LeBron, it's not exactly fair. I admit this right up front. It's not exactly fair that you happened to grow up in Akron, near Cleveland, where sports heartbreak reigns. It's not exactly fair that you ended up playing for your hometown Cavaliers in a city that has not won a championship since the Browns beat the Colts in the 1964 NFL Championship Game—20 years, almost to the day, before you were born.
It's not exactly fair that a great American city ladles all of its angst and pessimism and uncertain hopes on your tattooed shoulders. Sure, it would have been a lot easier if you had been born and raised in L.A. or Boston or Chicago, where the winning has come pretty easy, where you could just play great basketball rather than being asked to redeem three generations of desperate, suffering sports fans.
But these are the cards we are dealt. I sometimes think if I had been born and raised in a city with sports winners, I'd be CEO of a FORTUNE 500 company. But I grew up in Cleveland with all the sports tragedies—with Red Right 88 and the Drive and the Fumble and Jordan over Ehlo and 10-cent beer night and Art Modell's move out of town—and I became a sportswriter. So it goes.
Truth is, LeBron, you are the first national sports icon to play in Cleveland since Jim Brown. You are the sports soul for a city that loves sports, the promise for a city that wants something to go right, just once. You are the hope, LeBron. Fair? Unfair? We are who we are.
There is no shortage of people who for the next two months will tell you where you should play next year. You have millions of advisers. You have the best and brightest of the great city of New York—including your friend Jay-Z—telling you over and over again about the lights and Broadway and the concrete jungle where dreams are made of. You have NBA analysts breaking down salary cap numbers and coming up with the perfect landing spot. Even President Obama has weighed in*, having his spokesman David Axelrod say that you would look great in a Bulls uniform.
*You know, on the one hand, it's nice that we have a President who is so knowledgeable about sports. But (and I say this with my deepest respect) President Obama might want to stay out of the sports world for a while. The Chicago Olympics pitch was a fiasco. The President showed up to throw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game and inadvertently turned Stan Musial—who should have been the Man—into a backup act. Then, one day after the Cavaliers lost in the playoffs, the President circled the wreckage and tried to poach the city's most precious sports commodity. That probably lost him Ohio in 2012.
Cleveland too—perhaps more than any city—will come at you with emotional pleas. There is desperation in the air. There is a billboard on the side of Nick's Sports Corner, a block from Quicken Arena, with this slogan: BORN HERE. RAISED HERE. PLAYS HERE. STAYS HERE. There is an uncomfortable video of local Cleveland celebrities (including famed fan Big Dawg, local weather legend Dick Goddard and Ohio governor Ted Strickland) singing Please Stay LeBron to the tune of We Are the World. The lyrics are much closer to the truth than anyone dares admit.
Just tell us King, what changes we must make.
We'll rename every street LeBron if that's what it takes.
It's all silly, of course. You are 25 and brilliant, and no one should tell you how to live your life. All I can say is, I hope you stay, because you could do something bigger in Cleveland. I hear people talk about bigger endorsement opportunities in New York or Los Angeles ... please. They already have billboards of you in New York and Los Angeles. You don't have to go to the center of the sports world; you are the center of the sports world.
Sure, you could be a larger part of the nightlife in New York or be among the glamorati in Los Angeles. I couldn't blame you if that's what you wanted. You could follow Michael Jordan in Chicago. You could escape the stifling pressure of having to fix all that has gone wrong in your hometown, and neither could I blame you if that's what you wanted.
But if you stayed ... you could do something more glorious. You could bring your city a championship. No, it didn't go right this year. The Cavaliers, in a reckless effort to create an instant winner, pushed the wrong buttons and built a team so ill-conceived that everyone quit in the final minute rather than at least try for a miracle comeback against Boston. It was a sorry way to go out.
You could leave now, and I have no doubt that you would make some team an instant contender. I have no doubt that you would win championships. But it would be different if you could bring a championship to your hometown; you and I both know that. And it wouldn't mean as much anywhere else. If you stayed and brought home a title, they really would name every street in town after you.
Now on SI.com
For more of everything from Joe Posnanski, go to SI.com/posnanski
Truth is, LeBron, you are the SPORTS SOUL for a city that wants something to go right, just once.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW