It’s the summer of 2024, precisely ten years after now-President LeBron James electrified the world by making the ultimate sacrifice, ending his reign in Miami, going back to his humble roots in northeast Ohio to play again for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
You probably remember where you were when you heard. I do. I was in a taxi, in Oslo, rushing to the airport after my Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, heading back to the U.S. on a very tight schedule — Presidential Medal of Freedom award; address to the UN General Assembly — when the driver excitedly told me the news (all of Norway was abuzz; with cross-country ski season over, what else was there to talk about?).
As I flew back, I could only speculate on James’s motivation — clearly his love for his hometowns, Akron and Cleveland; possibly the desire to lift them out of decades of decline. It couldn’t have been money or achievement. He was rich beyond imagination and already had enough NBA championships and MVPs for any mortal.
I considered how my own accomplishments — a PhD, an MD, four years as Governor of New York, eight years in the U.S. Senate, the cure for cancer — almost measured up to his. And I decided that I too would devote myself to the renaissance of my hometown — Syracuse NY.
The parallels between Cleveland and Syracuse were striking: formerly robust, quintessentially middle-class industrial cities, now hollowed out, poverty-ridden, depressed and depressing. I was convinced I could make a difference.
When I returned to Syracuse, though I wasn’t nearly the superstar LeBron was, my accomplishments got me a prominent place at the table. I pushed for, and got, major improvements in local schools and in Syracuse University, which could partner a revival of the schools and, together with them, stimulate new business and industry. I saw that investment in infrastructure could revive the city’s role as a major northeast transportation hub.
But it all collapsed, and it was precisely because of LeBron and what he did in Cleveland. I’m not blaming him. He focused on what he knew — basketball. As he remade the Cavaliers into winners, the city became increasingly basketball-obsessed. Every empty lot became a basketball court; high schools and universities graduated more basketball players than budding scholars. By 2018, Cleveland was single-handedly feeding the world-wide basketball boom and receiving from its homegrown stars more in foreign remittances than the Philippines and Latin America combined.
Syracusans watched, discouraged, as Cleveland soared, seemingly without effort, while they sweated out every SAT point increase, every additional physics grad, every newly paved mile. With the University already a basketball mini-Mecca, copying Cleveland looked natural and easy. My plans fell apart faster than the old Solvay Process plant. But basketball turned out a dead-end for Syracuse. It couldn’t begin to catch up. After all, when you’re talking about the basketball industry, there’s only one LeBron and one Cleveland.
I’m not bitter. It was worth a try. But, if I had to do it over, I’d be out in the back yard practicing jump-shots, the hell with the extra chemistry experiment Miss Swindells wanted me to try or the Graham Greene novel Mr. Berrigan knew would be an inviting challenge.