Strive For Greatness

The following was sent to SLAM as a Trash Talk letter from Joseph Gray, an inmate at Lorain Correctional Institution in Ohio. We’ve decided to run the piece as originally written below. —Ed.

The headline for the day, week, and the whole upcoming year around here is, and will be, ‘I’m Coming Home.’ Such a simple statement if you were calling home from work or leaving the bank or something. But to so many people here in Northeast Ohio, these were magical, mystical words of mountain-moving proportions.

A decision was made, and it created a frenzy. Not to mention the millions of dollars it generated in a matter of hours. Five hundred plus jobs, realty market downtown, small business surrounding The Q… I sat here and watched all of this with mixed emotions. I have a somewhat biased opinion, but did that even matter? I don’t know, you tell me…

I moved to Akron, Ohio in March of 2003. Being more specific, I moved into the The Spring Hill apartments (public housing) complex—the highrises. This complex may sound familiar to those outside of Akron for one reason only, and that would be a Mr. LeBron James. This is where he lived when he graduated from St. Vincent- St. Mary. When he got the Nike contract he still resided there. He and his mother Gloria lived in the midrise apartments. I really didn’t think too much of it then, wasn’t what some would call starstruck. I’d heard of LeBron before moving to Spring Hill, about how he was the next Michael Jordan. I guess time would have to tell.

Gloria and he ended up moving, not quite sure when, but I still saw the golden Hummer often. LeBron didn’t stray away from home. The millions hadn’t ‘changed’ him. Although I’m sure it changed a lot of people around him. But I only saw the same genuine smile…

Fast forward to March of 2004, the 3rd or 4th, not quite sure. My brother Stephan is playing for the Kent State (Trumbull Branch) basketball team. He was playing in the opening game that day at The Q, to be followed with the Cavs playing the Hawks. I saw my brother play ball for the first time that day, on the same floor as the Cleveland Cavs and, yes, LeBron. It was a really proud moment for me, and then I got to see the Cavs beat the Hawks by like 20 points. I can’t honestly say that I saw the Cavs game, I was in the nosebleeds… but I was there!

Fast forward once again… The date is October 10 2004! This was the best day of my entire life! My precious daughter was born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. I state that for a reason. So, as the mother of my daughter is going through the labor pains, and all the preps and plans are being made for the delivery, the doctor that’s going to deliver my daughter pulls me to the side and makes some small talk. He asks me if I like basketball, I reply Yes. He then asks if I’m a Cavs fan. I say Yes. He then motions for me to follow him into the waiting area of the delivery rooms. So we get to the main desk, and he points towards this huge crystal-like vase with a vast amount of white flowers in it. He then tells me, ‘Look at the card and see who sent it to me.’ I open the small white envelope and start to read the words… ‘Thanks and appreciation to Dr. (I forget his name). From: LeBron, Savannah, and LeBron Jr. I look back at him, as he smiles and begins to tell me the story of how he just delivered LeBron’s son of a few days prior. And if my daughter had have chosen to come one day earlier, I would have been sitting right here with Mr. James. So the very same doctor delivered both of our firstborns…

Alright let’s get to the meat of what I wish to convey. Does anyone happen to remember what the whole Northeast Ohio area looked like back in 2003? How about the Cavs net worth prior to 2003? I remember quite well, it wasn’t pretty, and nobody wanted to go to a Cavs game, or see them on TV for that matter. Downtown in Cleveland Ohio wasn’t invited by any measure. Something was missing, a whole lot of something. And that all changed when the Cleveland Cavs drafted LeBron James first overall in that ’03 Draft. A hope was born on that night, a hope for a brighter and better future. Not just for LeBron and his family, or the Cavs… The whole city and surrounding areas got a glimmer on that night. The Chosen One was sent to us to lead us out of the wilderness of Cleveland sports. The drought of the past 50 years was about to end, everyone felt it. Cleveland had the guy that everyone wanted, the best player to ever grace the game since Mike… or was he? Nobody knew, but we all hoped he was. And then we saw him play in the NBA, the truth was then revealed—this guy was the truth, and I’m not talking about Paul Pierce! He took his rightful spot from day No. 1. Lifting off to and above the rims in sports arenas across this country! Taking the Cavs and Cleveland with him everywhere he went! Something, someone that we could be proud of! One of ours, literally!

Playoffs… Eastern Conference Finals… The Finals… LeBron carried the Cavs and Cleveland to places they’ve never been to… But he couldn’t get the job done, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t do it all on his own. And he shouldn’t have to, it is a team sport. LeBron’s play exemplifies team, he’s a fierce competitor, but he’s a giver first. The Cavs front office gave him an old Shaq, and Antawn Jamison, etc., etc. I remember the chance to land Amar’e Stoudemire in his prime from Phoenix. The trade never happened because the Cavs didn’t want to let go of JJ Hickson. And then after LeBron leaves, they give JJ away anyways!

Like everyone else in Northeast Ohio back in 2010, I knew deep down in my heart that LeBron was leaving. He had to… that team he had in Cleveland wasn’t going to get the job done. A title would not be won by them. My personal opinion is that the front offices were only concerned with the financial aspect of the team, but LeBron so desired a ring. To be one of the greats, it requires that ring, and more than one in some cases. Dan Gilbert was a businessman then, and he’s still a businessman now. And I don’t blame him for such, but it was more his fault for why LeBron left the Cavs for South Beach.

Okay, so his first Decision is aired on ESPN. A whole region’s heart is ripped out. Our hero is taking his talents to South Beach! Why? How could he? And why did he do us like that on national TV? It seemed like he made a mockery of Cleveland in front of the whole world! Traitor! Backstabber! Coward! We hate you LeBron! You suck! And I’ll leave out Dan Gilbert’s letter. I’m sitting there watching all of this take place, and to tell the truth, my heart hurts too. But I’m looking at it different than others, I still want this dude to win.

I still wish him success, I want him to get the championship! That’s what he wants so that’s what he’s got to chase, I can respect that. Even though I too wished that he would hoist up that trophy in the ‘Wine & Gold,’ in that Cavs jersey!

In the four years following the first decision, people around here walked around with a lot of hurt and pain, feeling of betrayal, and even hate. People wished the worst for our former hero, they wished defeat on his newfound Heat, every single game! They celebrated when Dallas beat them in the Finals… Even Governor Kasich granted the Mavericks honorary Ohio citizenship… Wow! The governor of our state, really? LeBron held that trophy up high and said, ‘I’m not even supposed to be here!’ They agreed in their bitter silence. But that big gravitating smile remained. I’m sure many just turned their TV off in disgust, saying ‘That should’ve been us!’ And then the next year, many around here cheered as the final minutes approached in Game 6 — cheering the Spurs to a defeat of their former king. But hate has a bitter taste, and Ray Allen made all of those haters swallow that taste down their throats to burn in their stomachs. And LeBron then sealed the deal! 2! 2 Trophies! 2 Rings! 2 Finals MVP Awards! Still not enough…

San Antonio came back with a vengeance, better prepared and equipped this year. And the haters had their fill of success through another’s failure. The smiles were sickening. It wasn’t a loyalty, it was just hate, and hate is ugly no matter which way you look at it. But on the court, LeBron remained gracious even in defeat, outmatched by a better opponent.

In the days and weeks to come after, everyone expected the Heat to restructure and revamp—to bring in some fresh blood. And then LeBron opted out rather quickly. But even that served a purpose to the Heat, or so we thought, and I hoped. For I was now a Miami fan… I took my loyalty to South Beach four years ago with LeBron. Spring Hill alum, his son and my daughter born days apart, delivered by the same doctor, there’s a connection there, right? So I was riding with him good or bad!

The rumors started floating around, ‘LeBron’s coming back!’ I’m saying, Yeah right! Like that’s really gonna happen! The same people that rooted against him in the past four Finals, now seemed to be excited at the prospect of him coming back to Cleveland! Why would you want him back, you hate him, remember? Guess there really is a thin line between love and hate…

And then the Decision II comes out… It’s breaking news… all day on the news non-stop! LeBron James is coming back home! The city is going crazy, people are leaving work, everyone going downtown. Many fans are gathering in Bath outside his house, trying to catch a glimpse. I can’t lie, when I first heard the news, I was somewhat saddened… I couldn’t believe it! Not saddened that he came home, but rather that these ‘haters’ were now cheering and acting like they weren’t just rooting for the whole NBA to beat their former hero. They were lining up to buy tickets, shirts, and whatever they could find that was LeBron related. What a difference a decision makes. First they love you, then they hate you, then they love you again.

As I watch the news on the day of the decision, I see the hope being reborn. I see revitalization happening over again. People have smiles on their faces, a pep in their steps, the love has come back home, and all of it came through a Sports Illustrated article entitled, ‘I’m Coming Home.’ I smile, too…

T-shirts reading ‘forgiveness’ and ‘redemption’ are being sold by the thousands. In Miami, on the other hand, it’s not the same story. The fans there are let down, hurt, disappointed, but there’s one huge difference in them compared to the fans in Cleveland back in 2010. The first thing that Miami fans said was, ‘Thanks LeBron! You gave us four amazing years, thank you.’ They may have had a few choice words after that, but do you see the difference? They appreciated him and what he had contributed to their area. I noted that because it’s important.

So, I now ask again… Do you remember what it was like back in 2003? The city? Financial situation, downtown, the Cavs, none of it was that impressive, and that’s being kind. And then there was a seven-year run of a positive energy pulsating in the city of Cleveland and the entire Northeast Ohio area. Businesses in the downtown area thrived, the people had a sense of pride, someone and something to be proud of…

And then a decision was made, Mr. James left and took all that he had brought with him. It wasn’t the same anymore. Hate for him had replaced the pride and hope. It showed. The Cavs haven’t been to the Playoffs since. The city went through its changes. There was now a stagnant feel to it all. The air was stale. Those four long years gave everyone a reminder of what used to be… remember? And I’m not saying that LeBron is the root cause of it, then or now, I’m just saying that he makes us pay attention to it.

So what shall we do with opportunity? Fate? Do we give our all to it? Do we entrust it to someone else? What are we hoping for? Not just as a region, or a city, but as individuals? What are we passing down to our children? What did they see four years ago? And what did they see during those four years? They’re seeing how things are changing right now, how there’s a breath of fresh air flowing through. They hear the laughter. They see the smiles. They heard that LeBron is home, one of our own came back home, and he has something to prove. To do what they all say can’t be done, but if anyone can do it, it’s him! He just needs those few pieces again. Maybe a trade for Kevin Love. I don’t have all the answers, just a few questions. But there’s one thing I’ll always have, and that’s a respect and admiration for LeBron. The two-time Finals MVP, four-time League MVP, a proven champion, a leader, a man, a husband and father, that lives his life with integrity and honor. We should be proud of the kid from Akron, Ohio. Not just because he chose to come home, but because he wasn’t scared to chase his dream, to capture it twice, and then to have the courage to attempt to bring it to Cleveland, Ohio! So let’s give him the love and support that he needs. And let’s make sure he gets the pieces to make it happen! (Hint to Dan Gilbert.) Because this is bigger than basketball, this is bigger than winning and losing, this is an open opportunity to achieve something great. To build off hope and love. Like the title of LeBron’s movie, this is ‘More Than a Game!’

So let’s get past this forgiveness & redemption theme… Let’s follow Miami’s example. Let’s be appreciative. Not just to LeBron for coming back, but to each other, just because! Let’s take the feeling that is electrifying the area right now and spread it to all we do. Let’s apply that to all aspects of our lives. Only love can cure and kill hate. Hate divides, hate brings empires down. But Love, we know what Love brings. (First they love you, then they hate you, then they love you again.) So let’s keep it that way. Let’s build the city and the surrounding areas on a love and respect foundation. We will define our own destiny, so what will it be? Once again, this is our opportunity, all of our opportunities of the future will stem from what we choose right now. Now it’s our decision, let’s make the right one.

I want to personally thank LeBron James. Thank You for the inspiration and motivation to even write these words. So many said it can’t be done in my case as well. I just chose not to believe them. I can do whatever I put my mind up to. I can even write an article of significance from inside of prison, where I’ve been for almost ten years now. Watching my daughter grow up from behind these walls, watching the world grow and become what it is…. I see it all in slow motion. And that is what makes me appreciate it all.

PS — It will be a glorious and beautiful day when I too can utter those beautiful words… ‘I’m Coming Home!’