By then, we knew what inevitability looked like and it did not look like this. It did not look like the young man in the white suit, white shirt, white necktie, a uniform that looked too big for him and yet for that very reason seemed the right size.
We knew what inevitability looked like.
We knew it from Earnest Byner and the burning river and the long struggle of the steel mill and the wry nightly declarations of Joe Tait.
Or I did, anyway. You could hardly blame me. My first job was as a ball boy for those Cleveland Cavaliers. My first boss was Ted Stepien. My first exposure to professional basketball was in a perpetually desolate Richfield Coliseum, watching a team drag through the longest losing streak in NBA history, night after night tending to men of unfathomable promise as they sat in their wooden cubicles, ice bags taped to their knees, faces blank. They never seemed angry or bitter. Just resigned.
I watched it that night with my 8-year-old son, the two of us sitting together at the end of the bed, the glow of the television lighting our faces. June 26, 2003. By then, my son had lived half his life believing in the absolute promise of LeBron James, who played basketball at the school across the street from his own school, whose image from the hometown newspaper was Scotch-taped to his bedroom door, whose cousin played on his Little League team.
We all knew what was about to happen. It had been two months since those draft-lottery ping pong balls had dropped, Cleveland emerging first from the randomized lot. Two months since team chairman Gordon Gund had announced who the choice would be. It would be him, “the kid from Akron,” “The Chosen One,” the most promising athlete in the world, the one from a place whose narrative had hardened into a generational fact: the greater their promise, the more likely they’ll leave.
League commissioner David Stern’s voice came through the television speaker. “With the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft … the Cleveland Cavaliers select … LeBron James.”
We knew that’s what we were going to hear and yet with the syllables of that name, the boy sitting beside me erupted as though he himself had been chosen, backflipping onto the mattress, screaming, little fists raised in victorious clench, no idea how improbable this was. All I could do then was hope.
David Giffels' most recent book is Barnstorming Ohio To Understand America.