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There’s No Place Like Home?

Note to LeBron James: The hero treatment doesn’t always last for athletes who return to play for their hometown teams

Author Joe Lemire Illustration Ryan Inzana

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When the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in an essay on Sports Illustrated’s website in July, he never actually named the franchise. He referred to Northeast Ohio, Cleveland or his birthplace of Akron 10 times, omitting the word “Cavaliers.” The implication was clear: He was motivated by a return home.

James’ departure from Cleveland was always complicated. Though he won two MVPs in seven seasons and guided the Cavaliers to their first NBA Finals appearance, he spurned them in “The Decision,” the nationally televised special in which he infamously announced that he would “take [his] talents to South Beach.” Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert blasted James in an open letter, calling the move a “cowardly betrayal” and a “shocking act of disloyalty.”

Four years later—during which time James collected two more MVPs and led Miami to four straight NBA Finals, winning two titles—the future Hall of Famer felt the draw of home, returning to don a Cavs jersey for the October 30 season opener. At 29 years old, married with two sons and his wife expecting a girl, James wrote, “I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown.” He also acknowledged that it took time to learn that his “relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.”

There has always been an allure to playing at home for athletes. Who doesn’t want to be revered in his hometown? The appeal for athletes who return home, as for all of us, is family and familiarity. Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley was born in Oakland, California, and grew up just a few minutes away in Fremont. After the Chicago Cubs traded him to the Oakland A’s in April 1987, he moved back into his childhood bedroom for his first month with his new team.

“That’s the best part of it,” says Eckersley, now a Red Sox broadcaster for NESN. “Looking back, those were the greatest years of my life—and for my family. My dad and mom came to every game from 1987 until I left at the end of ’95. What a gift that was to give to them.”

The family connection was important for another All-Star pitcher who returned home. When Roger Clemens joined fellow Texan and New York Yankee Andy Pettitte in going to the Lone Star State and the Houston Astros in 2004, the team allowed him to skip road trips when he wasn’t pitching and to watch his sons play their amateur games. It worked out for the team, as Pettitte and Clemens led the Astros to their first and only World Series appearance, in 2005.

Eckersley had similar success on the field. While he actually grew up a San Francisco Giants fan—the A’s didn’t move from Kansas City to Oakland until he was a teenager—he helped his new home team reach three straight World Series, defeating the Giants in 1989. As a bonus, he shared that championship with two star teammates who were also from Oakland, pitcher Dave Stewart and Hall of Fame outfielder Rickey Henderson.

While success stories abound, playing close to home can also turn into a minefield. Eckersley points out that returning to the Bay Area as a 32-year-old, 12 years after making his Major League debut for the Cleveland Indians, gave him time and space to develop as a professional. He believes the social influences would have been detrimental had he played for Oakland at age 20; he would have had to fulfill 30 to 40 ticket requests per game from his old cronies.

“It would have been impossible,” says Eckersley. “It would have been very distracting, to say the least.”

The wisdom of age doesn’t always help athletes avoid such distractions. Take the case of superstar outfielder Darryl Strawberry’s return to Los Angeles in 1991. In his first year with the Dodgers, Strawberry made the All Star team, but injuries limited him to 75 games over the next two seasons, and drug and alcohol problems prompted a stay at the Betty Ford Center. Strawberry would later tell the Los Angeles Times that his hometown enabled his off-field problems: “It was easier for me [in LA]. I grew up there and knew all the back streets.” Friends and associates told the paper that Strawberry couldn’t shake loose from bad influences, and he would later admit that he shouldn’t have gone home. “Darryl thinks he let his whole hometown down,” then Dodgers general manager Fred Claire told the paper. “Can you imagine how that must feel?”

Another ill-fated homecoming was that of Stephon Marbury. The New York Knicks traded for Marbury, an all-star point guard and Brooklyn native, to great fanfare in January 2004. In his five years back home, however, Marbury feuded with two head coaches, was banned from the team and had his contract bought out early. The New York Daily News called him the “most reviled athlete in New York.” Fans in the Big Apple can be especially unforgiving, but Marbury at least understood that he’d be a target as the highest-paid player on a losing team, telling the paper in 2008, “By me growing up here, I know you get the glory when you win, and you get what you get when you lose.” During a sexual harassment case against the Knicks, the married Marbury testified that he had had sex with an intern in the back of his truck. Afterward, he told a crowded elevator of reporters, “Money makes you do crazy things, man.”

Not even being the son of a local icon can guarantee a happily-ever-after. In November 1999, Ken Griffey Jr. asked the Seattle Mariners to trade him so he could be closer to his family, and four months later they sent him to Cincinnati, where as a kid he had tagged along to the ballpark with his father, an All Star who won two World Series with the Big Red Machine in the 1970s. Griffey hit 40 home runs in his first season there, but struggled with injuries and heard boos throughout much of his Reds tenure. “I’m tired of getting beat up,” he said in 2002, adding that his family was reluctant to attend games because of what fans said to them.

Things worked out better for Barry Bonds, who grew up in the Bay Area the son of Giants outfielder Bobby Bonds and godson of all-time great Willie Mays. Barry, already a two-time NL MVP in Pittsburgh, signed with the Giants in 1992 and played his final 15 seasons in San Francisco, winning five more MVPs and becoming the sport’s all-time home run king. He became reviled in the baseball world because of suspected steroid use, but fans in the Bay Area embraced him, and he remains a beloved figure in his hometown.

Athletes can find forgiveness at home, but it’s tied to on-field success. James, Cleveland’s prodigal son, is hoping to find both. Ultimately, his legacy in Cleveland will come down to whether or not he can deliver the city’s first championship, in any sport, in 50 years. Bonds never won a World Series, but Eckersley did in 1989, getting the last out at Candlestick Park, where he went to games as a kid. “It was all supposed to happen,” he says now. James hopes the stars will align for him as well.

Freelance writer Joe Lemire returned home to Lowell, Massachusetts, for The Kerouac Classic, a Wiffle Ball Tournament, in 2007; his team finished second.

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