The droplets trickled down my face, falling and creating mini oceans upon the speckled floor of the gym, when he uttered those unforgettable words.
With a tank top and the chiseled physique I could only dream of, he walked towards me as the words slid so nonchalantly out of his mouth and into the air.
“LeBron’s coming back,” the stranger said. “He’s coming back to Cleveland.”
Quite ironic that the announcement of LeBron’s arrival came amidst a workout, as workout routines were something that I’d never done as a boy in South Florida.
Even as a high school football player taught daily the importance of rigorous workout regiments, I didn’t get it. By simply arriving at the gym or to the field, I thought that I would be in shape and that I would improve as an athlete.
The merits of hard work of any kind- physical, mental, or emotional- didn’t register… until I came to Ohio.
Each and every year, my parents, my siblings and I would leave behind the sun-filled beaches of South Florida to travel to Cleveland to visit my family.
While I don’t remember my first visit to Northeast Ohio- I was merely an infant resting comfortably in the arms of my mother- I’ve been in love with the area since my early years.
I never knew what it was that drew me in so quickly, so wholeheartedly.
When I walked around school sporting Chief Wahoo upon my chest or “Couch” across my back, I knew how much pride I had in the city, but couldn’t really explain it to my peers.
“If they haven’t lived it, they’ll never learn it,” I thought.
Reality was, outside of those bi-annual trips, I hadn’t lived it.
After a year at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, however, I decided that I couldn’t pretend anymore. I couldn’t pretend to understand what made Ohio so special to me without ever having spent more than a couple weeks there.
So, with the begrudging approval of my parents, I packed my bags and headed off to The Ohio State University- the school of my dreams since I was eight years old.
When I left Florida for Ohio, I didn’t understand the importance of much.
My father- my hero, my role model and the hardest working man I’ve ever known- sacrificed any resemblance of free time so that I could spend my youth amongst the elite of South Florida and attend one of the most prestigious schools in the country.
While I knew he worked hard, I couldn’t comprehend the grueling hours and the unbelievable work my father put forth.
How could I?
Many of my friends and I, we were handed everything. It didn’t make us bad people, rather, we just never had to fight for anything. All the clothes, the food, the cars we wanted were right in front of us, there for the taking.
Amidst all of the fun in the sun, I still wondered why something in my life was missing. My friends and my family were incredible pieces in my puzzle, but there was still a massive piece that I needed to find.
When I arrived in Ohio as a full-time resident, that puzzle piece instantly emerged and I was well on my way to finding what made this place, these people, so special.
I’d like to think LeBron James and I shared a similar experience in the entirely opposite direction.
James spent his early years in Ohio, living in poverty, dreaming of the life of leisure I previously described. Rather than to loaf through life, he worked incessantly to hone his craft in order to provide for his family in the way that his family could never provide for him.
After working for seven years at home in Cleveland with an unfulfilled promise of a championship ring to Northeast Ohio weighing upon him heavily, enough was enough.
For once in his life, LeBron needed to take the easy road- the road that I’d traveled for years.
As I had departed from South Florida to learn a different way of life in Ohio, LeBron James departed from Ohio to learn a different way of life in South Florida.
I’ll never say I “grew up” in South Florida. I lived there, I loved there and my friends for life are from there, but to say I “grew up” in South Florida would be a lie. To grow up is to mature, to understand what you value in life. In South Florida, I did neither of those things.
I “grew up” in Ohio and amidst that maturation process, understood that Ohio is where I belong.
It started with work ethic- the something I’d never had in the Sunshine State.
As I inundated myself into Ohio’s culture, I developed an understanding of the hard-working,“blue collar” reputation of the people and connected the dots quickly.
In Florida, while my father certainly worked his rear-end off to provide for me the aforementioned life of ease, I never learned how to work hard. My father was too busy putting his work ethic to the test every day to force me to find mine.
Buried deep inside my Midwestern blood, however, it was there all along and only Ohio could bring it out of me.
When I started to mirror the work ethic that my fellow Buckeyes put forth every day, I suddenly began to understand the things I truly valued in life.
That’s what hard work does.
It instills a sense of greater value in everything, but especially in your fellow men. I began to value my family in a way that I never had before. I began to count my blessings, rather than my problems. I began to feel that I belonged, as I’d always dreamed of belonging while boasting my Cleveland sports gear as a toddler.
It took a while to find, but “blue collar” was in my blood.
Again, I feel as if LeBron James had the same findings, but on the opposite path.
In Miami, LeBron realized that his fame, his fortune and most especially his rings didn’t have the value they would in Northeast Ohio.
He worked for them, but not in the way he would have if he stayed home.
Rather than understanding the value of hard work first-hand, as I did in Ohio, LeBron took a look in the rearview mirror from South Florida.
This was all evidenced by his article in Sports Illustrated, which may be known as the most important piece of literature in the history of athletics in Ohio.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned,” James wrote. “You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge.”
For James, should he win one ring or several, his new era in Cleveland will be filled with a value he’s never felt.
For myself, well, I head into my final year at Ohio State with a new outlook on life, yearning to get back to work.
Be our journeys polar opposites or juxtapositional parallels, venturing from the sandy beaches of South Florida to the rolling hills of Ohio, LeBron and I have each learned of the value of hard work.
It’s what brought me and it’s what brought LeBron…