Lebron James, Welcome Home

In the winter of 2003 I was walking through my college quad when I decided to call my parents.  Usually available, I was surprised when they said that they couldn’t talk because they were going to the University of Akron to watch some high school student who was supposed to be this big new star in the NBA.  To be honest, I was a bit skeptical.

Yet, just a few months later LeBron James was the clear first round draft pick by the fledgling Cleveland Cavaliers – my home team!  This is it, thought everyone from Cleveland, we’re going to finally win a championship.  When I lived in Cleveland in 2004 I went to see James play, and I remember that while the other players ran, jumped, and shot, James seemed to danced on the court, displaying a grace and fluidness that distinguished his talent from other players’ skill.   Yet year after year, despite his unbelievable talent as a basketball player, James couldn’t carry the entire Cavs team to a victory.  One man alone cannot win a championship.

In 2010, solidly recognized as the top player in the NBA, James earned his free-agency and, as to be expected, was courted by several teams.  Rather than simply deciding what team was the best for him, he made a spectacle of his future in an hour-long ESPN special called “the decision.”  After an hour of ego-aggrandizement James announced he would be leaving the Cavs and joining the Miami Heat.

“It’s not what he did, it’s how he did it.” Has been my party line for the past four years.

Even though James raised millions of dollars for charities that fateful evening, I felt betrayed as a Clevelander, and I have disliked James ever since.

As I work to let go, I feel even more ashamed for bearing a grudge when I read that Lebron has realized that his actions were not a reflection of his best self.

Since leaving Cleveland, James has on occasion mentioned that, in hind-sight, perhaps his actions were not the best: in 2010 he said that he “would probably do it a little bit different,” and then two years later “..if the shoe was on the other foot and I was a fan, and I was very passionate about one player, and he decided to leave, I would be upset too about the way he handled it.”  Finally, this past July, James decided to return to Cleveland, but most importantly, he published a letter announcing his decision in Sports Illustrated:

“If I had to do it all over again,” he wrote, “I’d obviously do things differently, but I’d still have left…. I’m not having a press conference or a party. After this, it’s time to get to work. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes as well.[1]

Maimonides teaches that perfect t’shuvah, perfect repentance, occurs when one finds himself in the exact same situation as he had previously transgressed, and chooses to do the right thing because he has learned from his mistakes and is working to be the best person he can be.  In the months before the High Holy Days, LeBron is not only returning to Cleveland, but is teaching us how to engage in t’shuvah.

In announcing his return to Cleveland, Lebron didn’t have another two hour television special and he didn’t flout his ego, he simply wrote a short letter to Sports Illustrated and returned to Cleveland.  No doubt he has been forgiven for his transgressions of ego-aggrandizement, which ultimately rest with him and God, but what about the hurt that he has caused his fans?

In his letter, he addresses the fact that his fans called him every name in the book and that people even burned his Jerseys (I was not one of those people, for the record).  He attempts to see the world through their eyes, and concludes: “Who am I to hold a grudge?”[2]

We all bear grudges.  Like most actions in life, two parties are involved when a person hurts another: the person who commits an act that hurts another, and the one who gets hurt.   We have all been hurt before, whether by a basketball star, a family member, a friend, co-worker, or even a stranger.  People may hurt us intentionally or accidentally, and as we are commanded, we shouldn’t hold a grudge.  We should forgive.

The Torah states: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart…you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people.  Love your neighbor as your self: I am the eternal.[3]”  For the past four years I have held a grudge against a member of my people – against a fellow Clevelander, and I am only worse for holding my grudge.   As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I ask for foregiveness: Al cheit shechatatanu l’faneicha, for the sin we have committed against you in holding grudges, s’lach lanu, forgive us.

The rabbis interpret this verse to lead us to a positive commandment as well: we must forgive someone if they are truly sorry and ask us for forgiveness.

The second half of the verse gives us a reason: when we harbor grudges, hate burns within our hearts, and we cease treating others as we want to be treated.  If someone calls us a bad name, for example, and we respond by calling them a bad name, either to their face or to a friend, we find we not only hurt someone else but we end up hurting ourselves.  Love thy neighbor as yourself, we are told.

In order to love we must forgive.  T’shuvah, with all of the challenges of changing our behavior, looks like cake compared to forgiveness.  Pain can simmer within us for a long time, even if the person who hurt us expressed remorse, changed, and apologized for their actions.  Forgiveness requires a change in our emotions and thoughts, instead of changing our actions, and, if we have been hurt, forgiving can be tough.

As we approach the High Holy Days and we focus on our behavior, and we ask forgiveness for transgressions we committed knowingly and unknowingly.  Just the same we must also focus on forgiving those who have apologized to us, those who do not know that they hurt us, and also those who know but have yet to seek forgiveness.  You shall not bear a grudge.

If Lebron James can get over people burning his jerseys, surely I can get over him hurting my Cleveland pride.  Lebron, I forgive you, and I welcome you back to Cleveland with open arms.

May 5775 be a year of forgiveness and love, and hopefully a Cleveland sports championship.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] LeBron: I’m coming back to Cleveland http://www.si.com/nba/2014/07/11/lebron-james-cleveland-cavaliers

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lev. 19:17-18

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