Friday, October 24, 2014

Coming Home Can Be a Winning Strategy

Once upon a time he was just a kid, now he's coming home a champion.

Forget what the old adage is, you can go home again. You just have to have your head and heart open to what might happen there.

Six years ago, I moved back to my hometown after being away for 29 years. I lived a whole life mostly far away from the place where my life began. It was college and professional life, some success and some heartbreak.

Next week when the NBA season begins again, LeBron James returns home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers after spending four sesasons with the Miami Heat. In a Sports Illustrated story last summer, the four-time MVP from nearby Akron said leaving Cleveland to go to Miami was his college education, the growing-up that every adult has to do. 

I liked that comparison, even if it might have been a slick PR move. James sought the bright lights of the bigger market and won two championships. But unlike so many superstars who chase that, he came back. And he came home before the twilight of his career. This isn’t Henry Aaron coming to the Milwaukee Brewers to be a DH for a few final seasons, this isn’t O.J. Simpson playing for his hometown San Francisco 49ers when he could barely move. This is a superstar coming home young and fit, an intriguing situation no matter the outcome.

Coming home isn’t for everyone. I can understand why some people might think it inconceivable. But doing so can create a certain kind of joy, one that is so esoterically difficult to describe that the Germans probably do have a word for it. 

That being said, and because I’m sure he’s really paying attention to me, I’ve got a few tips for LeBron James as he begins the next step of his professional career at home. It isn’t easy. But if it works out, King James, trust me: The joy will be indescribable.

People will call you by your sister’s name: OK, I don’t know if you have a sister, LeBron. I don’t even know if you have a brother. But when you go back home, people often just generally know who your family is, maybe not specifically who you are. That’s not a bad thing, if you don’t have siblings who are wanted by the law. 

Usually it’s OK. Sometimes I don't even notice. Once, though, there was a guy who mistook me for my sister – who I do resemble - and when I corrected him, he said, “Really?” as if I did not know who I was. When he said, “Really?” a second time, I called him by his brother’s name. 

Everyone has an opinion about what you do: I'm a reporter, so people tell me over my morning scone that their paper didn’t show up that day. You, LeBron, make millions of dollars and probably should have to answer for everything in your organization even if it’s not your responsibility. Even so, don’t be surprised if someone you went to high school with complains about the price of beer at Quicken Loans Arena. Or maybe about the actual name of Quicken Loans Arena.

You spend a lot of time at the funeral home: This was one of the biggest surprises of all, something that never occurred to me. Suddenly you are entwined again with the people who were part of your life in ways you didn’t think of until you returned home, and sometimes they, or their parents or siblings, die. At some point you just realize it’s your place to be there, to be part of what helps bring people comfort. It sounds morbid, but trust me, it’s not.

You truly feel the expectations of people around you: Working in a visible job, one that people have opinions about, in your hometown has its own set of challenges that go with the joys. For every hand-written note that comes to you at your home address telling you “Your mother would be proud” comes a voicemail on your home phone from someone telling you something you should have done better. Writing a story that touches on topics that are familiar to the people around you is nerve-wracking enough, I can’t imagine trying to win them a championship.

You communicate via hug: Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Sometimes it’s the only way to communicate. Something terrible happened to someone you’ve known forever and you see them walking down the street or in your coffee shop or the grocery store. You know, they know you know, you both know there’s nothing that can be said so all you do is wordlessly hug them. I’m not one of those demonstrative, warm grade-school teacher types to whom hugs come so naturally, but in this case it’s as natural as can be.

You find out your teachers have first names: And they will want you to call them by their first name. You will not be able to. Ever. 

You become aware of who has dementia: Twice in recent years I have had people in my community tell me to say hello to my dad for them. Both times it was a heartbreaking revelation and both times I said, “Sure.” My dad died in 1999.

You will remember the goofiest things about people: Maybe it’s the way someone walks or the way they wear their hat. Suddenly you realize that’s someone you’ve known your entire life and maybe have never even spoken to. But after all these years, they have a bounce in their step that’s unmistakable, are wearing a certain kind of scarf they've always worn or there's a voice you hear in a doctor's office or a bagel shop that you don't even remember that you remember. 

It’s them – the person who’s been in the background of your life forever and you never realized until now. Now you’ll see them everywhere, and they’ll help you know one big thing: You are home.