrational crazies who live in a crappy city and if you say otherwise you need to lighten up and get over it.

It was too much. So I started writing. I thought that maybe a local voice, still focusing on the positive things here could help others see what I saw in this city. Maybe if enough people would read what I wrote, maybe it could start to help turn the tides. I started my own Cavs blog, Throw the Hammer Down, as an homage to Austin Carr who, I don't care what you think, is awesome and is a local treasure. I started writing for the awesome guys at another local blog, I GO HARD NOW, and made friends for life along the way. I reached out to Conrad and started writing here hoping that the additional exposure could help change some minds. I wrote because I hoped that the more public voices Cleveland had that weren't in Comic Sans or weren't grainy YouTube videos of idiots torching expensive jerseys that maybe, just maybe, the jokes would stop and Cleveland and the great people who inhabit it would get just a touch of respect.

But in the end, the one thing I never expected is for LeBron James to write a letter which accomplished just that for the same reasons. Even better, I never expected him to come back in the prime of his career and to don the red and gold again.

This has been a crazy four years. For anyone out there who brings up how the Cavaliers still have a long way to go to contend, about how there are still very real issues with the roster, I know. This isn't about that right now. They'll get to that later. Right now, I'm just happy because the man who I always wished would speak up and help people understand why we're so passionate about this city did. I'm happy because LeBron James is back and feels the same way about this region that we all do and that finally we have something we can point to with pride that proves it.

I just wish he would’ve written the letter in Comic Sans. That would’ve been the best.

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