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Home is where hearts are for LeBron
STEPS FROM AKRON
The border between the land where they love him and the land where they hate him has the name of his protector attached high above the dying brown scrub that lines the road.
Ten times, as if repeating it often enough could reach across the stretching landscape of enemy territory that now makes up most of America and somehow ease LeBron James’ troubled and troubling spirit.
Ten times, the name of the place where one can still find the nuances of the good man behind so many bad decisions.
AKRON AKRON AKRON …
On one side of the border, just barely across, people will hear “LeBron James” and stop cold. The words that follow are heartfelt.
“Liar.” “Whatever.” “Traitor.” “I’m so happy he’s struggling.”
On the other side, people hear the same name and stop cold with that same electric shock. But this time they proceed with warmth and thought and a touch of sadness mixed in with the pride.
“I believe you are what you are. He’s a good person, always has been. He’s coachable. He’s wandered a bit, but he’ll wander back. That’s what he is — a good man.”
“He belonged to Akron, but we loaned him to Cleveland. If anyone should be mad, it’s Akron. But we aren’t. Because we let him go! Because we understand he had a job to do!”
They say these things because the border is real.
“LeBron is an Akronite — and there’s a huge difference between Akron and Cleveland,” Eric Vaughn says as he sips a beer in downtown Akron. “There’s a natural animosity between Cleveland and Akron, and I think everything that’s played out is an extension of that Cleveland-Akron axis.
“In the end, a dyed-in-the-wool Akronite would do exactly what LeBron did, every time.”
The border has a bridge above it, where AKRON repeats, and above that is chain-link fence 10 feet high that curves up, as if it were a guardhouse meant to prevent the people on one side getting to — and understanding — the people on the other.
The border matters.
On one side, LeBron James is safe, loved, appreciated and, when he’s comfortably inside it, happy. On this side is the place that shaped him.
“He knows what it’s like to come from that city,” says Maverick Carter, LeBron’s longtime friend and the chief executive officer of LRMR, LeBron’s marketing company. “He helps those kids, and those are the people who he cares about more than anyone.
“Everyone wants to forget this,” Carter says, “but he’s not that far removed from being one of those kids.”
On the other side of the border are burning jerseys, a chorus of boos stretching from one NBA city to another, an unmitigated joy at the man’s struggles and self-destructive decisions.
The capital of this hatred is 40 miles up Interstate 77 in Cleveland, and those people have their reasons, just as much of America does in its like-minded LeBron loathing. A loathing that will intensify Thursday when he returns to Cleveland for the first time as a member of the Miami Heat to face his former team, the hometown Cavaliers.
Fine. Fair enough. That’s how it goes.
That’s how it is.
But in Akron, among many in the small world where the most talented basketball player on Earth remains cherished, they have their own reasons for seeing him as they do.
They helped raise him. They watched him grow. They know he’s never lost his loyalty to his hometown. They’ve watched him spend millions of dollars and pour parts of himself into Akron.
They’ll be damned if anyone will take away the version of LeBron James they believe in, the one they swear is his truer and better self.
The cold screeches across the empty parking lot, bitter and unending and distinctly not South Beach.
The leaves are gone, the trees bare, the sky the blue of a deep chill.
Still, something beckons, a feeling of ritual rooted in family and faith and celebration — that sense of stepping into the past, of shedding some stress that clings every other day of the year, of the temporary warmth that only comes from going home for the holiday.
But on this holiday weekend, it’s LeBron James’ home, and past, toward which the step is made.
Walk across the empty parking lot in the heart of Akron. Within this territory are so many who know him so well: his mother, who guards him jealously and for whom every slight — real or imagined, deserved or not — is felt deeply; friends; former teammates; men and women who ate their own Thanksgiving dinners because of him; hundreds of old women who see him as a surrogate grandson; random people who know he’s made mistakes, but, hell, son, he’s ours.
And the coach who is quick to say he owes his head-coaching job to LeBron James.
“I’m sure it’s an adjustment for him,” begins Keith Dambrot, who coached LeBron in high school.
Dambrot is sitting in an office at the University of Akron, where he is the men’s head basketball coach.
On the walls are pictures of that past. Pictures of a younger and happier LeBron.
Dambrot rubs his eyes and thinks for a moment. He cares for LeBron James. Says several times
— as several people will in the hours and days ahead — that he loves him.
But it’s been hard. Everyone knows that.
Everyone knows that the hardship will be on full display Thursday, when Akron’s cherished one returns to Cleveland and its seething masses.
They still love LeBron in Akron.
Dambrot, like all of those on this side of the line, knows mistakes were made and feelings hurt.
He also knows LeBron.
“I believe you are what you are,” he says. “He’s a good person, always has been. He’s coachable. He’s wandered a bit, but he’ll wander back. That’s what he is — a good man.”
Yes, here, people believe — know — these things are so.
In September, after The Decision, LeBron stopped by the university for a visit.
It was a grace period spaced between the public-relations disaster that ushered in the end of so much adulation and a season showcasing life as the villain.
“He came to lunch here after he played with our guys,” Dambrot says. “He didn’t have to do that. Like when he sees my wife or daughter and gives them a hug. I’m telling you, he’s a good guy.”
On that fall day, LeBron, Dambrot and the players walked across the leafy campus to the student center. A crowd gathered. Three hundred people, all but three — they remember things like that here — offering words of encouragement and support.
Dambrot took in the scene. The graciousness. The look on LeBron’s face as he enjoyed a moment of college life. The people swarming around him, stunned to see Akron’s finest. And he thought: This is the LeBron James I believe in. This is the kid I know.
“If he’s the person I think, and I know he is, he’ll come around,” Dambrot says. “He’ll play better. He will.”
The smell is the first thing.
It’s of old wood and memories and Catholic church and old books and thousands of young people who have walked these halls, including, yes, one LeBron James.
St. Vincent-St. Mary High School is the heartbeat of LeBron’s Akron. It’s the place that aided the boy from the Elizabeth Park projects in becoming a man — as a player and person — and did as much as it could to prepare him for the shock of greatness that awaited him.
“It’s where he learned a whole lot of things,” his friend Carter says. “It’s a place he first learned — forget basketball — being around people, around people of a different race. LeBron wasn’t around Caucasian people at all until he went to that high school. He grew up a lot there.”
Walk to the trophy case, past the old gym — a gym lacking the glitz of the new facility but with enough soul to jolt a visitor who just glances in — and peer at the history.
What’s striking is the deep normalcy of the place. So different from LeBron’s world now. So not Miami or Nike or Vegas or any other NBA city or place of spectacle that LeBron has lit up.
St. Vincent-St. Mary is a sanctuary within a sanctuary.
In the case are pictures of LeBron, celebrations of his successes. But they are no more prominently displayed than the collection of successes from other boys and girls who have wandered these halls.
The 1959 golf district champions’ trophy. Names like Frank Stams. Artifact after artifact, touchstones to life before LeBron became the person of the riches, of the NBA, of The Decision, the venom waiting 40 miles north.
The last time LeBron James felt like a normal guy? Probably while he was playing for St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School in Akron.Stephen Dunn
This was where he could get away. They kept reporters out when he was in high school, and the best among the teachers — which was many — worked to make school normal for the young prince.
No autographs. No gawking. No spotlights.
Here, LeBron could be a kid, could be a normal guy. Or at least try to be. Probably for the last time in his life.
“We knew him from a kid on up, so we didn’t see him the way everyone else does,” says Patty Burdon, who does public relations for the school and has known LeBron a long time.
It was to this school that LeBron returned time and again after The Decision. To train. To shoot hoops. To try to recapture that lost normalcy.
They opened the doors for him and were struck by the shyness and respect with which he would ask them to do so. How he insisted they fit his schedule around theirs. One of the world’s most recognized men, sounding like — trying to be — that kid again.
“LeBron,” Burdon says, “was thankful to have a welcome mat after how badly he was treated.”
The drive away from Akron is the dull happy gray of the Midwest.
But a change occurs, something felt and not seen, a shift in perception.
Just before passing the border, a thought: Even villains come from somewhere. And maybe they're not villains at all. Maybe they're just on the wrong side of someone else’s line.
Then that line is crossed, and over here this thought occurs: There are reasons — strong ones — LeBron is so strongly disliked.
Among just a few:
He did not give the Cleveland Cavaliers the courtesy of being warned in advance that he was leaving. He came across as a narcissist lost in a cocoon of his own wealth, fame and cluelessness. He still does.
He has been a coach killer. He has been self-absorbed. He has been everything a person could expect from a child prodigy who becomes a millionaire at 18 and a nationwide phenomenon before that. He has not learned to properly say he’s sorry. He has not been as good an ambassador for Akron as he has a citizen of it.
So the world hates him.
And just as Cleveland is the capital of all that hate, a man named Scott Raab is its poet laureate.
Raab is an Esquire magazine writer and Cleveland native who, it is fair to say, loathes LeBron.
So strong are his diatribes, Raab was banished as a journalist from AmericanAirlines Arena last month. In journalism terms, he had his credentials taken away, which means he can still buy a ticket and go to a game but not have access to the players.
The ban came after Raab, who is also writing a book on the woes of Cleveland sports, fired some tweets toward LeBron.
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Including this one: “Go f--- yourself, you gutless punk.”
The Heat — quite rightfully, to say the least — responded by saying Raab was no longer welcome as a member of the press.
Raab is quick to point out they would have found another reason to ban him but is not averse to the suggestion what he did was not a great idea.
“I wouldn’t do it again, and I think you can make a persuasive argument that I shouldn’t have done it,” he says.
Raab is a funny guy, and he deadpans comments like, “The only way you can tell LeBron is lying is when he’s talking” and “It’s become abundantly clear over the past few months that this is a stunted child of a human being.”
But what’s most interesting about Raab is he’s not an extremist, not in the sense that he represents some small faction of thinkers outside the mainstream.
When it comes to LeBron James, Raab is the mainstream — just more vulgar, witty and dangerous with words.
Which speaks to just how far The King has fallen. And how different, post-Decision, the world outside of Akron now is for LeBron.
For starters, take Raab’s term for LeBron: Whore of Akron.
He uses it.
And people love it.
“The term itself is based, more than anything else, on the idea that if you pay someone for sex, you’ll get all the — if that person is skilled at all at his or her profession — you’ll get all the charade that goes along with making love,” Raab says. “They’ll tell you how great they are, how big you are, what a fantastic time they’ve had, because that’s part of the exchange.
“But what we’ve got — the collective ‘we’ in Cleveland — is a guy who made all those noises for seven years. For seven years, he bought into what was projected upon him. ‘I’m your savior.’ ‘I’m your Moses.’ ‘I really love this team, and I’m not leaving here until we bring a championship.’ ”
Raab can go on and on with his lacerating commentary, some insight and new and creative ways to lampoon LeBron.
But the most striking thing is the honesty behind his words.
Honesty in the sense Raab believes what he’s saying about LeBron just as much as the people of Akron believe what they say about him.
Because Raab, as poet laureate of the Nation That Hates LeBron, speaks for many who come at their hate from the most personal and honest of places — that of the scorned.
The LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club is still going strong in Akron.
Raab had been down on LeBron before, from LeBron wearing the Yankees cap at an Indians game to other signs of what was to come. Hate existed, but Raab couldn’t hold onto it.
Not then. Not yet.
“In 2009, about halfway into the season, I realized, first of all, his game was getting even better, and, secondly, they — (Danny) Ferry and (Dan) Gilbert — had put enough pieces around him,” Raab says. “I felt they had a legitimate shot at a title. And I wasn’t going to miss out on a title.
“It was very easy to fall in love again. The truth of the matter is he’s the best basketball player I’ve seen.”
Then LeBron left.
In that scorching truth, it became clear LeBron was an Akron man, not a Cleveland man.
And the border matters.
“If you walk back along LeBron’s post-Decision statement, he’s the one who said, ‘There’s still people in Cleveland we hate,’ ” Raab says. “He’s the one who made it very clear that he’s from Akron and Cleveland was never part of his identity. There’s nothing but evidence to support that.”
Even Maverick Carter, as far on the other side of this as a person can be, will say LeBron is an Akron guy. He’ll say it gently. He’ll say Cleveland is a great place — “like an older brother to Akron” — but he’ll say it nonetheless.
Because LeBron is an Akron man.
And the border matters.
“Being from Akron is always a part of him, and he’ll always have that in him, just like me,” Carter says, emphasizing the difference between the two cities. “It’s hard for people to understand it. There’s a difference between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Brooklyn and Queens. There’s a difference.”
That border has changed everything, for LeBron, for Scott Raab, for Maverick Carter and for those enjoying or lamenting The King’s fall from grace.
“This is the parochial part of me, I know, but one ring in Cleveland is a legacy that would have lived forever — and it would have resonated forever, just as the hate is,” Raab says.
“One ring in Cleveland would have been a precious legacy and a timeless legacy. And I don’t think it matters anymore. I don’t think he’ll ever get back any sense of authenticity. I don’t think anyone around the country, ever again, even if they have no Cleveland attachments, will see him as that good kid.”
The antithesis of Raab sits less than 40 miles away, at a large circular wooden table in downtown Akron, where seven members of the LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club talk about when LeBron still was that good kid — and how he still is.
“He belonged to Akron, but we loaned him to Cleveland,” says Patricia Idley, 63, who’s having breakfast and telling LeBron stories with a handful of like-minded women. “If anyone should be mad, it’s Akron. But we aren’t. Because we let him go! Because we understand he had a job to do!”
The grandmothers' love for LeBron hasn't gone up in dust.
These women, part of a club of more than 200 grandmothers who love LeBron and do charity work in his name, are snug and safe on their side of the border, where they can says things like, “I loved his new commercial! ‘What should I do?’ Perfect!”
They’re at a large, rough table at Wally Waffle, which smells like batter and good coffee. The sound of their laughter rises so loudly above the din it can be heard on the sidewalk, where that cold wind is still blowing.
Still, reminders of LeBron’s problems linger with the power to cut off the sound of their joy.
“Akron has his back,” Idley says, an edge to her voice. A murmur of agreement follows from her friends.
These are women who love LeBron for more than his fame. They love him for his commitment to his hometown and his interaction with this city. They have loved him since he was a boy — many of them decades-long friends with his family.
In Akron, at least, LeBron has been loyal.
He has given millions of dollars to various causes: The 700 Thanksgiving meals he provided Akron families — the grandmas club organized it. The Boys and Girls Club. The money that’s helped restore Summit Lake. The $500,000 for computers for Akron schools. His annual bike-a-thon. On and on it goes.
So say what you want about LeBron and live in your own mind on whatever side you must, but know this: These gifts are real, they are heartfelt and they do make a difference in people’s lives.
“There’s a lot that he does that doesn’t get reported,” Carter says. “Some he does that I don’t even know about. Some we keep to ourselves. Because being from Akron is extremely important to him.”
The grandmothers are sipping coffee and talking. Pictures of LeBron — art, photos of him with his arms around them, one in which the ladies throw white dust up into the air (OK, they admit it, it’s flour) fill the table.
About the only thing the grandmothers club agrees on with the anti-LeBron folks in other places is that all the turmoil is affecting his play.
“Can you imagine how he feels?” Janice Sommerville asks.
“And that’s why he’s not on his ‘A’ game,” Idley says. “They are hurting our baby boy! They are hurting our baby boy!”
“It is affecting his play,” Sommerville agrees sadly. “It has to. Then it has to have an effect on the other players, too.”
Everyone takes a moment to be quiet. Only the sound of pouring coffee and the quiet pondering of the Raabs of the world, hating their baby boy so.
“Please,” Idley says, “let him know we are here.”
“We got his back!” Alder Chapman, the 71-year-old president of the group, suddenly exclaims.
Then, perhaps to shake off the sadness, they all stand. There’s a cheer they’ve written, with an accompanying dance, they feel moved to perform.
So they stand side-by-side and perform.
GRANDMAS RISE UP! GRANDMAS RISE UP! GRANDMAS RISE UP FOR LEBRON JAMES!
On this side of the border, people — even those in the middle of lunch — applaud such words.
There are uneasy truths on both sides of any border.
In Akron — among the loyalists like Carter and the grandmothers and the random folks on the street who still smile at his name — they are these:
• LeBron James went on television and, imitating someone without a sense of the hurt he was about to inflict on Cleveland, used the words “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”
• LeBron James has undercut two coaches — now going on three — while being unable to win at the level he should.
• LeBron James, love him or hate him, support him or not, has certainly struggled under the weight of his own fame.
• LeBron James needs to get past himself and, if he’s the good kid the people of Akron swear he is, allow that part of himself to shine through.
Back at his old high school, sitting at a cafeteria table where the smell of Catholic school permeates everything, Patty Burdon frowns.
Around her are the hallways The King walked, the gym where the Chosen One played, the classrooms to where His Greatness could and did enjoy the illusion he was normal and like everyone else.
For Burdon, the idea that LeBron alone must carry the mantle of his mistakes — that such a burden remains only his in blame as well as its consequences — makes her bristle.
“Dan Gilbert referred to him as a narcissist,” she says, fuming. “Well, thank you, Dan, but you are part of that narcissistic world. And you fed that narcissistic world. You and all the other owners of all the professional teams feed into that narcissistic world of these young kids that you lure in and you promise everything. You let them think, ‘Don’t worry, the rules aren’t for you. You’re the man. You can do this.’
“So, what did they expect?”
For Carter, an Akronite, even The Decision can be seen through the prism of its benefits. Including this not unsubstantial one: It will help Akron.
“He’s helping (support) the Boys and Girls Club of Akron with part of the $3 million (from the show),” Carter says.
In Akron, they interpret LeBron’s world and actions differently. They take into account factors others dismiss:
That a young man plastered on the cover of a national sports magazine years before adulthood will struggle with humility.
That fame and fortune and, yes, the reality-distorting cocoon unique to the world’s most visible men and women can open one up to mistakes — temporary or permanent — in ways as real as tragedy, stress or life’s other difficulties.
Here, on this side, they see LeBron as that kind-hearted kid who left Akron to conquer the world.
As with all conquerors, he has enemies, they believe — including, like with most great men, sometimes himself.
Yet they still believe in him.
Still care for him.
“I love LeBron,” says Dambrot, his former coach. “I love him. Every time you think he’s slipping, he does something to remind you how great a person he is. Right when people are about to write him off, he’ll show you who he really is.”
That moment is now. That moment is crystallized in all its complexities and rage by LeBron’s return to Cleveland on Thursday.
And yet, right or wrong, true or false — or some mixture — much of Akron holds dearly to seeing its Chosen One the way Cleveland did not too long ago.
On this side of the border, then, it is easier to ask if perhaps it’s Cleveland that created the monster — if you believe there is one — and not Akron.
Perhaps Cleveland laid the groundwork for the “too many minutes” and the third-person references and The Decision.
On this side of the border, it looks more possible than on the other.
On this side of the border, one could see how Cleveland was infatuated with him, needed him, wanted to possess him — but never really loved him.
Because Cleveland could never really let him go.
Which it was certainly entitled to.
Just as in Akron they’re entitled to see the better side of the Chosen One, perhaps because he’s still just the kid who made this city so proud so early in his life, still the NBA player who asks permission to use his old high school gym with that tinge of respect that comes talking to elders, still the myth who is flesh and blood when he’s home, walking the streets unbothered.
They’re entitled, because in Akron, certainly, they simply loved LeBron.
And still do.
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