Welcome Home, Mr. James

by Ian Tuttle
NBA superstar Lebron James realizes that the place he sought was there in Cleveland all along.

There’s something about home.

That’s the reason basketball superstar and Akron, Ohio, native Lebron James is returning to Cleveland. In a personal essay titled “I’m Coming Home,” published Friday on the Sports Illustrated website, “King James,” who led the NBA’s Miami Heat to the NBA Finals each of the last four years (they won twice), wrote about his decision to return to his childhood team and first NBA employer, the Cleveland Cavaliers:

I always believed that I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when. . . . I looked at other teams, but I wasn’t going to leave Miami for anywhere except Cleveland. The more time passed, the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.

Let’s make some stipulations: Yes, Lebron likely would not be leaving Miami had the Heat not handily lost this year’s championship to the San Antonio Spurs. And yes, Lebron will be making lots of money; the details are unpublished, but Cleveland purged its bench to clear a maximum-contract spot for James that will earn him around $21 million a year. The prodigal son is returning, and he will receive a fatted calf. And then some.

None of that detracts, though, from the fact that James — the NBA’s best player, as well as its most coveted contract — chose to return to Cleveland, a franchise that, since he departed for Miami in 2010, has an average winning percentage of .311. Last year the Cavs placed tenth in the Eastern Conference out of 15 teams. You do not go to Cleveland for championships.

But there is something about going home.

Toward the end of his final masterpiece, Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Granted, Eliot was writing about spiritual conversion, not NBA free agency, but there is a touch of Eliot’s sentiment in James’s essaylet: “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”

Conservative thought has a long tradition of emphasizing the importance of “rootedness,” from Eliot and his Vanderbilt contemporaries to the great storyteller of “place,” Wendell Berry. Those ideas find expression today at outlets such as Front Porch Republic. National Review alumnus Rod Dreher’s recent autobiography, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, reintroduced the notion of the importance of roots to a whole new audience.

These thinkers make explicit something left implicit in the thought of Edmund Burke, who emphasized – as an alternative to the excesses of the French Revolution – tradition and gradual, organic change: that these cornerstones of a healthy society do not develop in the abstract. Men are more than minds; tradition develops because particular people do particular things in particular places, over and over for a long time. It doesn’t work if they don’t stay put.

Richard Weaver, in his essay “The Regime of the South” (published in National Review in 1959), observed that long obedience in a place gives rise to a rich nexus of relations — what Wendell Berry aims to capture in Port Arthur, for example, his fictional farming community where the same families weave in and out of each other’s lives over generations. It is not abstract Enlightenment Reason that gives a person his identity; it is that soil of relationships in which he is rooted. Uproot him, and he becomes dislocated.

Dislocation is the illness with which Will Barrett finds himself afflicted in Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman. Barrett, a southerner, finds himself living hand-to-mouth in New York City, suffering bouts of amnesia and “fugue states.” During an earlier episode “he was discovered totally amnesiac and wandering about the Shenandoah Valley between Cross Keys and Port Republic, sites of notable victories of General Stonewall Jackson.” Barrett is trying to get back to familiar soil. No other patch of earth will do.

Cleveland is the NBA home for James, and he too seems to suggest that no other city will do. “Before anyone cared where I would play basketball,” he writes, “I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled.” He is specially connected with that region, its delights and displeasures and eccentricities. He pounded its pavements and hardwoods. No other place is the same. Now he wants to share that with his children, by “rais[ing] my family in my hometown,” and with the larger community:

I want kids in Northeast Ohio . . . to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

That rich nexus of relations may be beginning.

All of this, additionally, is a striking departure from the way James broadcast his 2010 decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers: “The Decision,” a 75-minute ESPN television special. James is not going in for that this time: “I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work.” Perhaps that attitude is a reflection of how he understands his roots: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given,” he writes. “Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge.”

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe famously wrote. Since you left, the place has changed, and it will never be exactly the same. But you can go home again, as Eliot explained, if you have explored all the promising crannies and crevices and finally seen that the place you sought was there all along. Maybe in the coming years, James will decide he wants to do some more exploring. But if what he has written is true, well, then, Mr. James: Welcome home.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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