Every summer, beginning “officially” on July 1st, NBA free agency kicks off what has become a perennial frenzy of off-season intrigue for the league. For a few weeks the entire basketball world anxiously revolves around which teams will score the big free agents, get stilted by the sudden departure of a franchise player, ink the most head-spinning contracts, and which teams will just…complacently resign themselves to another year of mediocrity. This summer is different, this summer LeBron James — at this point the undisputed best player of his generation — is a free agent. And how can we forget how much the summer of 2010, the last time LeBron was a free agent, lacked spectacle.
This year, unlike in 2010, LeBron’s decision was decisive. It was not a 60-minute plus TV-special extravaganza, the likes of which the NBA had never seen, and hopefully will never see again. The news came on the opening day of the free agency market and, as with seemingly everything these days, it was announced on Twitter that LeBron would be signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. This move took a good portion of the basketball world by surprise, despite the fact that it’s been extensively rumored for well over a year. James leaves behind the overloaded, drama-filled Cavaliers, who just a season before had their other superstar franchise player demand a trade, were statistically one of the worst teams that have ever been to the NBA finals. It’s understandable that LeBron, although seemingly impervious to the effects of aging, would want to spend the twilight of his career not having to muster up increasingly Herculean efforts just to drag a team of what people are still convinced is a supporting cast of SNL comedians to the Finals just to lose to the Warriors…again.
The move out to Southern California made sense for LeBron, and not just from a basketball perspective; he also owns two homes in the area, it’s where his entertainment business is based, and he makes yet even more money from Nike by going to LA. He also signed there long term, something he never did for Dan Gilbert and the Cavs. It is hard not to view this as a not-so-subtle slap in the face to the owner who wrote the notorious rage-infused burn book letter after his last departure. While LeBron’s move out west has seismically altered the balance of power in the NBA landscape, there is something even deeper that this free agency move signifies. Something a lot deeper, and more revealing, than just basketball.
It’s impossible to ignore: LeBron James not only played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he is a native of the area. Born and raised in Akron, Ohio he has the name of his hometown literally inked onto his body. Lebron, like a lot of us, strongly identifies with the community in which he was reared and still has deep, extensive ties there. He has promised to send over a thousand area kids to college, he donates generously to local charities, and his importance to local businesses really can’t be overstated. Yet, despite all these connections, despite being literally known as “The King”, despite being indubitably the most famous person alive today from Ohio, and despite playing professional basketball for his hometown team, he left. LeBron’s departure from Cleveland, the reasons underlying the move, and the location of his new team shouldn’t be looked at as merely an anomaly. The entire relocation is really a tragic, yet illustrative, example of a phenomenon that’s happening more broadly across America today: the migration of young, educated, and talented people from cities in the economically depleted Midwestern rust belt to urban centers in the wealthy, burgeoning coasts.
This exodus of people, mostly young people, out of the traditional metropolitan powerhouses in America’s heartland has risen steadily over the past half-century and has reached something of a crescendo recently. Data shows that cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, Milwaukee, and St. Louis all suffered precipitous drop-offs in populations that peaked in the mid-20th century. Cleveland itself has about a third of the population it had in 1950. Compounding the impact of people leaving the rust belt is a sagging birth rate that forebodes a future where those migrating away are not replaced and the communities they are leaving will never be made whole.
The loss of people is only half of the story of the current state of the modern Midwestern city. The economic malaise that has been ravaging the entire region is completely inescapable. Workers who have remained in the region have experienced the worst wage growth in the country since 2000. The manufacturing industries that once put cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and especially Cleveland on the map, have been losing jobs for years. The public universities that were once some of the renowned in the country are facing a crisis with a lack of funding. This region, and the people who inhabit it have been largely locked out of a modern economy that is increasingly focused on the technology-heavy hubs of Silicon Valley and the Atlantic Seaboard. Although the Great Recession after the market crash in 2008 hurt the country as a whole, the recovery has been felt much more in the already wealthy coastal metropolises, while the Midwest has been largely left behind.
In the face of this adversity, it is no surprise that natives of the nation’s heartland are leaving. Relocating from home in the face of hardship and searching for a life with more opportunities is one of oldest quests in the world. The search for a better life, and the freedom to be able to pursue it, is at least rhetorically a cornerstone of the American project. Whether it is economically logical to relocate does not obscure the underlying tragedy: Everyone in communities all over the Midwest, even somebody as wealthy, famous, and powerful as LeBron James, has an enticing incentive to leave their home. And while moving will help them realize a more fruitful future, it will be for the benefit of prosperous strangers and the detriment of their struggling neighbors.