Monday, May 4, 2009

On LeBron and His Hometown

I spent five years living and working as a sportswriter in Akron, Ohio, in the late 1990's, which would be a rather unremarkable statement, except for the fact that I can now say that I lived and worked in Akron, Ohio at a moment when perhaps the greatest athlete of our generation (or, potentially, of any generation) was coming of age. This still seems utterly bizarre to me. I remember watching LeBron James win the state championship as a freshman, at a time when he was still growing into his own body; I remember his coaches raving about his potential, uttering the kinds of things that sound so hyperbolic that you have trouble believing there could be any truth to them at all. Honestly, I didn't believe them. I remember a friend urging me to come back to Akron shortly after I left so I could write a book about this kid (since then, four different friends/colleagues of mine have combined to write three different books about him). I think, at some point, I probably watched him play football, too.

This afternoon, LeBron will do something that I'm guessing not many NBA Most Valuable Players have done before: He will accept his trophy in his high-school gym, in his hometown.

It is difficult, despite the time I spent there, for me to fully comprehend the impact LeBron has had on Akron. This is a town with a strange and checkered history, a bastion of middle-American life at its finest and its most bizarre, the home of the Soap Box Derby and Geoffrey Dahmer, the home of a world-class golf course and a once-proud (and now decimated) American industry. It is a place, my friend David likes to say, where there is one of everything, but only one. And this is why it has been so fascinating to see how LeBron James has continued to identify himself with his hometown as much (or perhaps moreso) than any other major American athlete.* This is also why I believe that as long as the Cavaliers are able to provide him with his teammates who can actually catch his passes, he probably will not leave. He has no reason to leave. He has lived here his entire life; he knows nothing else, and he seems happy with that, and I think this will remain fundamentally true even if he winds up spending six months of his year living in a Tribeca condominium and hanging out with Jay-Z. Life for a superathlete is different than in the age of Jordan; the proliferation of electronic media, of this very medium, means an athlete of LeBron's stature can succeed without actually playing in a major media market. In New York, as outstanding as he is, he would still be one of many; in Akron, he is one of one.

*Tom Brady is from San Mateo, California. Tiger Woods is from Cypress, California. I had to look these up.

(Photo: Bob DeMay/Akron B-J, Mark Duncan, AP, via NYT)

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