The decision by NBA player LeBron James to leave the Miami Heat and return home to the Cleveland Cavaliers is a testament to his character and holds lessons for us all.
Cleveland is not the type of place that people usually return to once they’ve hit the big time.
In 2010, Cleveland topped Forbes’ list of most miserable cities, with high unemployment and a loss in manufacturing jobs, a massive foreclosure problem, abandoned homes, poorly performing schools, crime and pollution.
“My relationship with northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” James told Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
He acknowledged the problems that Cleveland and his hometown of Akron, Ohio, have faced. “Our community,” he said, “has struggled so much,” and “it needs all the talent it can get.”
In so doing, James cast a spotlight on problems that many of our cities face because of deindustrialization, neglect and cruel policies.
Detroit fell victim to years of population decline, an exodus to the suburbs and eroding tax base, culminating in an undemocratic state takeover of the predominantly African-American city by Gov. Rick Snyder. Recently, the city government moved to shut water service to thousands of people who could not afford to pay, prompting some Detroit residents to seek help from the United Nations.
Chicago continues to be plagued by gun violence, with at least nine dead and 60 injured over the July Fourth weekend, and three dead and 28 wounded the following weekend. Chicago also closed 50 of its public schools last year, an unprecedented blow to the predominantly African-American and Latino children who depend on them.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia has fallen prey to Tom Corbett, the tea party governor of Pennsylvania who has made drastic cuts to public education while building new prisons and giving large tax breaks to corporations.
By coming back to Cleveland, James can show the country that there is a more compassionate way to handle our urban problems. In the last few years, he has shown that he is not afraid to speak out on political issues. He denounced the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, and he condemned the racist statements made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Some star athletes such as Michael Jordan have embraced product endorsements, but have eschewed community involvement and taking a stand, while other players have attracted attention for their personal exploits and foolish financial decisions.
LeBron James harkens back to the days of the socially conscious athletes, before the multimillion-dollar contracts. And he is setting the standard for the role of the athlete today.
“You know, God gave me a gift to do other things besides play the game of basketball,” he said.
He has his priorities straight. So should we.
David A. Love is a freelance writer and human-rights advocate based in Philadelphia.
©2014 David A. Love