On the John: Burn on, big river, burn on

On the John

Burn on, big river, burn on

Originally completed July 9, 2010

Growing up ain’t easy…

A nine-year-old Cleveland boy woke up this morning a new man. His world crumbled last night when the words “South Beach” fell on his ears. He was sitting in his inflatable Cleveland Cavaliers chair when it happened, wearing the child-sized JAMES 23 jersey his parents bought him for his eighth birthday. It was the only item on his list that year.

His parents told him this might happen. They prepped him gently. And the boy thought he was ready. He’d matured since his Cavs had fallen to the Magic, and more after they lost to Boston. He listened to his parents as they told him: “He might not come back, son.”

But he believed, in a way they couldn’t. “His friends are in Miami, but I don’t always go where my friends go. He’s coming back. I know it.”

His parents must have died a little, he thought. Somewhere on their journey, they lost their faith. They can’t see what I see. They’re trying to help me, but they don’t know: he’s coming back. He’s coming back.

“This fall – man, this is very tough – this fall I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach – ”

“Wait!” the boy shouted. He turned and looked at his parents, seated on the couch. He turned back to the TV, pulled the TIVO remote out of the cup holder in his inflatable Cleveland Cavaliers chair, pressed rewind. His parents watched sadly as their boy ran the feed back a few seconds:

“…this fall I’m gonna take my talents to South Beach, and join the Miami Heat.”

He rewound it again. The words came again. The same words. “…take my talents to South Beach…”

The boy placed the remote in the cup holder. His forehead began to throb. He does not like to cry in front of his parents. He knew they were behind him on the couch, just as they were during Game 6 of the Boston series when the season slunk away. “We’ll get ‘em next year,” the boy had said. “LeBron will come back and we’ll get ‘em.”

He’d gone outside that night and shot hoops in the driveway. He’d held his Cleveland Cavaliers mini-ball and stroked turn-around jumpers and desperate layups while counting in his head “3, 2, 1… Cavs win! Cavs win!”

He did not feel like playing tonight. He switched the TV off and said, “I’m going upstairs.” His parents let him go. He walked away, composed but not really. He got to his room and slammed his door harder than ever before. He paced. Short little steps, not wanting to face this. Not wanting to submit to that pain in his forehead where the tears were building.

He collapsed onto his bed, face in his pillow, and underneath his six-foot long WE ARE ALL WITNESSES poster, the boy began to cry.

Soft at first, and then more and more, his pillow case wet with pain until he pulled it up and dug his face into his mattress, pulling the pillow over his head. A knock at the door. Another. The door opens. His mother is sitting on the bed, rubbing his back as his shoulders rise and fall. His father is standing in the doorway, silent. Finally he turns over and faces them: “I never thought he’d do it. I just didn’t think…”

He trails away, puts his head on his mother’s lap, shakes his head as he looks at those outstretched arms in the poster above his bed, and now above his bedroom door where his Cleveland Cavaliers mini-rim sits, and now next to his closet where a life-size cutout of the man stands tall, and now at his desk where his Mac Book with the Cavs stickers covering the Apple casually rests as his Facebook page fills and fills and fills with notes…

******

He woke up this morning at his usual time. Looked at JAMES 23 slung over his desk chair, right where he’d tossed it after his parents finally left him. He picked it up and hung it in the closet. They tried to warn me, he thought as he brushed his teeth. Dad said, “This is how the world works.” He finished brushing and looked deep into the mirror. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d studied his own face like this. He looked into his eyes. They looked into his.

He got on the bus to go to camp. Not much was said. Not on the bus, and not during the day. The counselors tried to lift the spirits, but theirs were dampened too.

We were all witnesses. (AP Photo courtesy of Sandusky Register)

Autumn came. The first autumn Sunday. The boy’s grandparents came to the house for dinner, as was the custom. Talk that evening was of the afternoon’s football games, and the Cleveland Browns dud performance in Tampa, 14-3. The boy thought they would win that one, too.

“Wait till next year,” his grandfather laughed.

His grandfather had said the same a year earlier when the Browns were whipped at home by Minnesota. As they talked about today’s Tampa Bay game, the boy thought back to last year, and how he thought his grandfather was being unnecessarily negative. After all, the season had only just started!

“Wait till next year,” the boy said, sadly miming his grandfather’s countenance.

Last year, he did not understand. This year, he did. Since that horrible July night, he’d gone to the history books. Turns out his hero’s departure was not the first time Cleveland’s sports teams had been dealt a loser’s hand. “So, I guess the Cavs aren’t going to win a championship this year, huh Dad,” he’d said a few weeks later, when it had all sunk in.

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“When was the last one?”

“The last one what?” his father asked him.

“You know. When did the Cavs win the championship?”

“They never have,” his father told him.

“Never?”

His father shook his head.

“Well we still have the Indians.” He looked at his father, who did not seem thrilled as to where this conversation was headed. “When did the Indians win a championship?”

“1948,” his father said glumly.

1948, the boy thought, reviewing the year in his head. “But you were born in… when were you born?”

“1970,” his father answered.

“Whoa…” The boy was silent for a long time after this. “And the Browns?”

“1964,” his father said.

“1964,” the boy said.

******

The boy graduated from high school in June 2019. He was headed out of state, as far out of state as he could possibly travel. Off to Pepperdine with an academic scholarship and a trip to the j-school. He’d received a scholarship to in-state Bowling Green as well, but who wants to stay in-state? His mother, for one. Which was a perfect reason to get out.

Besides, he thought, it’s enough already with this cold weather! Malibu… beaches… girls… the ocean… Yes, Pepperdine sounds lovely.

That summer, after four championships in nine South Beach seasons, LeBron James signed a two-year deal to return to Cleveland. There was no hour-long special this time; with Dwyane Wade enjoying retirement and three more Finals MVPs to his name, with Chris Bosh finishing his career in Dallas, the 34-year-old James announced his move home in a quiet press conference, his wife and children by his side and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert eagerly shaking his hand. “This is a proud day for the Cleveland Cavaliers,” Gilbert told the cameras. “The prodigal son, home at last…”

The boy was not watching that press conference. On that night in mid-July, he was enjoying a beach bonfire with his closest friends, “the band of eight” his grandfather had dubbed them before he passed away.

The boy’s iJolt twitched in his pocket. The news scrolled across the screen: “LeBron James signs two-year deal with Cleveland Cavaliers.”

“Can you believe it?” the boy laughed. “Now he comes back! We just can’t get that timing right, eh?”

He placed his iJolt back in his pocket and poked at the fire with a stick. Only two of “the band of eight” were staying in Ohio for school. But apart from the boy, all of them were staying within rock-skipping distance of the Ohio River. They’d known – as all high schoolers know – that their time together was ending. The feeling struck them the summer before, out on this very beach: “Next year, guys. Next year, we’ll be doing this, and it will be the last time. We’ll come back for Thanksgiving, for the winter, for the summer, and we’ll be together. But it will never be the same.”

The boy thought back to those words. He smiled, a tinge of future nostalgia hitting him square. He would miss his friends, and yes, things might never be the same.

In his heart, though, he knew: it was time to move on.

Copyright 2010, jm silverstein

*** JULY 11, 2014 UPDATE***

THE PRODIGAL SONRETURNS. And does so five years before the above column predicted.

That suits Dan Gilbert just fine. Micky Arison? Not so much.

More on LeBron from Jack M Silverstein:

July 8, 2010: Keeping it all in house

May 14, 2010: The Waste Land

April 26, 2010: Shot through the heart

April 23, 2010: King Crane Fly James battles the Bulls

April 18, 2010: Enjoying the show in the NBA playoffs

April 13, 2010: Let them eat Cubs

June 1, 2009: More than just a puppet

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3 Replies to “On the John: Burn on, big river, burn on”

  1. Excellent. Very moving and profound with autobiographical elements that put this writer in a league with Rick Reilly and Frank Deford.

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