So, basketball superstar LeBron James has decided to leave the Miami Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the hometown squad (he’s an Akron, Ohio native) he abandoned in the summer of 2010.
The city, already bearing the unfortunate nickname of “The Mistake by the Lake” — while LeBron’s nicknamed is “King James,” also his Twitter handle — was stunned and outraged at the what residents saw as a betrayal.
Now, after winning two championships in Miami, the 6′ 8″ 29-year-old tells Sports Illustrated in an exclusive interview that he’s just “a kid from Akron, Ohio,” and that his relationship with his home state “is bigger than basketball.”
The graduate of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, a Catholic college-prep school in Akron, who grew up as the only child of a single mother, also wanted to raise his children — he and wife Savannah have two sons, with a daughter on the way — in Cleveland.
“In Northeast Ohio,” he tells SI, “nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for it.
“I’m ready to accept the challenge. I”m coming home.”
And here’s a headline from CBS New York, “Hartnett: LeBron James, Cleveland’s Prodigal Son, Out to Settle Unfinished Business.”
There’s going to be a lot of that, but is James the Prodigal Son? That’s a hard case to make, but as with a lot of Christ’s parables, there are layers here beyond the obvious soundbite.
In the famous story from the Gospel of Luke (click here for the whole thing; and here for an analysis), a younger son demands his inheritance early, then heads off into the wide world. After squandering his wealth on decadent living, he winds up a lowly swineherd, worse off than his father’s own servants.
So, he goes back home and prostrates himself in front of his father (as see above in Bartolome Esteban Murrillo’s 17th-century painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”), and begs to be taken in as a servant. But, to his surprise, his father, grateful to have his lost child back, throws a party and gives him fine clothes and jewelry — which irritates the prodigal’s ever-faithful older brother, who feels unappreciated and slighted.
The father then explains that all he has will someday be the elder son’s, but that he should now open his heart to be joyful because “your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
It should be obvious by now that this is not the story of LeBron James. He departed and found great success in Miami, and is coming back, not desperate and degraded, but as a conquering local hero, ready to lift the spirits and fortunes of his home state.
But one wonders, what are the emotions of the Cleveland Cavaliers players who stayed with the team, who’ve been training and playing hard in James’ absence, only to now be thrown into shadow as the spotlight falls on King James?
Veterans of James’ years may feel like the elder son, but without having the comforting promise of an eventual inheritance, considering the uncertainty of pro athletics. Younger players may not want the old lion to return and eclipse them, just as they’re making names for themselves.
They do have James’ intention, as stated in the SI piece, to be a mentor to them and to help them improve their skills. You can imagine that sort of declaration caused mixed emotions.
James also says he wants to help Ohio kids realize their dreams, like the Akron third-graders he talks about sponsoring through his foundation. And his return to America’s Rust Belt to raise his family does say something about the nation’s headlong rush to the Sun Belt and the coasts as the answer to all life’s problems.
Ultimately, is LeBron James the Prodigal Son? Not at all. He went from success to more success and returns in a position of strength, not weakness. He’s even one of the executive producers of a new STARZ comedy about a pro basketball phenom, called “Survivor’s Remorse,” airing this fall.
On the other hand, will Cleveland — also just named the site for the 2016 GOP convention, which could cause scheduling conflicts with venues if James leads the team into the playoffs — be the father or the elder son? Will fans forgive James for breaking their hearts and embrace him again? Will his teammates be happy to have him back in the fold, or will they be suspicious or resentful?
And, does James mean what he says about loyalty and duty to the place where he grew up? There’s a lot of bad behavior in pro sports, and basketball is right up there in terms of immoral and even criminal acts, but a little bit of honesty and even nobility could go a long way.