I grew up not too far from LeBron James in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. In case you’re not familiar, Akron is known as the “Rubber City” because it used to house various tire and rubber factories including Goodyear and Firestone. It’s a city that’s past its prime as far as industry is concerned, and it has suffered the same fate as much of the Rust Belt.
LeBron grew up in a crummy area of Akron, Ohio without ever knowing his dad. His mom had trouble making ends meet, so he spent many of his formative years living with other families. Somewhere along the way, he started playing basketball and got really good at it. He and his friends won state championships in high school, and along the way LeBron picked up a whole bunch of national attention and some crazy expectations. He was the hometown boy that made it big, and everyone was so proud of him.
At the age of 18, as fate would have it, he was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers and spent the next 7 years playing basketball there exceeding expectations and giving Cleveland fans some incredible memories, as well as an amazing sense of pride.
Then, he left.
After his contract finished, LeBron became a free agent. He went on national television and announced that he’d be playing for the Miami Heat in one of the most scrutinized and criticized TV Specials of all-time. People were angry and hurt because of the way he did it, and there was a lot of backlash toward him. He broke our hearts and left Northeast Ohio in the dust for the beautiful beaches and posh lifestyle of South Beach. He left Cleveland without winning a championship, something no Cleveland sports team has been able to do since 1948.
LeBron spent the next four years in Miami and won two championships. In the meantime, the Cavaliers became one of the worst teams in the NBA. But despite all the drama, LBJ stayed invested in his hometown of Akron. He maintained his residence there, dumped tons of money into his high school, and started a foundation to help at-risk third graders in Akron that aimed to help them thrive in school while decreasing the drop-out rate. It was clear that Ohio was still home.
LeBron’s contract in Miami ended this summer, and many of us were extremely hopeful he’d choose to come back. It was a pretty skeptical hope—the city is synonymous with heartbreak, after all, and most of us were expecting the worst. While everyone else scoffed at the idea that LeBron would ever choose the cold shores of Lake Erie over the warm sands of Miami, we wanted to believe his desire to be back home would pull him back.
Last Friday, LeBron released a letter through Sports Illustrated that announced his return. It was a beautiful essay on what “home” meant to him. Here's an excerpt from that letter:
“My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
LeBron flipped the script. He took the entire area’s perception of itself and turned it on its head. This decision isn’t just about playing basketball for a team, it’s about showing northeast Ohio that it’s good enough. That growing up there isn’t a bad thing. While that all may sound cheesy and cliche to outsiders, it means something to me—and it means something to Northeast Ohio.
I took a little bit of time to talk to some Ohio coffee professionals to get their take on the whole situation, as well as a Miami perspective from Panther Coffee’s Camila Ramos. In the style of ESPN’s NBA 5-on-5, here’s what they had to say.
How do you feel about LeBron coming back to Cleveland?
“It's amazing! I think he said everything he needed to say in his letter. As a Clevelander, you can relate. Many of us leave the city to go to college or start our careers, but Cleveland pride has a very strong pull that brings people back. I was outside when the SI article was released on Friday and everyone got the news at pretty much the same time thanks to smart phones. Strangers were high fiving each other and people were celebrating. Downtown was buzzing with energy and excitement. It's great to see that.” Charlie Eisenstat, Owner, Pour Cleveland
“I'm a Miami Heat fan with or without LeBron on the team.” Camila Ramos, Panther Coffee, Miami
“I'm thrilled. Northeast Ohio is rarely relevant— especially in sports. His return regains Cleveland's relevancy in sports. Four years ago when he left, Cleveland was also a vast wasteland for a good cup of coffee. Since then we’ve been graced with Rising Star Coffee and Pour Cleveland offers up a great Counter Culture selection. Cleveland is on the rise. You will all be witnesses now.” Dan Stephenson, Home Barista, Akron, Ohio
How did it feel when he left?
“It felt like going to prom with your high school crush, then watching her make out with the prom king on the dance floor. Dramatic, I know; especially since I'm actually a Bulls fan; but it cuts deep.” Nathan Okuley, Director of Community Engagement, Mission Coffee
“When he left, I was in disbelief. My immediate reaction was something like this: ‘He’s from here. I grew up 5 minutes from him. He knows better than this. Why would he do this to his hometown in such an embarrassing way. Art Modell, Jose Mesa and now Lebron. Ugh.'” – Dan Stephenson
“It was crushing. Deep down we all knew there was a strong likelihood it could happen, but the way he did it just rubbed salt in the wounds. It was another, ‘here we go again' moment for Cleveland sports fans. A hometown hero became the enemy and we all rooted for whoever the Heat were playing because we just needed to root against him.” – Charlie Eisenstat
What does it mean to Northeast Ohio now that he’s back?
“The effect LeBron had on the economy, especially downtown, was real. Lots of people in the service industry lost their jobs after he left. People were not drawn to come downtown like they were when he was playing and the Cavs were contenders. You can already feel the pride and excitement of the city again. Banners are up and LeBron apparel is flying off the shelves. We expect it to bring increased foot traffic downtown, especially around the Quicken Loans Arena.” – Charlie Eisenstat
“Being from Akron it’s exciting to hear people talk about your town on national level. People forget where their steel, ball bearings, blimps and tires came from (you’re welcome, world). Now we’re known for being the hometown of Lebron James—the greatest basketball player since Michael Jordan.” – Dan Stephenson
“When a coffee shop opens up, the community has to be considered; and it's pretty dynamic to realize how much influence something like this has on a community. it brings a brand new spark of excitement to a lot of people. It changes the way that we talk casually on the day to day. And when our customers are happy, we're happy with them.” – Nathan Okuley
What's your favorite LeBron memory?
“Game 5 against the Pistons when he was seemingly possessed and took over the game. You got a sense it was coming together for him in games 1 through 4, but the way he dominated that game is something I'll never forget. He put the team on his back and single-handedly brought us the win. We went on to win the Eastern Conference and go to the finals. Hopefully he gets us there again with a much different outcome!” – Charlie Eisenstat
What would you serve LeBron if he came into your cafe?
“A tall glass of Amaro Gayo Ethiopian cold brew, or the infamous Joe Cap, made by our manager Joe Capatosto. Then I'd likely sell the glass he used to some creepy fanatic in Cleveland.” – Nathan Okuley
“I would probably serve him something from an Aeropress. It’s a very forgiving brew method.” – Dan Stephenson
Ben Blake is Sprudge.com's staff cartoonist and resident Ohioan, now based in Seattle. He draws frequently at DrawCoffee.com.