On July 11, 2014, LeBron James announced he intended to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers after spending four years with the Miami Heat, with whom he won two NBA titles. The announcement came at around noon on a Friday. I was sitting in the living room of my parents’ house in the Cleveland area suburbs when an anchor on the local news paused in the middle of another story to let viewers know that an article of interest had just been posted on the website of Sports Illustrated. The article was not actually an article, but rather a personal essay titled “I’m Coming Home.” James had written the essay himself, along with some help from SI staff writer Lee Jenkins, in the tradition of personal anecdotes told by the principal subject to another party, neither ghostwriter nor reporter, more a vessel sharing joint byline credit. The network dedicated the rest of their block to a discussion of what James’s return would mean not only for the Cavs, but also for the city of Cleveland itself. Coverage ran into the next hour. Regular scheduled programming—the talk show The Chew—wasn’t aired that day.
In the hours following James’s announcement via essay, a far cry from the televised primetime decision of 2010 in which he informed the world he would leave the Cavs for the Heat, I received several text messages from friends congratulating me on the development. It was as though I had just gotten engaged; the well wishing seemed to go a bit overboard. To my eye, that of a Cleveland sports fan, the attention seemed jinx-like, but I appreciated the sentiment, especially as it came mostly from friends who didn’t grow up cheering for my hometown’s less-than-successful, often laughable, sports franchises.
I read James’s essay. I read it again. I changed the channel on the television, touching base with all the local news stations—WKYC, News Channel 5, FOX 8, 19 Action News. I ventured over to CNN, who had a reporter on the ground in downtown Cleveland. Of course I hit up ESPN. The SportsCenter anchors had already been spending much of their time guessing James’s next move; they had spent hours analyzing his trip to Las Vegas to mentor at a summer basketball camp, where Heat guard Dwyane Wade and team president Pat Riley visited him for one last lobbying session. Now, the SportsCenter anchors were gushing, openly admiring of James’s candor and choice of communication method this time around, so quaint and hushed did it seem alongside the hour-long decision special of four years prior, which their network aired.
All the while my phone chimed with the arrival of text messages.
One friend wrote: WAAAAHHHHHOOOOOO.
Another was more restrained: Lebron is back.
I received a few that merely said congratulations.
A pragmatic friend was decidedly measured when he wrote that the Cavs still needed a few more players to compete for a title. Subtext: no championship this year, but maybe next—the mantra most sports fans must live by. (Cleveland fans traditionally add four or five years, perhaps a whole generation, depending, as well as a round or two of front office firings and rebuilding through the draft and free agency.)
In my responses I was neither jubilant nor subdued. I was smiling in person, picturing the Cavs’s home, Quicken Loans Arena (which in conversation I still refer to by its prior name, Gund Arena), sold out and bursting at the seams with excitement again, but sending a text message containing this information seemed a waste of everyone’s time. As much a waste of everyone’s time as writing it?
A good person to ask this question to would’ve been a friend of mine named Oliver, whom I knew from our days as graduate students in a nonfiction writing program, where we were in many of the same workshops and seminars. During our time outside the classroom, we would discuss the merits of the literary essay at length, usually over IPAs at bars near campus. We used the adjective essayistic to describe any and all things; the word became a pretentious synonym for interesting or good, a kind of catch-all. (We were, it’s not unkind to say, insufferable.) Oliver was a lifelong fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, whom the media had touted as an outside possibility to sign James for about a minute, though I don’t think anyone truly believed it—the Lakers already have Kobe Bryant, and basketball is traditionally played with only one ball at a time. About a half hour after James’s essay went live, Oliver sent me a message that said, Did you buy Cavs season tickets yet?
I responded jokingly, “Yeah, but I’m more glad the personal essay has a new champion in LeBron.”
I had been geeking out hearing the anchors on ESPN and the local news using the word “essay,” the word finally referring to a piece of writing not produced inside a high school or university freshman composition class. The anchors were discussing a piece of writing—of questionable quality, to be sure—that stayed true to the core principles of the personal essay, the literary essay. They were breaking the essay down, analyzing it, and, most importantly, enjoying it as somewhat objective readers. Not since Phillip Lopate signed with the newly relocated Brooklyn Nets has the essay gotten this kind of pub. Not since William Hazlitt left Arsenal Football Club for his hometown Maidstone United has the essay received this much attention. Not since Montaigne returned to Ligue 1’s FC Girondins de Bordeaux…
No one in his or her right mind would read James’s essay in order to vouch for or against its literary quality, but I am here to do just that. The essay exists almost exclusively to inform readers and provide reasons for a choice that many in the media were keen to cover and many in fandom were keen to freak out over. It succeeds in doing so—everything else is trivia of the most specialized kind. The title alone conveys the core information everyone wanted to know; it’s possible to stop reading there if all you’re after is the fact that spawned the hoopla, but to do so would be to miss some essential aspects of the modern essay.
Beneath all personal essays, especially those that deal with trauma, a change, or, in James’s case, a tough decision, the implicit narrative is that the author is presently in a clear enough place to produce the prose. Clarity of thought runs through James’s “I’m Coming Home,” especially when he describes his relationship with Northeast Ohio at the beginning of the essay. He writes, “My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.” A simple narrative of maturity in three sentences. In this passage, James alludes to the events of July 2010, when he left his hometown Cavs to join the Heat, and he suggests that he has come to realize a new truth since then. He is flexing this newfound wisdom over earlier events, bringing his current, wiser self into a dialogue with his past self.
James remains classy when he writes lovingly of his time in Miami, summing it up as such: “Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.” He is taking what he has learned about himself during those four years and linking it to the thought process behind the essay’s principal subject, his return to the Cavs. What happened back then informs what is happening now, which includes the writing of the essay. And vice versa: choosing the Cavs is causing him to see his time in Miami perhaps a bit differently. Nostalgia is always quick to set in during periods of change. With this one sentence, James is exerting relatively new knowledge over his past, employing what many MFA students and faculty in creative writing programs call the “double perspective,” two strains of wisdom flowing through the piece, the current self and the past self. Hindsight—and all the things that come with it: regret, optimism, pessimism—is the essayist’s friend, elevating a personal narrative from the dutiful recitation of events and facts to a thoughtful and introspective retelling.
James is using the essay to convey a simple note of information, but he takes the fact and uses it as a jumping off point for a story that is much broader, certainly larger than his place on a roster sheet, though the amount of coverage dedicated to his decision would call this notion into question. The essay’s worldliness stems from the core story—prodigal son returns to hometown team—as James acknowledges the importance of his home, which was apparently always in his plans. He writes:
I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, 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.
James is fully aware that his move is more than a basketball decision, and this knowledge informs the passage, which leads to the essay’s powerful conclusion. He knows his own stature, and how the first fans he had in the league, many of them children at the time, will remember the moment when one of their favorite athletes returned, and maybe they, with their myriad talents and passions, will someday do the same, which can only be good for a region where the main inclination is to get out. In terms of the essay form, James seems aware that although the media will cover his story to an almost-irritating point, that his is a decidedly small event in the grand scheme of things. The essay follows this reasoning. The essay expands to be just as much about what James views as a bigger picture: the trials and tribulations of a much-maligned corner of the world that has seen better days.
The city of Cleveland has a team in all three of this country’s major sports leagues—the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the National Football League—and it has been 40 years since any of them won a championship (the Browns in 1964, during the pre-Super Bowl era). With their collective failure to win any titles in the last few decades, the Cavs, Indians, and Browns have mirrored the plight of the city. It isn’t a stretch to suggest that when lifelong fans cheer these teams on, it isn’t merely about points and stats and wins, it’s about hoping to see the city rise again to prominence. Bill Shankly, who managed Liverpool FC during the 1960s and 70s (a team I chose to support, no proximity required), once famously said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” You can sub out the European “football” for any sport when talking about the Cleveland franchises, and the quote remains every bit as powerful and true, perhaps even more so.
James, in the middle of the essay, actually uses the word “essay.” He writes, “I’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted.” An essay is not only a noun meaning a piece of writing typically imbued with the views of the author. It also means to attempt, to try, to test something out—it is also a verb. He could’ve changed the sentence to say: I’m essaying to explain myself uninterrupted. This version would’ve ended up on the cutting room floor, rather rightly. The verb form of the word essay suggests that a piece of writing which calls itself by that name makes no guarantees of a suitable conclusion—Heat fans concur—but instead it hopes to provide some clarity, as well as a reason for existing beyond the extravagance or intrigue of the documented situation. For fans of the Cavs, the essay ends exactly where we wanted it to, but it remains to be seen whether the real conclusion, an NBA championship, will be reached. Twenty-nine teams, as well as their fans, want the Cavs’s narrative to remain an essay, an experiment that ultimately doesn’t work, and not morph into a commercial narrative where all the pieces fall into place rather miraculously. I am a genre snob, and I will take the latter.
Rumpus original art by Peter Manges.