May LeBron be with you

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Pastors sometimes rebuke congregations by comparing their subdued worship style to the more exuberant displays among sports fans. “The Chosen One,” a report this week on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, reinforces the notion that nobody worships quite like a person sitting in a sports venue. (For whatever reason, the ESPN video is no longer accessible. The video is on this page if ESPN ever brings it back by cultic demand.)

“Every sports town needs a savior,” says the Outline the Lines report on LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers. ESPN reporter Mark Schwarz backs up this quasi-theological statement with multiple quotes from giddy residents of greater Cleveland. The story is largely a well-reported tribute to James as a “one-man urban renewal program,” filled with shots of James’ gorgeous slam dunks.

But my oh my is the religious language ever out of control here. One shot shows a fan holding a sign: “The King Lives in Cleveland.”

A beaming Pastor R.A. Vernon of The Word Church plays along. “I think I can say unequivocally, as a pastor, that after Jesus Christ, then comes LeBron,” Vernon says. “This city needs LeBron James to win a championship.”

“Here’s a guy coming out of our neck of the woods who has a chance to lead us to the Promised Land — in a city like Cleveland, which is a blue-collar, you know, get out and dig for a day’s pay type of town,” says Joe Tait, the longtime voice of the Cavaliers.

But there’s trouble in Paradise: James becomes a free agent next year, and he has already committed the blasphemy of wearing a Yankees cap during a baseball playoff game. What sort of fickle redeemer is this guy?

“For him to leave, I believe that the spiritual morale would drop, the emotional morale,” Vernon says. “He could go to an established team and get the ring, but to take a team that desperately needs a champion, a city — oh my goodness, I would have to be careful as a pastor, because people might start praising him, like he is God.”

“If he leaves us, it’s gonna take our hearts, like so many before him. But if he stays, it kind of reinforces our belief that, gee, God is good and he gave us LeBron,” says Nick Costas, who owns a club in downtown Cleveland.

James says, as clearly as one could expect, that he has no plans to leave Cleveland. I hope that’s true, lest Cleveland suddenly register a surge of newfound atheism sometime in 2010 and wreak terrible havoc on those important reports from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Hat tip: physics geek jesus freak, via email.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Doug,

    Let me try to put this in context.

    Here in the Heartland, we’ve been through a lot of hard times over the past 40-50 years. Akron once was the Rubber Capital of the world; now, only Goodyear has a presence here, and it’s not much of one. My company and other startups are in a former Goodrich building that sat empty for years, and we boil the Ohio-Erie Canal out back to heat the place. In nearby Trumbull County, the two major employers for years have been Delphi and the GM assembly plant at Lordstown. Delphi is just about gone, and Lordstown’s future is uncertain. The closing of a Chrysler stamping plant will cost my town 13% of its tax revenue.

    Sports are more than a distraction here. For many, they offer the potential for fulfillment and even glory — the boosting of our collective spirits. Unfortunately, our pro teams are perennial losers. No Cleveland pro team has won a championship since 1964, when a guy named Jim Brown was in the backfield for the Cleveland Browns. Local hero Bernie Kosar took the Browns to the brink twice, only to watch John Elway and the Broncos steal it away. The Indians have seen the Promised Land but never made it there. And Michael Jordan killed the Cavaliers’ chances in the early 1990s.

    Along comes LeBron James. He picked up the King James nickname when he was at St. V, the Catholic high school that he attended. (The double meaning is on purpose, folks. We get the joke. So does Pastor Vernon.) His high school games in Akron and around NE Ohio were sold out when he was a sophomore. The Cavaliers getting the first pick of the draft after his senior year was, for many, an answered prayer.

    We don’t worship LeBron. He’s simply one of us. A really, really phenomenal one of us. And that makes for a bond that you don’t see very often in today’s pro sports.

    Go Cavs!

  • Brian Lewis

    I guess it’s not true that a prophet if without honor in his hometown.

  • Kate

    LeBron has given hope to a city whose sports teams are consistently terrible – and more importantly, to a city that’s seen its share of economic downturn and fall from grace over the past few decades. Cleveland, “The Mistake on the Lake,” has long been the butt of jokes – and LeBron gives us a chance to fight back against those jokes.

    Simply put, LeBron gives us hope.

    It’s the only time you’ll ever hear this Jew say, “Long live King James.”