Home, or the concept of home, always seems to play an important part in the discussion of sports. And now, an entire city celebrates the biggest homecoming in all of sports history. After all of this, after all of the cupcakes and HTML and #sources and most perfect, blatant examples of here-say to ever slap you in the face, it’s finally real.
Signed, sealed, delivered, LeBron James is yours (again) Cleveland.
Except, this isn’t really about LeBron James. Well, it is about LeBron but it’s also about Lionel Messi and the World Cup. It’s about how we talk about athletes and their homes and belonging to a place. So it’s about a lot of things I guess.
Yesterday, after having watched enough Summer League basketball for one day, I went to the media break room to watch the end of the Argentina-Netherlands match (I was not alone in this endeavor, as dozens upon dozens of European scouts, coaches and executives did so as well). I arrived just in time for Lionel Messi’s penalty kick.
I don’t profess to be anything close to a soccer expert. There are many parallels to draw between soccer and basketball. Success in both sports depends upon spacing, precise ball movement, stout defense and even star power. But the similarities don’t stop with strategy. These are romantic sports, elegant and worthy of poetry. Baseball is nostalgic, while football is violent, and both start and stop too often to have any sort of rhythm. If we’re to think about these sports as languages,baseball would be English — plain, mundane with bits of excitement and character mixed in — while football would be, I don’t know, Dutch. Basketball and soccer were languages, they would be French or Italian — lyrical, musical even, with crescendos and decrescendos, fortissimo and pianissimos.
To know one sport is to have at least comfort with the other. The same goes with the stars of the two sports. Even the most casual of sports fans, even probably most non-sports fans, know about Lionel Messi, but I think basketball fans have a greater familiarity with him.
Messi is especially recognizable because he’s so very much like LeBron James, both in how he plays and how he’s discussed and analyzed. They are both the constant center of attention, even when they don’t have the ball. They routinely execute the impossible and make it seem routine in the process. To know LeBron is to know Messi. To know the criticism of LeBron, especially in regards to him being clutch and whether he can Win The Big One, is to know the same criticism Messi faces. To know LeBron’s strange relationship with his hometown is to know Messi’s similar struggle (of course, the mass of coverage surrounding Messi and Argentina in this World Cup helps with that knowledge too).
So when Messi lined up to take his penalty shot, his contribution to sending his team, his country to the World Cup final, I couldn’t help but think of everything LeBron had gone through to reach the NBA finals again. But I also thought of what he and Cleveland had been through since he left; the anger and pain he’d incited and the hope and forgiveness his free agency instilled. There’s no excusing how LeBron left the city and the team the first time, but I can’t help but wonder if it hurt him, too — leaving the only thing he’d ever known and to witness such animosity at his decision. LeBron returns to Cleveland with the entire city’s arms spread wide. The Native Son returns, a tale too fairly tale even for Disney. And when Messi kicked the ball — casually, as natural and easy as breathing — sending it doubtlessly into the net, I thought about everything he’d endured just to get to this point. I wondered if this would finally be enough not for those who doubt him, because they are rarely ever silenced, but for those who want him to be Maradona, which he’ll never be, or those who don’t want him to succeed because of what’s essentially a turf war. I wondered if it’d be enough for him to be welcomed home by both sides of his city, no longer belonging to one faction or another but wholly and finally to Argentina for the country to celebrate.