Last Thursday, the renowned Cleveland Orchestra held one of its annual Christmas concerts at beautiful Severance Hall, minutes away from Cleveland’s “Little Italy” neighborhood. Late in the show, during a break between songs, Santa Claus came up on stage to riff with conductor Robert Porco.
“And who is at the top of your nice list?” Porco asked.
“Well, LeBron of course,” Santa said. “The King!”
The crowd ate it up, laughing and applauding at the same time — visions of sugar plums surely replaced by visions of LeBron dunks for Clevelanders this Christmas season.
James and his wife, Savannah, happened to attend another concert in the series a week before, if you needed an example of just how omnipresent he is in “The Land” these days.
He’s the show. He’s the audience. He’s everything. He’s everywhere.
Last Saturday, James’ name surfaced at a far more serious scene in downtown Cleveland, where hundreds of people descended upon Playhouse Square — mere blocks away from Quicken Loans Arena — in protest of the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Cleveland resident Tamir Rice.
Many held signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for Tamir” and “We Can’t Breathe” as they assembled underneath the iconic jumbo-sized chandelier that hovers above Euclid Avenue.
Before the procession made its way out of Playhouse Square and continued on its march, a man stood in the middle of the crowd and brought James’ recent Nike commercial, “Together,” to life. “If LeBron can do a group hug, so can we!” the man exclaimed as the hundreds of protesters who surrounded him put their arms around one another and huddled together. He then led them in a chant: “One human family! One human family!”
The moment was poignant enough on its own merit, but when you consider just how vocal James has been on social issues in the past several months, it seemed torn out of a movie script.
“Violence is not the answer and retaliation is not the solution,” James has repeated time and time again when asked by reporters about the civil unrest that’s permeated the country.
It’s against that backdrop back home that he returns to Miami for a Christmas Day showdown with the Heat.
Yes, we’re talking about a basketball game and James is a basketball player. And as a basketball player James oversaw the most successful run the Heat franchise has ever had — two championships, four straight trips to the Finals, the second-longest winning streak in league history at 27 games and a blissful 224-88 record during the regular season in that four-year span for a .718 winning percentage. In the Heat’s 23 other seasons of existence, including this season, they have a winning percentage of .486.
He chose to take less than max money to come to Miami in the prime of his career, accomplished his goal of winning multiple championships and then returned to his roots. James likened his years with the Heat to going away to college, something he missed out on as a part of the prep-to-pros generation. Much like Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, Anthony Davis at Kentucky or Kemba Walker at Connecticut, James should be forever celebrated in Miami as a big man on campus for what he was able to accomplish in his time there, not reviled for opting to leave early.
“We’re going back to Miami to a city that, basically, won two championships,” said James Jones, who has a unique vantage point on the situation as a current teammate of James on the Cavs and a Miami native who also played with James on the Heat. “And so, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with that.”
And again, it’s not like he left the Heat to pursue some fickle fantasy, either. James’ connection to the community in Northeast Ohio is unmistakable — from the giant outward “Akron” tattoo he has across his right collarbone to the feelings about his hometown he has in his heart.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” James wrote in his letter explaining his decision to go home in Sports Illustrated this summer. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.”
James is undoubtedly where he is supposed to be. Once Miami fans can reconcile that, they’ll see that having James on loan to call their own for those four years should make him someone they celebrate, not dismiss.
Or as Dr. Seuss once wrote: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Heat fans will have those on-court memories of James forever more. But there’s more than basketball for James in Cleveland.
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