With LeBron James returning to Cleveland, ESPN has another story about how Cleveland has suffered. But let me take a few pieces of this story and offer an alternative explanation of what has happened to Cleveland:
The issue is not really sports – LeBron James is just the symptom. The real issue is similar to that of many Rust Belt cities – manufacturing jobs left, the population shrunk, and the city’s glory disappeared. The city has tried some various tricks: funding new sports stadiums and building the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
So when LeBron James, a local kid become star, joined the Cavaliers, the city perked up. Having James meant recognition, new money, and a chance for lasting glory with championships. When James left without bringing the championships, it turned into a cruel joke – the city is still recognized but as the place with terrible luck.
Having James for as long as they did masked the true problems of Cleveland. In fact, if James hadn’t played for the Cavaliers, there may be no one writing anything about Cleveland at all. For almost a decade, Cleveland could dream of sports and glory rather than thinking about what should be done to turn the city around. It won’t be easy: some of the ideas associated with reviving Detroit, which has drawn its own share of attention, are pretty drastic. Some other ideas that could be tried: developing park land along the water, building upon academic institutions, or trying to attract or develop newer industries.
Ultimately, the losing sports teams aren’t the issue. Sure, most cities would like to win championships. But the bigger issue is coping with or reversing the Rust Belt decline. LeBron wasn’t the answer – and Cleveland is still searching.