Why I'm Forgiving Lebron (Even Though I Told You I'd Never Forgive Him)

This morning a friend emailed me to ask what I thought of Lebron's announcement in Sports Illustrated.  (He and I worked together when Lebron announced he was "taking his talents to South Beach" and I swore I'd never forgive him.)  I don't claim to speak for everyone from Cleveland (I'm actually from a suburb of Akron) but this is what I wrote in response.  

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A few days ago my sister and I spent about 30 seconds talking about Lebron.  To be honest, I hadn't really been following "the Decision 2.0."  I'd read a story or two, but wasn't obsessed like I'd been four years ago.  My sister said the same thing.  We agreed that it just wasn't the same.  Sure, we said, it would be great if he returned to Cleveland, but we didn't think we'd ever love him the way we used to.  Some break-ups are just too painful.
 
I know it sounds silly to say I "loved" an athlete I've never met, but I think part of what made us all love Lebron was the fact that he gave Clevelanders (and those of us from Akron) something to be proud of.  

I mean, it sucks to grow up in a town that the rest of the world views as a punchline.  As long as I can remember, every time a sitcom needed an easy laugh, they'd have a character say he had to go to Cleveland (like that's the worst, imaginable fate.)  National sports broadcasters fill airtime with jokes about burning rivers.  You hear the phrase "mistake on the lake" so many times you start to think it yourself.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may be in Cleveland, but the induction ceremonies are in NYC.  Even our football team wanted to play somewhere else.  We loved Lebron because he gave us something to be proud of.....no, there's a lot to be proud of in Cleveland...he gave us something the rest of the world envied.  Other towns may have world class hospitals and universities, but they didn't have Lebron.  We did.

So, when he left, after a dramatic "will-he-or-won't-he" build-up -- in which every prognosticator (including all of my non-Ohio friends) basically said: "Why would anyone want to live in Cleveland?" -- it felt like a betrayal.  Not only was he telling all the haters they were right -- that no one with options would ever willingly stay in the cliche that is our home town -- he did it in an hour-long, nationally televised special.  It sucked and I didn't think I'd ever forgive him for it  That is, until I read his sports illustrated explanation (as told to Lee Jenkins).

First of all -- beyond my personal reaction to Lebron's words -- as a communications strategist, I think this is genius.  I mean, I've spent the last 4 years pointing to "the Decision" as one of the worst PR moves of all time.  This letter/explanation is among the best.  

It reads like he wrote it.  (vs. carefully crafted PR.)  And yes, the Lee Jenkins transparency is very, very smart.  He handles his leaving Miami very well.  While the obvious -- and easy -- message would have been: "it was a mistake to come to Miami," saying he'd never leave Miami for anyone but his hometown, should minimize any hard feelings there.  It also underscores how much he's matured since 2010.  

Writing about his future teammates, not only sets up all kinds of positive stories about the Cavs, it's humble -- the opposite of the image he created for himself 4 years ago -- and talking about the hard work ahead, gives them breathing room.  If they don't win a championship this year, that's ok, they don't expect to win so soon and this is about something more important than winning.  (Just as Cleveland's love for LB wasn't just about a Championship.)

Lebron's reference to "Northeast Ohio" is an important signal to the people who live there as it puts to rest the mistakes he made in 2010, when he tried to argue that he wasn't betraying his home town because he was really from Akron not Cleveland (Anyone from there knows we're all Cavs fans.  In fact, when I was a kid, the Cavs played at the Richfield Colosseum, which was closer to Akron than Cleveland.) as does his line about not guaranteeing a championship, another mistake he made when he originally signed on with the Cavs.  The line about his mom being difficult was particularly smart as -- it won't just make people smile for years to come  -- it gave him instant credibility.  Everyone knows Gloria is difficult.  Saying it, makes this letter feel heartfelt and honest, while making it clear a lot of thought went in to this decision. I also particularly loved his suggesting that he might inspire others to come and do business in the region.  He's positioning himself as a real leader.  (I couldn't have done it better myself.)

The weeklong build-up to this letter, was also handled really well.  He laid the groundwork for the decision, without being a jerk. Again, he's showing the world that he's grown up, which not only mitigates criticism, it makes past mistakes easier to forgive.

But, the best part, and the reason I'm going to go hunting in the garage for the Lebron jersey I once pledged to never wear again (but couldn't throw away, because - let's face it - I paid a lot for that thing.) is that he massively rebukes what he affirmed 4 years ago.  He's giving Clevelanders a reason to hold their heads up high and a response to the haters, we've never been able to silence.  It's almost better than if he had originally stayed, because now he's not just staying in Cleveland, he's saying "I tried living somewhere else -- somewhere everyone says I should be happy to live -- and I'd rather be in Cleveland." That's pretty awesome.  

In fact, it may even be better than winning a championship, although -- being from Cleveland -- I don't know what that feels like. 


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