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Words by Adam FigmanPortraits by Atiba Jefferson

March 20, 2013. A relatively meaningless Cavs-Heat game at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland is trudging through its fourth quarter, the Heat holding an 83-79 lead over a truly depressing, Lottery-bound Cavs team.

As then-Cleveland guard Shaun Livingston holds up his right hand to set up some sort of inevitably ill-advised set play, a skinny 6-1 white kid wearing a t-shirt that reads WE MISS YOU on one side and 2014 COME BACK on the other sprints onto the court, making it to the left elbow of the three-point line before a security guard runs and snatches him up in a forceful reverse bear hug.

That’s when things get kinda weird. The kid’s purpose has become clear: He’s a crazed LeBron fan on a mission to let LBJ know that the Cavaliers’ fan base would love for him to make a return to Ohio once his contract runs up 15 or so months later. As he’s dragged off the floor, he chirps, “We miss you here, LeBron,” in James’ direction.

He’s also a massive security risk, and one doesn’t need to re-watch more than a little Malice at the Palace footage to remember that NBA players don’t exactly love fans barging all up into their workspace. And yet, as he’s pulled away by what’s rapidly become a gaggle of arena staffers, LeBron drifts toward James Blair, and then, for some reason, extends his hand, gives Blair a quick dap, then taps the kid’s head with slightly noticeable affection before Blair is erased from the scene.

“A lot of [Cavs fans] told me afterward that his reaction to what I did made them think, like, Oh, wow, he remembers how we are,” Blair says. “I think it goes to show LeBron’s character and the type of person he is, that even in a crazy instant like that, he still pays homage to his fans. That was kind of my goal, to remind him about that Cleveland passion and the fans we have here.”

It’s hard to imagine that LeBron needed much reminding. By now you’re all well aware he grew up in nearby Akron and spent seven seasons in Cleveland before the Miami move—but his response to the court-storming did seem to prove LeBron’s understanding of the intensity of Cavs fans runs a little deeper than your standard athlete-fan connection. Which makes sense, considering that passion is rooted in the fact that LeBron’s impact is nestled earth’s-core deep into the fabric of Northeast Ohio.

Let’s start with the obvious: Cleveland sports fans have been through some shit. The Browns, Indians and Cavaliers have combined for an absolutely brutal 156-season title drought since the 1964 Browns earned an NFL Championship.

But Cleveland hasn’t given up. Quite the opposite: Those resilient motherfuckers have doubled down.

“We’ve been through so much together,” says Stalley, a rapper originally from Massillon, OH—a town an hour from Cleveland in Northeast Ohio—who named his debut studio album Ohio. “‘A family that prays together, stays together’ is one of those feelings that you get with Cleveland sports, because we’re always praying and hoping and optimistic about next season. We’ve longed for it for so long, so no matter what, we stick to it. We know it can’t last forever. Like, ‘This year is the year that it stops’—that’s how we feel every year.”

“You know what it feels like in Cleveland?” says Machine Gun Kelly, a Cleveland rapper who moved to the city as a high schooler. “You know when you’re in a small town and the high school football team is killing it and everyone in the town is rooting for the high school football team? Like they’re on the way to the championship and everyone’s pulling up to you on the street, like, ‘You gonna bring home that ’Chip for us this year? You gonna bring home that trophy?’ It’s a way of life.”

The point is this: When an otherworldly basketball player—say, LeBron James—is raised in the region, drafted by the hometown franchise and carries said franchise to relevance, it’s a really, really big deal. And when he changes locations amidst that relevance, leaving that team to fall fast into the NBA’s seabed, then returns and single-handedly lifts the group back to the almost top, it’s an even bigger deal. You know all of this, of course. But it’s hard to really appreciate without a decent grasp of just how much shit a Cleveland sports fan has had to sit through over the past few decades. It all made this past June that much more incredible.

“When I came home off the road for the Finals, I’ve never seen the city that electric in my entire time of living there,” MGK says.

“I’ve never seen the city so together,” concurs Stalley. “I was at all the home Finals games, and just how the city was together and laughing and dancing and eating—it was like everybody was family. He really brought a family atmosphere, and I never witnessed that in my years of growing up in Ohio and being an Ohio sports fan.”

Look, none of this is to take away from LeBron’s insane on-the-court impact. His averages of 25.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 7.4 apg barely scratch the surface of how good he’s been. In April, the Cavs’ JR Smith said you could give LeBron the MVP trophy every year “if you want to be realistic about it,” and he’s right—at this point, that award going to anybody else is only happening because A) LBJ has zero reason to aim for it, so he doesn’t, and B) The repetition that would come with being “realistic about it” is just boring for fans to follow. (Word to Karl Malone “beating” MJ for the award in 1997.)

But amidst the dozens of storylines the NBA produces every year, it’s not hard to lose sight of the reality that the world’s best player is not only busy being the world’s best player—the dude means more to a city and region of the United States than any American athlete has individually meant to a geographic area…probably ever.

Most of that impact is intangible. LeBron makes people genuinely happy, gives the community something to look forward to. “It lets us have something to be proud about, to smile about and talk about,” Stalley says.

But there’s a tangible impact as well. LeBron’s 2014 announcement had undeniable economic ramifications. “In terms of the true economic impact we’re seeing here in Cleveland from LeBron James, what it really comes down to is new money coming to the region,” says Candi Clouse, a Program Manager at the Center for Economic Development at Cleveland State University. “With LeBron here, more people are traveling to see him. People come from Detroit or Pittsburgh, and they bring their money into Cleveland, so that’s a boost to the local economy. They’ll come for a game and they’ll stay for dinner, stay a night in a hotel, things like that.

“The other impact on the economy of the city is during the Playoffs, because a lot of people travel for the Playoffs,” she continues. “When we were walking downtown, you can see all of the Golden State Warriors fans roaming around downtown—they’re bringing their new money into the economy.”

One 2014 report estimated LeBron’s second Cavs stint would cause a $500 million boost to the local economy—that report has since been disputed and that number lowered by a bunch, but it remains true that at least some dollars are flowing through the city of Cleveland that would’ve otherwise remained in other cities throughout the country. (Clouse said it’s tough to produce hard numbers on this matter, considering the broad period of time being considered and the small sample size—it’s hard to retrieve data on a few hundred media members swarming to a city over the course of a few weeks in June, for example, but that they’re present, and spending money, is undeniable.) “Additionally, there’s new money that comes in from all of the advertising and so forth that’s associated with the fact that LeBron James is always on television,” Clouse says.

Naturally, the Cavaliers are caking up in the process. According to sports and entertainment intelligence firm Repucom, the Cavs’ fan base increased 142 percent from January-August of 2014 to January-August of 2015, while the team had nine more nationally televised games last season than the season before. The franchise was third in the NBA regular season for sponsorship media value, a figure Repucom determines by audience size, duration and quality of exposure. Not bad, considering Cleveland is the NBA’s 18th biggest market, per sportsmediawatch.com. Alas, the biggest beneficiary of this all—Cavs owner Dan Gilbert—is based in Detroit, as are the headquarters of his mortgage lending company. So a heavy amount of his big bucks are being taken elsewhere—not that Detroit doesn’t need them, too.

And yet, while the dollars are clutch and the happiness invaluable, Cleveland residents are still yearning for that long-awaited championship. On paper, this coming season certainly looks like the year. Health will play a factor—Kevin Love and/or (well, OK: and) Kyrie Irving will need to be at full strength for the final stretch this time around—and competition will be fierce: the Warriors aren’t going anywhere; the Clippers and Spurs have reloaded; the Bulls are a perpetual threat; Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both healthy and charged up in OKC; and who the hell knows who else will rise up from the dust to become a contender? These Cavs have that first trial-and-error season under their belt, though, and LeBron’s historic prime isn’t coming to an end for at least a couple dozen more months.

“I can’t even put it in words what it’s gonna be like if they win [a Championship],” Stalley says. “I think you’d see grown men crying.”

“It just seems so unfathomable that I don’t even know how to think of an appropriate response for how it would feel,” MGK says. “All I can say is it’s a lot more than sports. It’s a lot deeper than sports for Cleveland.”

All of which brings us back to James Blair. Blair’s lifetime ban from Quicken Loans was lifted after LeBron announced his plan to once again suit up for the Cavs, and Blair’s 13,000+ Twitter followers and well-known status as the Ultimate Cavs Superfan remain as rewards for his courageous act. Sometimes LeBron notices Blair on his way from the bowels of the Q to the court, and he’ll smile and reach out for a quick handshake as he passes by.

“It’s really hard to believe that one single person can have such an impact on a city,” Blair says. “But he really does.”

Adam Figman is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.

Originally published in SLAM 192

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