LeBron is changing the story of Akron but probably not the way you think


words by Chris Horne; photos by Shane Wynn and video by Ilenia Pezzaniti

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Change the story, change the world

In wrestling, it’s called a “heel turn.” It means the good guy suddenly strides into the ring wearing a black hat. Now he’s the bad guy. It’s scripted in the WWE, and it was scripted in these 2016 NBA Finals — just not in the way that Ayesha Curry might like to believe because LeBron James was holding the pen. His Cavaliers broke the saddest streak in sports by forcing the Golden State Warriors into a heel turn. One day, LeBron may be the consensus Greatest of All-Time on the court, but he could already be the best storyteller in sports. Maybe ever.

More than three years before we moved to Akron, I was pulling for the city. Even in the deep South, LeBron was a figure so looming, you referenced him to explain to non-sports people who The Next Big Thing was — “He’s the LeBron James of foosball!” But that wasn’t why I was watching The Decision. The stakes hooked me. I was disappointed as an otherwise disinterested third party, so I can’t imagine what that moment was like here. I wanted him to be a hero. This wasn’t what heroes did. Or, so I thought.

Two summers ago, as Akronites, we were driving back to my hometown in Georgia when Sports Illustrated posted LeBron’s “I’m coming home” letter. I begged my wife to read it aloud while I drove. Twice. I teared up. This is the story I wanted. This is what heroes do. Literally, or at least literarily. Folks call it “The Hero’s Journey,” short-hand for the stages described by mythologist Joseph Campbell that fictional protagonists proceed through on the way to fulfilling their destiny. Think “Star Wars.”

LeBron likened his years in South Beach to college, said he learned to win there. I think he learned how much storytelling matters. Had he bought into (gag) “personal branding,” he’d have re-upped with The Heat or chased championships in New York or L.A. He referenced it in his letter, that moment of leaving. The hero, initially, refuses The Call.

Stats are adjectives, not facts. These small fictions weren’t invented to keep score inside the game, but rather to help fans keep score afterwards as we debate where a player falls on the greatness scale. Yet nothing about back-to-back 41-point games in the Finals or a triple-double in the decisive Game 7 come close to describing LeBron James. He’s no longer just playing a game. He’s telling a story in which he’s a character and the narrator. That’s why these are the only two stats that come close: 1.3 million people packed Cleveland’s streets for a parade and 30,000 Akronites flooded Lock 3 to see him hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

It’s tempting to think he’s reached the end of The Hero’s Journey, which, distilled into 12 stages by Christopher Vogler, begins its last leg with “The Road Back” and concludes with “Return with the Elixir.” But I’d argue LeBron is still mid-journey and he knows it.

Coming back to the Cavs wasn’t easy. He was tested, stumbled, overcame and learned who his allies are. That’s stage six. Going into the 2016 Finals against a Warriors team that actually improved since dispatching him in last year’s Finals — the NBA’s first unanimous MVP and a record-breaking season — that was stage seven, “Approach to the Inmost Cave.” Down 3-1 on Golden State’s home court, LeBron and his teammates faced “The Ordeal,” the eighth stage where the hero must experience some kind of “resurrection” to fulfill his destiny. That’s exactly what happened. Stage nine, the Reward. Only now has he entered “The Road Back.”

Everyone, understandably, has focused on the “Nothing is given. Everything is earned” part of LeBron’s letter, but the most important part is what immediately precedes it.

He openly dreams of a day when some folks will return from their own journeys, put down roots and contribute to the local culture and economy. This is the vision, his #ImagineAkron moment. Then he drops the hammer: “Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.” He doesn’t say “all the victories” or “all the trophies” — and when he says talent, he means people. The ones who return, those who stayed, like writer David Giffels or Hoppin’ Frog brewmaster Fred Karm, and those adopting Akron as home, our Brent Wesleys (Akron Honey Co.) and Nicole Mullets (ArtsNow).

Yeah, hard work and persistence pay off, but it’s missing the point to think that’s the only moral of the story. LeBron is changing the story of Akron and Northeast Ohio from being a place talent must leave to find fulfillment to being a place that talented people choose, a place where they can apply their gifts to the benefit of the community.

His return crystallized the return-and-contribute narrative, which was already alive in people like The Social Dept.’s Andy Taray, Mary Hospodarsky of Sweet Mary’s Bakery and Akron Planning Director Jason Segedy, the undisputed king of tweeting maps. This championship is a sign you can be excellent and pursue your purpose here, but the folks above are the proof.

“I’ve always said Akron’s tagline should be: ‘You can make a difference here.’” That’s how Barbara Feld put it at Arts Alive! as she accepted a lifetime achievement award in a room full of creatives at the Summit Artspace.

The question for us mortals isn’t if Akronites abroad are hearing the call — they damn sure are — but whether we can be like the Cavs organization to their LeBron. It’s more than providing resources for success. There has to be a team, a community. That, I think, is our next step: Taking Akron’s seemingly inherent collaborative spirit another step forward into an active community that stretches across our 21+ neighborhoods to engage nonprofits, civic groups small businesses, creatives and artists and all their audiences.

Turning the baby-faced, Akron-born Steph Curry — the NBA’s darling — into a mouthguard-chewing villain was a feat, but for LeBron James, it was just the beginning. Where this goes next depends on how well we embrace the story he’s telling.