AKRON, Ohio — It just seemed like a good morning for a drive around Akron.
The NBA Finals concluded Thursday night more than 1,200 miles away in Miami, and they concluded with best basketball player in the world shouting out his hometown in a rare moment of humility. “Just a kid from Akron, Ohio,” is what LeBron James called himself, letting the jump shots he’d made and the big rebounds he’d pulled down late in Game 7 — at least at that moment — speak for themselves.
The confetti strewn across the floor and his body said a lot, too. He was a two-time champion, the undisputed MVP of the best NBA Finals in a long time, achieving back-to-back MVPs and the titles he’d promised with an Olympic gold medal in between.
It was a regular, mostly quiet Friday morning for a drive through the neighborhoods where LeBron was raised — it took a village — and by the parks he’d played in and by the project he later lived in while driving his Hummer to high school, which sits just on the edge of downtown.
Quite a journey, this thing. And that was long before July 8, 2010.
The sun was shining Friday morning. People were at work and in their cars and going about their business. Forty miles to the north, Cleveland sports radio was abuzz with LeBron talk — talk about moving on, about rooting against LeBron, about never forgetting how he’d abandoned the Cavaliers to go chase championships.
Two years ago this week, a deflated and defeated LeBron said in his post-Finals press conference that all his detractors would have to go back “to their miserable little lives” the next morning. It was the latest in a series of statements he’d probably like to have back, remnants from the hate that was spewed and the villain he suddenly became in the wake of “The Decision,” arguably the worst public-relations decision any athlete has ever made.
Or maybe inarguably. What’s certainly inarguable is that LeBron James and Northeast Ohio are involved in the longest, most complicated breakup in the history of relationships. He’s despised in Cleveland by most, but not by all. He’s appreciated by most, but not by all. In Akron he’s still loved by many, but certainly not by all.
In Akron, you’ll find lots of people who just call him ‘Bron, claim to have known him for decades and have closets full of Heat gear. That’s serious brand loyalty, and for the better part of 12 years now the LeBron brand has been Akron’s most notable export.
If the wounds still seem strangely fresh three years later, it’s because they cut deeply. He’s not the kind of hometown hero who was a local legend, then went off to college and then played nine years in New Jersey or Utah. No, he was the No. 1 pick straight out of high school by the hometown Cavaliers. He lifted that organization to new heights, including a way-ahead-of-schedule Finals appearance in 2007.
In 2010, he chose to go on TV and embarrass Cleveland and the organization for which he’d played seven seasons. Some in both Akron and Cleveland will never forgive, and almost all will never forget. What all involved would agree upon is the overall desire for a Cleveland team to win a championship, and over LeBron’s last five seasons he had the Cavaliers closer than any team had been since the Indians in 1997.
A kid born in 1984 had no idea how big a deal 1964 — the last time a Cleveland team won a major sports title — could be in the 2000s. He probably knows now.
The winning has certainly helped, but he’s learned and matured more than a little through the years. That “just a kid from Akron” line was coached up — he said something similar before the game, and a few weeks back — but does that matter? He’s starting to understand the thinking-before-speaking process. He’s starting to understand the weight of his words and actions and the consequences. He’s been calling himself some version of King since he was 17, but that crown’s been uneasy at times — and it’s been easy for the public to notice that, too.
LeBron, right now, seems both comfortable and driven. A LeBron who gets it is the most dangerous LeBron of all.
In 13 months, he’s eligible to opt out of his current contract and be a free agent again. Everyone who’s ever watched basketball in Akron and Cleveland knows this. His new agent, who’s from Cleveland, has dropped enough semi-private hints about a potential return to think at least some taking of the temperature is taking place. With this guy, anything seems possible.
LeBron is 28, healthy and seemingly physically indestructible. He’s probably at least another title away from officially being on the Michael Jordan chase, but he’s undoubtedly in position to carve out a path that could ultimately be as unique and successful as any player ever has.
The Cavaliers are back at the top of the next week’s draft. The lingering ill will in Cleveland is understandable.
LeBron has remained a fixture — and, to some, a savior — in Akron even after taking his immense talents to South Beach. In the last 10 months he’s pledged a minimum of $1.3 million via facilities and uniforms to his high school alma mater, and that’s in addition to the weekly work his foundation does in Akron and the $25,000 donation he made to an Akron Public Schools program as part of the NBA MVP sponsorship.
Seeing why he’s loved by so many here in Akron is as easy as seeing why he’ll never be forgiven by so many here and 40 miles north of here. Cleveland just wants a championship. Those in Cleveland who’d rather see anybody but LeBron win one are more than entitled to that opinion. The story might have been different if the Spurs had made another free throw or grabbed another rebound late in Game 6, but they didn’t. The hard feelings that linger could be different, too, but they stem from decisions LeBron himself made.
This particular drive around Akron ended just after noon Friday, 12 hours after this King’s latest coronation and late enough in the day for Akronites who stayed up late to be back into their regular lives (misery level mostly unclear). For selfish reasons, this drive ended at legendary burger joint Swenson’s, a the drive-in that’s long been one of LeBron’s favorites and the place from which he now makes a massive to-go (to the plane) order every time the Heat visits Cleveland.
I asked the carhop if he saw much Heat gear from customers and he said he saw plenty — but couldn’t say with any certainty that they were wearing it for any other reason than the colors. I asked if he caught much anti-LeBron conversation, on the clock or in the neighborhood, and he said he did, adding that he himself had trashed a LeBron jersey at a party three Julys ago.
He laughed, and he laughed some more when I told him I’d been on a cruise of the city trying to take the morning-after pulse. We agreed that it gives almost everybody something to talk about, and then he said something that probably made more sense than just about LeBron’s relationship with Northeast Ohio than anything else I’d heard.
“I’m just glad,” the probably 22-year-old told me, “that it’s over for another six or eight months.”