“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.” As a woman who would rather do just about anything – fold laundry, watch paint dry, even listen to an entire Iggy Azeala album – rather than watch a basketball game, even I know that infamous line. I remember that day back in the summer of 2010, the morning after Lebron James announced his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in a special that ran for 75 minutes on ESPN, clearly. All of the basketball fans I knew were ecstatic to see if James’ pairing with Dwayne Wade would finally win the superstar a championship ring.
Obviously, I had no opinion on the strategy behind James’ move. The only hoops I’m concerned about are in my ears. I did, however, have a strong opinion about the open letter penned by majority Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert in response to James’ announcement.
Dripping with the arrogance and contempt synonymous with racism, Gilbert’s letter branded James a “former hero” who had “deserted” his hometown before lambasting the player for the “several day, narcissistic, self-promotional build-up culminating with a national TV special of his ‘decision’ unlike anything ever ‘witnessed’ in the history of sports and probably the history of entertainment.” The letter’s verbal venom devolved further, calling the Akron, Ohio native’s decision to abandon the team (notably before he delivered on the promise to bring the city the glory of an NBA title) a “cowardly betrayal” and a “shocking act of disloyalty.” But the disgusting display of audacity reached zenith when Gilbert noted, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.”
The racial implications of branding a Black man of enviable talent, wealth, fame and confidence a traitor cannot be overexaggerated. Cleveland residents and fans seemed to echo the sentiment in Gilbert’s letter, burning James’ jerseys and sending the player angry and racist tweets. In a city ranked the most segregated city in America with a history of riotous racial tensions (Hough riots, Glenville shootout) and alarming rates of economic disparity between Black and white residents (the Black residents suffered poverty and unemployment rates more than 3.5 times that of the their white counterparts), I suppose it doesn’t take much for mildly suppressed racist attitudes and feelings to surface.
But many fans who’d labeled LeBron a modern melanated Benedict Arnold for betraying his beloved hometown changed their tunes when he announced he was returning to the Cavaliers for the 2014-2015 NBA season after four seasons and two championships with the Miami Heat. All was forgiven. One fan, a police officer with the Cleveland PD said, “He could be second-in-command in ISIS. If he’s got an outside shot, we’d love him.” Esquire magazine writer and Cleveland native Scott Raab was so bitter about James’ departure that he wrote and entire book about it titled “The Whore of Akron,” in which he “wishes a career-ending injury upon Mr. James.” Of James’ return, Raab said, “I’m … thrilled he came back.” One fan even sported a burned Jersey.
It’s safe to say that LeBron’s betrayal was forgiven. And this Sunday after he finally delivered on his promise to bring Cleveland an NBA title (despite Gilbert’s arrogant assurance that he’d make sure the Cavaliers received a ring before LeBron, this was Cleveland’s first championship), LeBron is once again Cleveland’s crowning jewel. He’s “King James” again.
At least until the next time he addresses racism and anti-blackness or leaves Cleveland or does whatever thing that betrays the impossible and wholly irrelevant standards of loyalty white people demand Black people uphold. White approval is fickle and useless that way, though. Black people are only valuable to white people when we’re valuable to white people.
LeBron James is unquestioningly valuable. Besides the financial benefits to Dan Gilbert personally (a 224% spike in the average ticket price, a 700% spike in Cavs merchandise sales, etc.), the return of four-time MVP brought a much needed boost to Cleveland’s struggling economy, and since collective financial benefits usually hit white citizens first and most, white Cleveland needed Lebron.
When white people realize they need Black people, that our labor and existence are what sustain their own, any refusal to place our bodies in service to them feels like a betrayal because they make themselves believe the relationship is mutually beneficial. They’ve tried to separate the Blackness they loathe from the extraordinary ability that awes them. They have convinced themselves that they are somehow, at least partially, responsible for his success. They’ve stayed true to form and claimed ownership of what could never be theirs.
White Cleveland mourned LeBron leaving, but just four years later, all but cheered Tamir Rice’s murder. If a 12-year-old Lebron had been in a park in Akron, just 40 miles from Cleveland, and had been shot dead by two cops who “thought he was a man” before the world knew what he could do on the court, those now willing to bow at his feet wouldn’t have given a damn. Or if he’d never made it and was in a Walmart holding a BB gun and a “concerned citizen” called the police to report that a Black man was holding a gun, and when the police arrived, they executed him on sight like they did a 22-year-old John Crawford, would they feel as betrayed by their state police as they did by LeBron leaving? They’d be locking their doors and crossing streets if LeBron wasn’t dribbling a Spalding and instead, just a 6’8 Black man walking down a Cleveland street.
But like I said, white approval is fickle and useless like that. We’re not valuable to them unless we’re valuable to them.