Like many New Yorkers I wasn’t born and raised in New York. I grew up in Akron, Ohio. My parents still live in my childhood home, which happens to be down the street from where LeBron James lived up until a few days ago. I moved out east 21 years ago and haven’t lived in Ohio since, although I still visit often.
Many of my high school friends from Akron still live there, and they are understandably heartsick about LeBron leaving. They feel his decision was a personal referendum on their town. Akron can’t compare to the bright lights of Los Angeles they say. The town does not have enough to keep LeBron, and he had to move to get access to media and industry. And in some ways they are right. Plenty of people move to the coasts to find jobs that they couldn’t get at home. I did.
But after two decades away, I know a few things that LeBron will have to learn for himself. Cities are wonderful, but there is a certain homesickness that you feel when you are born in a small town and move to the big city. It sets in when you realize that city residents spend every waking hour within 10 feet of another human being. The minute you leave your house you find bumper-to-bumper traffic with red lights to the horizon. The weather report will say “today is a bad air quality day” and warn against going outside. And your kids grow up faster, exposed to sights and sounds and thoughts that you can’t shield them from as a parent. My daughter found a crack pipe in a NYC public park when she was two. You have to be the type of parent you always hated as a kid – the one who hovers over their kids and schedules every day – instead of just letting kids run outside.
LeBron said that his decision to move to Los Angeles was the best thing for his family. And that may be true for the James family. But there are a lot of wonderful things about growing up in Akron, or any small town, and now that I live in the city I worry that my kids won’t get to experience the childhood that I had.
For instance, I used to spend to my Fourth of July chasing lightning bugs in the park, with daylight that stretched on to after 9pm. Akron is at the end of the eastern time zone, so you have these incredible summer evenings that go on forever. My neighbors and I played outside and made up games – running through woods and yards. We had an acre of grass in our side yard that was large enough for home run derby, football games, and soccer. In our front yard we had a small stream for fishing, and in the backyard we had a wooded area where our dog would run off and inevitably find skunks. My mom would keep tomato sauce at the ready to take out the stink and we would spray him down with a hose.
When I was a kid I bought bike parts from Eddie’s Bike Shop and assembled a trick bike with pegs. I could ride almost anywhere on the local roads because there were so few cars, but we spent a lot of time racing down the neighbor’s steep gravel driveway, always on the verge of losing control.
Many of the things I miss about Akron are hard to describe unless you grow up there. Our house had an attic fan, and on cool nights my dad would open all the windows and turn it on, sucking all the hot air out of the house. I would fall asleep with my window open and wind blowing on my face, listening to the sound of crickets. And in Akron you don’t need to look up in the sky to see if it is going to rain, you can tell by looking at leaves on the trees. The air itself turns a shade of green.
I grew up in a simpler time, without cell phones and with fewer distractions. We knew almost everyone in our town, and they knew us. And family lived nearby, with grandparents on both sides just a short drive away. I went to public school with largely the same group of friends from Kindergarten through 12th grade. To this day most of my best friends came from that period in my life. And nobody can beat us in a game of Euchre.
I have since learned that you can’t recreate an experience like this for your kids. They have to grow up on their own. And as a parent you make career decisions by weighing a lot of factors. But my friends in Akron need not feel bad about LeBron leaving. We should wish LeBron well and hope he finds fulfillment in Los Angeles. However I am sure that there will be a moment over the next few years when he will be stuck in traffic on the 405, just like everyone else, wondering why he left home.