Thirteen months after he departed the White House, Theodore Roosevelt marched into Paris and delivered a poignant, timeless speech that is still referenced today.
Richard Nixon mentioned it when he both arrived and left office. Nelson Mandela once gave a copy to the captain of the South African rugby team and countless American athletes have acknowledged using it as inspiration before pivotal moments.
LeBron James used it as a map to find his way home.
Roosevelt was touring Europe and speaking to crowds of thousands when he delivered his Citizenship in a Republic speech at Sorbonne in 1910. The 140-word excerpt popularly referred to as “Man in the Arena” resonated with James 100 years later.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … if he fails, at least (he) fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
James meditated on those words during and after the 2010-11 season, his first in Miami, when the entire world turned on him overnight. He stopped listening to those with no dust on their face and continued to ignore them in July when the thought of James talking to the Cavaliers about a return seemed foolish to executives across the NBA.
“It’ll be a short conversation,” one prominent agent told the Beacon Journal in May. “No thank you and have a nice day.”
Ultimately it really was a short conversation. James and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert patched up four years of differences in one night and LeBron was soon back in that familiar No. 23. Motivated by the 50-year title drought that has dehydrated this region, James is now armed with the tools necessary to cleanse this broken fan base.
“He left to win a championship and he won multiple championships,” said James Jones, one of LeBron’s closest allies who followed him from Miami to Cleveland. “He left to compete on the highest level and we went to four straight Finals. When you factor in those accomplishments, the one thing that was still elusive was the chance to do that at home.
“LeBron is very driven and he takes that challenge seriously. He feels that he’s equipped and he’s in this place, in this time, to be able to do it. He’s taking it on. Even if it’s not what other people thought or expected, he expects to be the guy to bring a championship to Cleveland.”
James left South Beach for Edgewater Park consciously sacrificing present success for future gains. The Heat team he left was much closer to championships than the Cavs roster he joined — the one with Sergey Karasev, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Carrick Felix. But James finally stopped obsessing over rings right about the time he finally won a couple.
“I didn’t envision our team being like this right off the bat. I did sacrifice the right now for the future,” he said. “What’s funny is the team was a small [part] of me coming back. It had nothing much to do with the team, it was more about these fans and the city and the people here and the people who watched me grow from when I first picked up a basketball at age 8 to now at 29.
“I felt like me coming, we could hopefully add some pieces. Obviously it happened quicker than I thought.”
Just as Roosevelt was one of the most powerful and influential leaders of the 20th century, so is James to the 21st century sports world. He is constantly atop “most powerful” lists, he’s not afraid to tackle social issues and he has evolved into a marketing superstar. Locally, the Cavs sold out of season tickets the same day he announced his return.
When his essay was released in the early afternoon on July 11, the sleepy lunch crowd inside Harry Buffalo exploded. The sports bar is about a full-court shot away from Quicken Loans Arena, and suddenly patrons were celebrating as if the Cavs had already won a championship.
“The night he left with ‘The Decision,’ people in here were running into the streets crying and screaming,” Harry Buffalo General Manager Caitlin Cassidy said. “When he announced he was coming back, people did not go back to work. They immediately started drinking like it was a holiday. People left work and came in — you couldn’t move in here. People were running to the Q screaming with signs … It was really cool.”
James has evolved into the unofficial league spokesman on all topics from uniform styles to the length of seasons and collective-bargaining agreement negotiations. When James speaks, the rest of the league is listening.
“There are not many players who can come in that young and understand the magnitude of what he stands for and what he brings,” said Dallas Mavericks veteran Tyson Chandler, who won gold with James during the 2012 London Olympics. “Not only what he brings to this organization, but what he brings to the city he’s playing in. With that comes a lot of responsibility and he’s never shied away from it.”
Embracing his hometown
A number of players in all sports would like to avoid playing in their hometown, but James is embracing it.
Ken Griffey Jr. might be the closest comparison after he orchestrated a trade to the Cincinnati Reds while in his prime, but injuries prevented him from ever winning a World Series ring, and the marriage ended badly.
Cal Ripken Jr. grew up near Baltimore, Derrick Rose was raised on the south side of Chicago and a young Byron Scott avoided trouble in some of Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods. Ripken and Scott ultimately won championships with their hometown teams. James can only hope he’s next.
“It takes a special player to be able to do that,” said Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, who grew up in Oakland, Calif. “Not just because of the ticket requests, but everybody wants you to do appearances. But if there is someone who can do it, he can.”
There was a time when James was obsessed with winning a title. That was before he had one, when he foolishly proclaimed the Heat would win “not five, not six, not seven” championships. That was before he truly understood how difficult it was to win just one.
“It’s the hardest thing you can ever do in your basketball career,” he says now.
He’s no longer obsessed with chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan’s six championships, Kobe Bryant’s five or even Bill Russell’s 11. James is now focused on simply bringing at least one to Cleveland.
If he wanted to keep chasing rings, James could’ve won more elsewhere. He could’ve stayed in Miami or teamed up with Bryant in Los Angeles or joined Dwight Howard and James Harden in Houston. He could’ve stuffed his hall of fame bust with mercenary championships, but he didn’t. That could eventually damage his final standing among the all-time greats, but James stopped caring how others viewed his career about the time he stopped listening to social media and started listening to Roosevelt.
“I know deep down he really wants to bring a championship back to his hometown,” Chandler said. “As a young kid and then to get drafted here, that had to be his vision of what he thought his career would be.
“I’m pretty sure that’s why he came back. He felt like it was the right thing to do and clearly that’s what he’s chasing.”
Before Roosevelt departed Paris, he reminded the crowd: “The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”
The dust is on LeBron James’ face. The sweat is on his brow. The most powerful man in the NBA will soon discover whether or not he’s strong enough to carry Northeast Ohio to glory.
“This summer, would anyone have thought he could be pushing for a championship at home? No,” Jones said. “But it goes to show you when you’re convicted of something and you buy into it, you can move mountains.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.