On June 8, Cleveland watched the Cavaliers lose the NBA championship. Outside of Cleveland, according to the commentators I heard, no one really expected our guys to pull it off. But, here in Cleveland, we felt otherwise. Up until the final four minutes of the fourth quarter, when the Herculean LeBron took the bench, we were still thinking something magical could happen. When he stopped, the game ended. We lost. And, the city, once again, had to recast its disappointment, redirect its energies, and rediscover the eschatological hope that is the core of Cleveland’s athletic grit: “there’s always next year!”
Over the past few years, I have noticed t-shirts popping up around the city that say things such as, “I liked Cleveland before it was cool;” “216;” and even one that details the geometric shape and geographic coordinates of a Bernie Kosar winning touchdown pass. Ohio love is blooming in the rust; things are green in our urban gardens, and progressive real estate is making of bombed out warehouses cool art studios, breweries, and theater houses for budding local talent.
I attribute a huge portion of these good vibes to the stellar work of LeBron James. Now, let me just qualify that anything I have to say from this point forward is based on almost total ignorance of professional sports, so stop reading here and now if that is a problem for you. If you can cut me some slack though, then trust me when I say that LeBron’s heroic image on buildings, water bottles, and jerseys has made a giant impact on the local psyche. When he left in 2010 for the Miami Heat, people felt massively betrayed. When he returned in 2014, people experienced something of a resurrection. Language of the Returning King appeared on billboards and ball caps. He showed up as a team savior, and he restored some kind of truly necessary, vital spirit to the city of Cleveland. What is more, from everything I have read, the unparalleled skill Mr. James demonstrates as a ball player is complemented by an equally strong personal character of service, activism, family values, and a sense of sportsmanship that defines professional athletics. He gives/gave real hope.
As a theologian who is critically concerned about culture, I have a studied appreciation for how much people actually need heroes and hope in their midst. I’ve looked on at this scene in Cleveland now for the past four years, feeling myself moved sometimes to tears because people have had a reason to feel good and to believe that their hopes sometimes come to fruition. So much have I pondered this that I even took my two sons to a game. It was the third game in the Eastern Conference championship series against the Celtics. After two initial losses in Boston, I was certain Cleveland would win. I wanted my boys to have a chance to see in person one of history’s living legends. It was everything it should have been. We hollered, waved towels, ate hot dogs, and even saw LeBron do something like a backwards slam dunk, the physics of which still confound me.
At the same time, though, I found myself looking at Mr. James, with scars from previous wounds to his head and most recently his bloody eye, thinking, “this is too much to pin on one man.” The announcers kept recounting his extraordinary stats for late series victories, and I heard my inner cynic thinking they’ve made him the cleaner, the plunger, the medic. Then my theology kicks in, and I recall my distaste for substitutionary Christologies that celebrate Jesus for taking one for the team. See, I grieve undue burden in life and relationships, most certainly as a direct result of my own emergent self-understanding of times when I have discovered that I couldn’t do something all by myself.
Now, forgive the appearance of the grandiosity of comparisons of myself to LeBron or LeBron to Jesus. They aren’t intended. In fact, it is the inverse I am suggesting. It struck me watching the final four losing games of the Cavs against Golden State that this poor guy was, umm, like a woman trying to keep her house together. I just couldn’t help but think, this guy has to be exhausted. He’s killing himself out there. I recognize that kind of thinning life performance. It is like the laundry. No matter how much you wash, someone is always bringing you more baskets than you can handle. The only way it works is when everyone carries their portion. Then, the whole can win. Then, everyone is a hero and no one needs to be a martyr. There are important lessons here. “Saviors” need the participation from the whole house. Heroes can be victorious even in loss. And, this is especially keen, even the best in the world needs rest, teammates, and time to recuperate.
Since the series ended, the whole conversation in these parts has shifted to where LeBron is going now that he is a free agent. I am not sure whether anyone in CLE expects him to manage more baskets in our house any longer. I myself hope he either gets the team he deserves or, even better, runs for local politics. Whatever happens, I am grateful for some valorous example he set that found an audience in my own little laundry-laden domicile during that last game. Something beautiful happened in those final four minutes of the final game of the season. My son, Val, woke me (I had dozed off… as I said, my interest in sports isn’t dyed in the wool), and said, “Mom, it was great. LeBron just stopped. They called a time out. He went over to the other team, shook their hands, and sat down for the final minutes of the game. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that great? I, for one, wish him the best, and I won’t be mad at him if he leaves. He was a miracle to watch.”
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.