If we were cool, this wouldn't matter. Or it wouldn't matter the way it did, the way it does. Or even if it did, we'd act like it didn't. But Cleveland isn't cool. Akron isn't cool. Canton, Warren, Elyria, Ashtabula. We're other things. We're sincere, intense, patient, scarred, a little twisted. We're faithful. We're tenacious. We care. A lot. LeBron James is one of us. I've watched him since he was a kid, and I've always believed that. He's someone who has virtually nothing in common with any single one of us, but a single thing in common with all of us. He is from here and of here in a way that only those of us who are from here and of here can fully understand.
That's why his coming back is important. Not because it means we might finally win a championship (although it does), or that the region will feel an economic upsurge (although it will), or that we can share the glow of one of the world's most famous celebrities (although we can).
It's that, in an America where digital interaction and homogenized culture have eroded our true, organic sense of place, James embraces the notion that "home" really is important. That it matters to be in a place that feels real and right.
The human journey, large or small, is always about finding the place where one belongs. James — a superstar who would seem to live in a globe-encompassing unreality where comfort is everywhere and "place" is irrelevant — announced in simple, direct, very Ohio terms that this is where he belongs.
He knows things we know. That we have highly breakable hearts. That we pay attention, keep close track of our gains and losses, that they matter. We have long memories, because in a place with far more old-timers than newcomers, memories are their own sacred code.
He knows hard work is our nature, and it's the only way places like ours get ahead. When we landed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in the mid-1980s, it wasn't because we were cooler than the other finalists, places like Memphis and New York. We aren't. It was because we cared more and tried harder.
The same thing went down this summer with the 2016 Republican National Convention. The other contenders — Denver, Dallas, Las Vegas — have plenty more glamour and sex appeal. But we beat them.
And South Beach is nothing if not cool, yet LeBron's coming back here. In this case, it's not so much that we beat Miami, but that James decided he belongs in a place that tries harder and cares more — a real place that he knows.
In any other narrative, James would make a brilliant metaphor. The greatest value of his return would be symbolic. But in this case there is no metaphor. It's straight up.
Some skeptics have read that Sports Illustrated letter and suggested it was a calculated, maybe even cynical, public relations move, that James was saying what he thought we wanted to hear. But James knows what we know: You can't fake it. Not here.