The Breakup

Urban life lessons with LeBron

It still means something to be from a place. Loyalty matters. Roots are still important in these days of highly mobile communications and capital. Betrayal, even if it’s only the perception of betrayal, still stings like a son of a bitch.

That’s one lesson to take from LeBron James, the erstwhile Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star who earlier this month announced, on a self-aggrandizing hourlong ESPN broadcast, that he was departing for the Miami Heat to join friends and fellow free agents Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in forming a virtual all-star squad for the next half-decade.

I’m not about to tell you that James owed it to his city to stay there forever. But his departure still stings for those of us who haven’t given up on the quaint notion of the hometown really being home. LeBron was an Ohio kid. He’d kept his friends. He was loyal. And if he hadn’t quite brought home the championship bacon, we can’t really say his early years have been anything other than a success. He’s been a dominating force in the NBA, he’s given Cleveland something to cheer about for years, he’s kept his nose clean, and he’s increased the value of the franchise by perhaps as much as $100 million.

Cleveland has been getting punched in the gut since long before the Great Recession. When the American industrial economy went up in flames in the 1970s and ’80s, it took Cleveland with it. The last 15 years have seen a slow, partial reawakening, fueled in part by new sports franchises (the reboot of the legendary Cleveland Browns), new urban stadiums such as the Indians’ Jacobs (uh, Progressive) Field—and most of all, new dreams in the form of James, the most gifted talent in sports today. It’s no wonder cities in search of civic identity and renewed morale dream of professional sports (take a bow now, Las Vegas). But it can be a fragile business. Greedy owners, ugly stadiums and washout players come with the landscape—and so, too, does the wandering eye of a single, wealthy young man who has yet to win a title. Sports take as readily as they give, and when they take, they often do it with stunning swiftness and finality.

I am oddly heartened by the anger of Cleveland fans, by the burning of James jerseys from one end of town to another. The LeBron backlash isn’t about our national need for heroes to stay home, but about our more modest desire for those heroes to master the art of a breakup. There is only one place where it’s socially smiled upon to rev up the affections of your erstwhile beloved and then to stage a very public dumping: reality television. And maybe that’s the problem.

The ethic of reality TV revolves around quick sensation and making a name for yourself at all costs. While modern sports share these same traits, the special relationship between city and sport depends on more traditional virtues, often embodied in the character of a single iconic figure. Jackie Robinson spoke volumes with his refusal to be traded out of Brooklyn. Cal Ripken Jr. was, for many Americans, the stalwart face of Baltimore, and he presided over the opening of Camden Yards and the renovation of the blighted waterfront. Jerry Tarkanian spent two decades handcrafting the Las Vegas identity, and by the time he was done we didn’t need to explain that we don’t live in hotels around here. These are rare instances, but we are talking about rare talents, the kind who build more than a stat sheet and a bank account. If big-time professional sports ever come to Las Vegas, it’ll only really matter if we’re fortunate enough to build a relationship around, say, a Walter Payton, rather than an Alex Rodriguez.

Showmanship is what America does best. But showmanship at the expense of others is simply crass. LeBron no longer belongs to Cleveland; he belongs to America now (you can welcome him when he comes to Vegas to “host” parties at Lavo on July 23 and Tao on July 24). But for us to elevate him to our pantheon of cultural heroes, he’ll have to develop that certain quality of character that separates mere winners from legends: It’s hard to define, but it has to do with empathy, with bearing the dreams of others on one’s own shoulders. Those who lack it can still build extraordinary careers. But those who have it help forge cities.