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Native Clevelander revels in LeBron James' return

Clevelanders hail the return of LeBron James, who left northeast Ohio for Miami

I've lived in Los Angeles for almost 35 years, but I still call Cleveland home. That's why I spent four years hating LeBron James — and why I spent the past four days celebrating his return to a city that needs him in ways that Miami never could.

This is not about basketball; I can't name a single player on the roster of the Cavaliers team that LeBron is about to rejoin.

This is about Clevelanders' emotional bond to a man whose fealty once lifted — and betrayal later shredded — our collective self-esteem.

LeBron is more than a sports icon in the Rust Belt cities of northeast Ohio, where he was born and raised. He's an economic engine for a sputtering city, and a tailor-made riposte to all those jokes about what a loser Cleveland has been.

Even now, sportswriters, bloggers and random fans commenting on LeBron's move from Miami can't resist resorting to snark and recycled gags about how dumb and downtrodden we are.

Players will go to Cleveland — CLEVELAND — to play with LeBron James, an incredulous friend, born and raised in Los Angeles, opined on Facebook on Friday.

Another post resurrected a 45-year-old incident that sealed our status as a national laughingstock: People in Cleveland are so happy, they're going to set the river on fire again.

Even our Times' story about Cleveland sports fans' reactions on talk radio played our heady delight for look-at-those-hicks laughs.

Expats know you can't claim Cleveland without bracing for digs. We even have a saying that aims to undercut the insults: "Cleveland's a great place to be from"... accent on the from.

The subtext is clear; we're glad we got out. But the deeper meaning of that phrase is just as important. Growing up in the Cleveland area was character-building. It required grit, resilience and hustle; and it taught respect and fostered loyalty.

That's what LeBron conveyed in his essay explaining his return to the team where he began his pro career.

"In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given," he wrote. "Everything is earned. You work for what you have."

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Cleveland's a city accustomed to struggle and unafraid of rough edges. LeBron grew up 30 miles away in Akron, once known as the Rubber Capital of the World.

His hometown was part of a trio of satellite cities — along with Youngstown and Warren — whose fading fortunes were tied, like Cleveland's, to the failure of steel mills, industrial plants and tire factories.

The Cleveland I remember was a city perpetually divided: east versus west, black versus white. Sports were not only our most important diversion, but our only unifying force.

Landing LeBron in 2003 was like winning the lottery. His presence turned the Cavaliers into an instant contender and pumped $50 million a year into the city's anemic economy. New restaurants opened, hotels filled up, revenue at bars, parking lots and shopping venues soared.

More than that, he gave the long-suffering region a sense of credibility. I could feel the difference in my visits home, where giant murals of King James dotted the landscape and gold jerseys were everywhere.

Cleveland didn't have glitzy night life or dazzling celebrities, but it had a superstar who modeled values we'd always believed in. In the hokey parlance of my hometown, he was nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel.

His departure broke the city's heart because of the way he left. He sprang the news in a humiliating televised performance, dumping his working-class wallflower for a seductive beauty queen without a backward glance.

That's why fans burned their jerseys, defaced his murals and rooted against him every chance they got.

And it's why on Friday afternoon, work stopped, the streets filled and the partying began.

The King is coming home.

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It's not a total love fest yet. The feelings when he left were so intense, some fans need time to heal. Some say they'll always consider him a traitor and never forgive him. Others say his comeback essay — giving props to Cleveland — has wiped the slate clean.

I shouldn't have blamed LeBron for leaving; I left Cleveland too. He wanted a championship ring. I wanted to lounge on the beach in winter, instead of shoveling snow.

Hundreds of thousands of people have made that exodus over the years. The Cleveland of my childhood was the nation's 10th largest city. "The Best Location in the Nation," city fathers called it then.

Now it's dropped to 48th place — its population barely the size it was in 1900 — and is better known by the moniker "The Mistake on the Lake."

Still, putting Cleveland in the rear-view mirror was harder than I thought. It gives me some comfort that LeBron discovered that too.

I still remember my family waving goodbye in the driveway, after appealing, one weepy final time, for me to change my mind. I spent my first few hours on the road peering at the highway through glasses smeared with tears.

I didn't know it then, but I realize now that Cleveland isn't a city you ever really leave behind. It's who I am, not simply where I started from.

One of the first things I unpacked in 1979 when I arrived in Encino was an ugly yellow T-shirt I'd rarely worn back home. It bore a silhouette of the city's skyline, smokestacks and all, and beneath it, a slogan I hoped would prop me up when Los Angeles brought me down.

I don't have the T-shirt anymore, but the message still resounds: Cleveland — You've Got to Be Tough.

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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