LeBron James

Prodigal Son?: Come this fall, LeBron James will leave blue-collar Cleveland, Ohio, for the sultry beaches of Miami.

Once upon a time, LeBron James was Northeast Ohio’s amazing basketball prodigy. Now, he seems more like its Prodigal Son.

The King. The Chosen One. We Are All Witnesses.

From the beginning, the legend of LeBron James seemed just a bit too lofty, too messianic for a basketball player. After all, he was just an 18-year-old kid when he came into the NBA seven years ago. He was a supremely talented 18-year-old, to be sure, but we had to know that no human being could ever live up to the epic hype that was heaped upon this young man.

Now, as James leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, where he will join fellow all-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, perhaps we can add another biblical metaphor to his catalog of nicknames: The Prodigal Son. (Imagine what Nike could do with that one.)

Among other things, Thursday night’s ESPN special, The Decision, revealed a young man who seemed tired of shouldering the burden of everyone else’s impossible expectations. After seven years of playing for his hometown team, James seemed eager to branch out on his own and put himself in a better position to win. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that he would be able to do this in the sultry temperatures and hedonistic environs of South Beach.

I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon of folks calling for LeBron’s head. While I think using an hour-long TV special to make his announcement seemed a bit over-the-top and disrespectful to his former team, he was perfectly within his rights as an NBA free agent to make the decision he did. In fact, as some have pointed out, he was not behaving any differently than pro sports owners and execs do when they cut or trade a player. As one commentator observed, “loyalty, especially in sports, is largely a matter of convenience and timing.”

Though ill-advised, in my opinion, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s bitter tirade on the team’s website reflected the high level of frustration and disappointment that James’s defection provokes for the people of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, a region that has endured heartache after heartache when it comes to its professional sports teams. But, even worse than that, it has been one of the hardest hit areas in the current recession. James’s abandonment of his own home state will definitely have ramifications both emotional and economic for Cleveland and its surrounding areas.

While it’s not surprising that James would be demonized by his former fans in Ohio, one hopes that, after the initial shock and resentment have dissipated, people will remember that this young man is still just 25 years old.

As veteran basketball reporter Sam Smith writes at Bulls.com, “Because of his talent, people want him or expect him to be the next Michael or next Kobe or greatest ever. … But maybe he just wants to be a guy having fun making a lot of money.” Maybe.

We may want him to be more loyal, more mature, more committed to a higher cause, but come on. He’s a basketball player, raised by a single mother, who went straight from high school to the NBA. He was driving a Hummer while still in the 12th grade. Since the age of 9 or 10, he’s had to be the man of his family. For years people have been giving him whatever he wants and telling him he’s all that, feeding his ego with their hero worship. Ultimately, it was us — the fans, the media, the sponsors, and, yes, Dan Gilbert and his Cavaliers organization, that aided and abetted the hysteria, and thus helped consecrate the “King.”

“We Are All Witnesses,” goes the Nike campaign. And maybe, in some way, we’re all enablers as well.

The Bible says after an extended period of wild living the Prodigal Son returned home with a more humble demeanor.

LeBron James currently may be the most hated man in Ohio, but he’s still a man. So, I’d say to the people of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, work out your anger and frustration with LeBron the ballplayer, but don’t give up on LeBron the man.

Sure, he’s going off to a “distant country” to win championships and have fun with his buddies. But maybe one day down the road, he’ll return home again to do something more important than dunking a basketball.

Related Article: More Than a Coach.

LeBron James photo by Keith Allison/Wikipedia.

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