“Akron Witnessed First”
There were a lot of t-shirts on display Thursday night in downtown Akron, including what seemed like 300 variations on the theme of the 2016 NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers. And of course, there were a lot of shirts referencing LeBron James, the local boy made good, from high school and NBA jerseys to Swoosh-affixed signature gear. But if you had to pick a single piece of apparel that best represented the theme of the night, it was the black t-shirt with white lettering worn by one local resident, playing on a familiar slogan.
The implicit message was clear:
Sure, you are all witnesses. But this dude is one of us.
Thursday’s event in LeBron James’ hometown was billed as a celebration of a hometown hero, and certainly he was the reason that 25,000 or so fans packed an outdoor concert space and nearby minor league ballpark (where the overflow watched on a big screen). Everybody wants to be affiliated with a winner, and right this second, there is no more celebrated winner in American sports. But the night ended up being every bit as much as celebration of the city that produced LeBron—one he is uniquely committed to ensuring has a brighter future.
It’s often lost in the “homecoming” narrative around LeBron’s return to the Cavaliers, but ask pretty much anyone in Akron, and they’ll confirm it: LeBron never really left home. Among the crowd were members of the LeBron James Grandmothers’ Fan Club, one of whom was rocking the exceedingly wonderful t-shirt you see below.
I asked her what the grandmas did when LeBron left for Miami.
“We rooted for Miami,” she said.
Akron’s only 40 miles south of Cleveland, but please know that’s a common sentiment.
And it is sentiment, of course, loyalty to a dude who has always talked about his love for his hometown. But it’s also much more than that, as Thursday’s program made clear. Sponsored by the City of Akron (special thanks to Christine Curry in the mayor’s office for accommodating needy out-of-town media…), the event was built around the LeBron James Family Foundation, which among other programs has committed to cover college costs at the University of Akron for 2,300 local students who stick with their educations through high school graduation. The mayor (who announced a stretch of Main Street downtown had been renamed King James Way), Akron’s public school superintendent, and others spoke about the impact and LeBron’s commitment to lifting up his city.
And then there were the kids, thousands of them geared out in LJFF shirts with “We Are Family” prominent on the front. It’s a motto that resonates for the son of a single mother who was raised with the help of so many—extended family, coaches, parents of teammates and friends. The more you know about LeBron’s history, the more his dedication to his city makes sense.
Of course, there’s a little bit of heat to that civic pride. Another thing Akron folks will tell you is that they don’t appreciate being seen as Cleveland’s runty little cousin, some leftover town in the shadow of the big city. It’s no accident that LeBron is often at his best on the court when he’s doubted and challenged. He inherited that chip on his shoulder from the city that raised him.
He came out only briefly at the end of Thursday’s celebration, hoarse from the celebrations of the past few days, carrying the trophy that (rumor had it) Cavs officials were briefly worried had been “misplaced” after Wednesday’s parade. He didn’t talk much about basketball. He mostly talked about Akron, about his own family and foundation, about the people he loved. And then, right before he left the stage, he mentioned the half-century-long title drought in Cleveland.
“Guess what?” he said. “It took a kid from Akron to end it.”