LeBron James leaving hurts.
It hurts fiscally — downtown Cleveland is certainly going to lose business when the Cavaliers draw 16,000 a game for 41 home games instead of 20,000-plus for roughly 50 home games — and more important, it hurts emotionally.
I look back at his "I'm Coming Home" letter, and while I understand his rationale for leaving and am forever thankful to him for some of the greatest memories of my life in 2016, it's hard for those words not to feel a little bit hollow now.
"I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.
"I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile."
In that letter, he talked about wanting to retire in Cleveland, which makes the news he's leaving, again, particularly painful. Whether you blame James or Dan Gilbert or the Cavaliers for failing to create a championship roster, it's hard to swallow.
Yet, James' point about there being "no better place to grow up" still rings true, even if the messenger is gone. Northeast Ohio remains an amazing place, no matter how good or bad its basketball team, no matter where James is playing basketball.
Northeast Ohio is greater than one person — and our pride in Northeast Ohio, in beautiful downtown Cleveland, in the beaches lining Lake Erie, in three professional teams, in big-city amenities with small-town convenience, is greater than one person as well.
I remember my first trips to Northeast Ohio.
I remember when my college friend, Adi, first moved to Cleveland, back when we were both living in Evanston, Illinois, and I had that all-too-familiar attitude: "Cleveland? Why?"
The more I visited, the more I understood why.
Cleveland was special. There was the beauty of the lake and the beauty of the Jake. There was a wonderful art museum, for free, and a breathtaking beach, also free — trust me, living where I have lived, free isn't something to take for granted.
As time went on, as I saw the spectacular Cleveland Orchestra for the first time at spectacular Severance Hall, as I ate more than my share of fantastic Cleveland meals, I realized this place was special — and I made my own move to Northeast Ohio.
One thing I discovered upon moving to Northeast Ohio is some local residents needed a cheerleader. Cleveland had been beaten down in the national media enough that some locals had gotten sick of fighting that battle. When I told my story — of picking Cleveland over the places I had lived (Chicago and New York) and the places I could've lived — I was surprised at how much it meant.
When James announced his own decision to come back to Northeast Ohio — in my very first summer in Cleveland, no less — I'm not going to lie, it was emotional for me. It felt like he understood it, too, and he was telling the nation the same message, that Northeast Ohio is a great place to live.
That messenger is now gone — and it hurts.
But the message remains the same.
Be proud to live here. Be proud to grow up here.
This is an incredibly special place.
There aren't many places where you have world-class amenities — a nationally-renowned art museum, two amazing halls of fame (Rock and Roll and Pro Football), three professional sports teams, the beach, trendy downtown areas with terrific food — minutes away from breathtaking nature — including the Cuyahoga Valley National Park — as well as beautiful small-town America.
And all of those amenities, all of that beauty, without the prices and traffic that make life so difficult elsewhere.
The world of professional basketball may be driven, sickeningly so, by big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Every free agent will be linked to the New York Knicks as always, as awful as they are. The Lakers will always be a player to land big-name talent, while the Utah Jazz will always fly under the radar.
That's the NBA. It is what it is.
So here we are.
The national media will say, "Of course LeBron picked LA."
And I'll continue to say, "Thank God I picked Northeast Ohio."
We're luckier than most will ever know.