I rounded the southern tip of Ortigia, the island city center of Siracusa, Sicily. Drinking in the sinking Ionian sun, I glanced to my left at a small sicilian boy rocking a Miami Heat hat. For a split second, my vacation euphoria was replaced by the dull ache of disgust. Then a beautiful thing happened. Almost immediately, the feeling gave way to an open-mouthed giggle that brought the boy’s eyes to mine. “Go Cavs!” I cheered. I don’t think he understood what I said. I didn’t care. What was more important to me in that moment was the realization that this time next year, another little boy’s hat would be displaying a Cavalier’s sword. Or even better, the word: Cleveland.
Much has been made of the LeBron effect on Cleveland’s economy. Though the exact statistical impact remains to be seen, it will assuredly be a boon of some magnitude. What is less considered is the potential influence LeBron’s stardom will have internationally. The world is far more connected now than the last time LeBron played in C-town. His well-crafted global brand(not sure I ever thought I would have occasion to write that) can potentially boost Cleveland’s stock all over the world. While it may seem hyperbolic, all those hats, t-shirts and music shout-outs add up. The fact most Europeans don’t really know that LeBron grew up in Northeast, OH does nothing but further validate the appeal of The Forest City. The best player in the world chose Cleveland; the international frontrunner community awaits.
In September, it will be five years since I’ve lived in America. During that period, NBA TV developed a wonderfully functioning international league pass called “Game Time.” Without it, I would have probably moved back home by now. Still, the majority of basketball fans in Europe watch the NBA through Sky Sports. Showing two to three NBA games per week, it’s not surprising that only the best teams and those with many international players(not so coincidentally the Spurs qualify as both) are featured. As LeBron James has spent the vast majority of that time dominating the NBA in a Miami Heat uniform, European fans of basketball and modern culture (Bieber!!!) embraced Miami’s red and black.
Meanwhile, Irving and Waiters have been developing in relative obscurity. Kyrie’s sick handle and Dion’s rainbow Jumper have only been appreciated by the EuroNBA junkie. David Blatt’s transfer to the NBA has created a bit of Cleveland interest on its own, but he is only a great American born coach. He is not the biggest NBA star since Jordan. With the decision to come home to the Cavaliers, LeBron will propel Cleveland to the forefront of international programming. He routinely has lead the league in jersey sales both domestically and abroad. His Cleveland number 23 will be seen again, only in even larger numbers. Soon, I will be able to walk the streets of Europe and have a great chance of seeing the name of my hometown.
I’m not sure whether someone from New York or Los Angeles can ever fully appreciate the small jolt of pride that comes from seeing your small market team represented internationally. Indeed, the world is full of Yankee hats. Conversely, most major market fanbases grow tired of casual fandom. A born and raised Yankee fan is frequently annoyed by the ubiquitous cap. But for an ex-pat Clevelander, the unexpected appearance of anything Wine and Gold provides a moment of comfort. It doesn’t even matter if the person wearing the hat thinks Ohio is near Kansas.
I usually wear Cavaliers shorts when I play pickup ball. When I first moved to Europe, I was met with “Cleveland, LeBron!!!” That was 2009. Then it turned into, “Cleveland….ouch… chuckle, chuckle…no more LeBron” mixed with a look of amused pain. I like to think that I took it gracefully. After a couple years, most of the guys didn’t even know that LeBron started his career as a Cav. That disappointed me far more than any light-hearted ribbing. Cleveland became a non-entity. Those who did remember Bron’s time as a Cav usually believed the grossly exaggerated claim that the King never had any “help.” The national media narrative grew stronger as it crossed the Atlantic. The talent and effort from previous Cavalier management has been much debated stateside(a conversation that is as tired as it is revisionist. Let us avoid it here). Internationally, the story was simply accepted. Either Cleveland had a negative connotation or none at all.
I’ve balled only a couple of times since LeBron’s letter, but I already notice a difference. When they find out I am from Cleveland now, they ask about LeBron with a large smile. For the guys who haven’t heard yet, I excitedly break the news. I start talking about the Cavs roster, why LeBron pick and roll with Kyrie will be devastating, how a Dion/Andy PnR with LeBron on the weakside makes me salivate, and how LeBron still has flaws in his game and thus room to grow. They smilingly take in my enthusiasm. Whether logical or not, I feel a pride that I hadn’t realized I’d lost. People care about Cleveland basketball. Sweet relevance. LeBron’s desire to return home, brought home to me.