Basketball: As NBA Finals start, LeBron James writes 'coming home' tale that inspires others

With the NBA Finals about to get underway, LeBron James is on the verge of writing a storybook ending to the prodigal-son-returns-home tale that began a year ago when he left the Miami Heat on a mission to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to the team's first national championship title ever.

That decision, announced in a moving piece in Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine on July 11 last year, is one that young people everywhere - even those not the least bit interested in basketball - should take to heart.

James was the kind of real life hometown hero that always seemed too good to be true. Born in 1984 in the crumbling rubber capital of Akron, just 60km south of the rusting steel centre of Cleveland in Ohio on the banks of Lake Erie, he said it best himself.

"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It's where I walked. It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I'm their son," he wrote in that SI piece.

Indeed, for more than two decades people here watched a little boy raised by a single mum in a gritty poverty-stricken part of town grow into a national superstar at St Vincent-St Mary High School. They cheered him on as he blossomed into a national star after becoming the first draft pick of the Cavaliers just up the road in Cleveland in 2003 at age 19, and now a household name known round the world as King James.

That made his decison to move to Miami and the Heat in 2010 even harder to take for a part of the country that had just begun to dust itself off and become a place to be proud to live in again, in part fueled by his exploits.

Fans in Cleveland and Akron were so outraged by James nationally televised announcement that he "was taking my talents to South Beach" that they burned his jersey in the streets. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert called the decision a "cowardly betrayal". Cleveland quickly tore down a 10-storey-tall billboard of James at the Gateway to a downtown that had begun showing signs of life. Scott Raab, a writer for Esquire and GQ who was  born in Cleveland just a year after me, published a book about James called The Whore Of Akron. 

I buried my two prized LeBron James bobbleheads deep in an old trunk, out of sight.. 

Given such shocking vitriol, James decision to forgive and forget and come home is even more impressive. In his SI message, he simply admitted that he had underestimated the pain caused by his move from winters like the one just past that put Game Of Thrones impending cold spell to shame to the sunshine, beaches and palm trees of south Florida.

"Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realise that four years ago. I do now."

Cleveland fans were just as quick to forgive and forget - and not just because they have been starved for a national sports championship since American football legend - and later Dirty Dozen and On Any Given Sunday movie star - Jim Brown led the Cleveland Browns to the National Football League title way back when the Beatles were just invading the US in 1964, Even the national media does not seem to understand that the people here will forever remember the return of the King - whether or not he delivers a national championship this month, or never.

Again, James said it best for his hometown - and hometowns people return to the world over: "I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I'm from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realise that there's no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.

"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have."

Even Raab was quick to laud James SI letter from the heart in a letter of his own published in Esquire magazine. "Thank you. You're doing the right thing - for yourself and for Cleveland - and you're doing it for the right reasons. Dollars and rings count: family and home matter more.," he wrote.

"My son, born and raised in New Jersey, but already a die-hard Cleveland fan - is hopeful and excited. Thanks for that too." Raab wrote and, in closing, added "PS: You'll like the next book better. Promise."

As for me, those old LeBron James figurines, their heads bobbling away, are now right next to me, on the desk in my home office, even as I type this - moving me to write the best chapter yet in my own story, hopefully one that will inspire my own Singapore-born son to great heights. 

zach@sph.com.sg