Last Friday, at work, my mentor Bob came in, his eyes lit up, like the cell phone pressed to his ear had charmed his face as well. “Did you hear?” He said. “Lebron’s coming back.” We all sat up. “No,” Somebody said. “I knew it!” Somebody said. “Thatta boy,” Somebody else said.
The clapping, the high-fives, the intense relief—it was like we, as a team, had just landed a rover on the moon. People started pacing around, calling their loved ones. My phone blew up with text messages. The quiet kids sat back, smiling. Somebody put on a highlight reel of him from his Cleveland days. Somebody played “Coming Home” by Diddy, to which everyone groaned, but secretly felt nostalgic.
I read in one of the national media articles about us that a Clevelander, on that day, had called into local talk radio and triumphantly declared, “Cleveland, you are a winner. No one can call us losers anymore.” When I read that, my eyes watered. Maybe it was because I knew firsthand how much it stung to be called a loser. Maybe it was because I knew firsthand the condescension that places like New York City had for Ohio.
We haven’t just been losers in sports. Northeast Ohio—the cap of the region known as the “Rust Belt”—has been hit with a lot of economic hardship over the years. It’s lost so many jobs and young people. Whenever “The Mistake by the Lake” makes the news, it always seem like it’s for the wrong reasons.
But recently, something crazy has been happening here. It’s not just Lebron coming back. Cleveland, the city, is coming back.
Slate has talked about Cleveland becoming the next Silicon Valley. Fortune has called Cleveland the next Brooklyn. I’ll never be Republican, but us getting the Republican National Convention will be good. And now there’s the LeBron news.
Sports mirror life. Even though LeBron is just an athlete, his return means something much more to the region. To see how Northeast Ohio has been able to overcome its last 40 years of decline, you can look at its relationship with sports.
Clevelanders, like most Midwesterners, have an insane passion for sports. Yet we haven’t won a championship since 1964, the longest drought in history for a city that has three major professional sports team—the Indians (baseball), the Browns (football), and the Cavaliers (basketball).
Those teams aren’t just chronically bad, they’re downright heartbreaking. It seems like each year, there’s always some reason to hope. A new draft pick, a new coach, a new owner. And then those expectations get crushed.
At the end of each season, the chatter is this: “I’m done with Cleveland sports. 50 years I’ve lived in this city, and each year, we always fuck it up. Fuck this, fuck the Browns, I’m done forever!” And then, 3 months later, the same people who tore up their tickets and burned their jerseys are in line to buy new ones, saying: “I really think this is the year! We’ve got an awesome new coach, we’ve got this new draft pick, we’re coming back!”
It’s almost comical how short our memory is. But there’s also something beautiful about this. Something that says a lot about who we are. We’re depressed but optimistic. That’s the spirit of a Northeastern Ohio person. Heartbreak, sadness, loss of jobs, and yet an indomitable hope and spirit.
It’s something called grit. Lebron talked about it when he said, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” National pundits constantly reference the “honest, blue-collar work ethic” of people from around here. Growing up, I’ve seen it in my neighbors, my parents, my friends. It’s what I’ve been taught. To be humble, hardworking, honest. We don’t need or respect that Hollywood lifestyle. Here in Cleveland, we respect real.
Because I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and I’ve lived in New York City. Now, I actually really like LA. But New York City sucks compared to Cleveland.
I’ve had better Asian food (my favorite cuisine) in Cleveland than I’ve ever had in NYC. Asian restaurants—and pretty much all restaurants in NYC—are overpriced, packed, full of tourists. The restaurants I go to in Cleveland, I know the staff, it’s never packed, the food is fast, I can read, put my feet up, take my time. It’s just real.
Cleveland is a culinary hotspot, enough so that there are documentaries being made about its food scene. You name the type of food, we have a great restaurant for it. But there’s so much more.
We have one of the best symphonies there ever was. One of the best hospitals in the world. A museum of modern art with Dali, Rodin, Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, everybody, that’s completely free to the public. A museum of natural history, a science museum, the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. An amazing theater district. Huge rolling natural parks with waterfalls and cliffs and hiking.
Arts, sports, food, nature…what else could you want? And on top of that, parking is always easy to find.
It’s so cliché to live in New York City. I feel no ownership of it, and I never will. So why would I let my achievements happen there, as opposed to my hometown? Every victory for me is a victory for Cleveland and vice-versa. That’s what happens when you’re part of a community.
And I’ll say it: After graduation, I’m coming back. It may not be immediately, but I am. I owe it to the city, my family, to myself. I want to live in a place where my presence can actually have an impact. I could have chosen that New York City, flash and glitz and glamor lifestyle, and I don’t want it. This is what’s real to me. This is what makes me happy.
I’m so proud and lucky to have been born and raised in a special place like this. I know people from the other great small cities of America—San Antonio, Seattle, Portland, Austin, Charlotte, New Orleans, etc—can relate. And you might have your own place that you love, but to me, Cleveland is my hometown, my city—and to me, it’s the best in America.