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LeBron James, Place and the Search for Sustainable Communities

Insights + Opinion

My Columbia colleague, Professor Mark Taylor, recently published a wonderful book about his home in western Massachusetts entitled, Recovering Place: Reflections on Stone Hill. It is a distinctive and remarkable volume on the importance of place, design, and meaning. The book is beautifully produced and includes many superb photographs of this very special place. Mark begins his volume with an observation that is key to understanding the human impact of the steamroller, global economy in which we live:

Place is disappearing. The accelerating intersection of globalization, virtualization, and cellularization is transforming the world and human life at an unprecedented rate. The fascination with speed for speeds sake is creating a culture of distraction in which thoughtful reflection and contemplation are all but impossible... As processes of globalization expand, localization contracts until place virtually disappears in a homogeneous space that is subject to constant surveillance and regulation (Taylor, 2).

The accepted wisdom of today's elite is that one should pursue personal financial gain first and worry about other values later. If you manage to get the order wrong and, like Bill or Hillary Clinton, seek public service or political power first, at some point you need to correct your "error" and cash in on a lucrative speaking tour or tell-all book to generate the moola needed to support a fabulous, material-laden lifestyle.

"You work for what you have. I'm ready to accept the challenge. I'm coming home," LeBron James

Personally, I'm not poor but I'm not rich either. And I've reluctantly come to understand the role that work and cash play in making the world safe for the people I love. My summer home is a 1,000-square-foot bungalow a block and a half from the ocean in Long Beach, NY. My year-round home is an apartment on Morningside Drive in Manhattan that is owned by my employer. My wife and I bought the Long Beach house in 1987—rebuilding its ground floor after Superstorm Sandy—and moved into our apartment on Morningside Drive in 1990. The point is, I have two homes and I have been fortunate to live in them for decades. Like my colleague Mark Taylor, place is important to me. I note the time passing by the size of the trees in Morningside Park, and the color and texture of the sky in Long Beach. The James Taylor song "The Secret of Life" is never far from my mind. As James correctly observes, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." I try very hard to hit the pause button every once in a while. I worry about the threats to place and perspective that Mark Taylor has correctly identified as the deal we've made with modernity and the costs we incur for the lifestyles we enjoy.

And while commerce will always make its demands, humans have other needs and values. Last week, LeBron James clearly articulated some of those other needs and values in his Sports Illustrated statement about his return to Cleveland. According to James:

Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It's where I walked. It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I'm their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me. I want to give them hope when I can. I want to inspire them when I can. My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now...

But this is not about the roster or the organization. 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. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I'm from. 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. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I'm ready to accept the challenge. I'm coming home.

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One of the great paradoxes of a global economy and a global communication system is that everything is accessible to everyone. There are no secrets. Opportunity and inequality has gone global. Sometimes we find that when we strive to meet the very human need to fit in and be an accepted part of a group, the need to stand out and be unique must be sacrificed. LeBron James stood out and became a winner, but winning came at a price. It is obvious that a maturing LeBron James realized this. Place, community and home provide a counterweight to the homogenization of culture, ideas, image, food and speech. Escaping to a wealthier and glitzier neighborhood like South Beach bought LeBron championships, but cost him a piece of his sense of place. Last week he reclaimed that part of himself and managed to inspire us in the process.

That sense of place is not a material resource. It is in many ways the most sustainable and renewable resource we have. It is the power of love, loyalty, shared history and human bonding. It cannot be bought for any amount of money. No matter how smart you are or how great an athlete you might be, you still must earn loyalty every day by your acts and the care and feeding of relationships that are important to you.

Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton catch the spirit of this sentiment with their recent duet "You Can't Make Old Friends." The song's lyrics are a simple and moving account of the importance and durability of friendship:

What will I do when you are gone?

Who's gonna tell me the truth?
Who's gonna finish the stories I start,
The way you always do?

When somebody knocks at the door,
Someone new walks in.
I will smile and shake their hands,
but you can't make old friends.

You can't make old friends
Can't make old friends
It was you and me, since way back when.
But you can't make old friends. 

In the video of the song, Kenny Rogers specifically discusses the need to step back from the pressures of the music business and reflect on friendships and important values. That is, of course, what LeBron James has done with his statement and his move home.

The communities of the Rust Belt have infrastructure, access to food and water, low-cost housing and room for growth. What is sometimes missing is the energy and sense of purpose that attracts people, business and new ideas. What remains present is what LeBron James is valuing: history, friendship, comfort and familiarity. The cynic searches for some hidden hustle here, but I sense LeBron's genuine growth and sense of admirable purpose. As we move our economic world from "all material consumption all the time," engaging in community life and engaging in social and intellectual discourse are ways that we can enrich ourselves without damaging the planet.

LeBron James is not rejecting the glitz and glamour that we shower on the world's greatest basketball player, but he is allowing another value to enter into the mix, something bigger than cash, championships and fame: the value of community and taking responsibility for leading that community. No matter what happens on the basketball court, he has really stepped up where it really matters. And that is very good news in a very challenging world.

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