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On LeBron James' Return to Cleveland: "The Best Location in the Nation"

07/30/2014 02:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2014
Mike Ehrmann via Getty Images

The calls haven't stopped. Everyone still wants to know, "Well, how do you feel?"

I've lived in L.A. for more than 20 years now, but rarely does news happen in Cleveland without me hearing from lots of folks asking for my thoughts on what it means for my beloved hometown. In 2010, my cousin Joey and I spent hours on the phone after LeBron announced he'd be leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to "take his talents to South Beach."

Those were dark days. The whole city felt abandoned by one of its own -- who's also one of the greatest athletes to ever play the game of basketball. Worse than jilted, Cleveland had been tossed aside like any other city seen as past its prime. Being dumped was bad enough, but LeBron did it in front of millions the world over!

"Of course," I'd told Joey, "this is America, and the man has a right to play wherever he wants to play." But the loss was no less painful.

Cleveland back then was already dealing with low self-esteem that -- prior to "The Decision" -- had been satirized in such viral videos as "Hastily Made Tourism Video." Tourists were beckoned to Cleveland to see "both of our buildings" while touting the fact that the city leads the nation in the number of drifters. A video proclaimed "crippling depression" as the main export, yet admitted, "It could be worse -- at least we're not Detroit!" All over the top, obviously, but one line about Cleveland having an economy based on LeBron James was mostly true.

So, yeah, I understood Clevelanders who declared LeBron forever dead to them. Still, I have my own journey as a prodigal son who once had to leave Cleveland in order to grow up, only to later return so I could discover my real story -- chronicled in my memoir, FINDING FISH and dramatized in the film ANTWONE FISHER. If you're familiar with either, you'll recall that I started life as an orphan/Ward of the State, raised in foster care before being forced into becoming an emancipated minor. At 18, alone in the world, I also became homeless. I survived -- thanks to advice from Bill Ward, the last of a series of social workers assigned to my case over the years. Ward simply cautioned me not to feel sorry for myself. Homeless in Cleveland with winter coming, I didn't have that luxury, and thus made the decision to enlist in the U.S. Navy -- setting me on a course to change my life for the better.

Fifteen years later, I lowered anchor in Los Angeles, attaining my first civilian job as a security guard at Sony Pictures. At that point I chose to return to Cleveland for a visit to find the family I'd never known. The city seemed frozen in time, as if everyone stayed the same and only I had changed. A shopkeeper in my old neighborhood recognized me, saying, "Antwone, where you been?" Like I was one of those people who go out on an errand and just decide not to come back. Or like it was only the other day. No big deal. But of course it was. At age 33, I solved the mystery of where I actually came from and also found the catalyst for my journey as a Hollywood screenwriter and author.

Nine years later, I returned again to Cleveland to film the story of my life (as the screenwriter), along with our director, Denzel Washington, and the rest of the cast and crew. This time, my hometown welcomed me back with all the ceremony of a much-loved native son. Each day of filming brought out bigger and bigger crowds. My most prized memory? The day that a production assistant found me and pointed to the crowd, saying, "A guy named Bill Ward over there wants you to know he's here." When I spotted the social worker who'd given me great advice, he looked unchanged as he gave me a thumbs up and yelled out, "Way to come home, Antwone. Way to come home." The crowd roared in agreement. It hit me: my city had as much at stake as I did in my succeeding out there in the world.

How do I feel about LeBron coming back to Cleveland. I feel great! When I read "The Letter," I almost cried. During his absence, the city had to do some soul-searching and growth of its own -- which I observed during a recent visit. Driving by the historic Karamu House, I was astonished to see an enormous mural of Ruby Dee painted on the west wall of the Karamu House Theater. This was where Ruby Dee, who grew up in Cleveland too, trained and performed. Sadly, Ruby Dee passed away this past summer, but throughout her life she returned home often to train and inspire younger generations of actors.

With a new air of reclaimed confidence, the city seemed to be flourishing. When I took Euclid Avenue east toward downtown, I witnessed streets alive with sound and activity. Along this route, I came upon the old Halle Brothers Luxury Department Store -- built in 1910, still with its white terra-cotta façade -- a repository of childhood memories. The building, now being readied for a new life, reminded me of a recent conversation with Halle Berry about her years growing up in Cleveland. When I mentioned how it irked me to hear someone call her 'Holly,' she smiled, grateful that I knew she was named for our hometown's iconic luxury department store, Halle's.

Also on Euclid, I spotted a young interracial couple on a Vespa motor scooter breezing westbound. As a boy growing up in this city, a carefree young black and white couple riding an Italian motor scooter was a sight I would not have seen, given race relations of the times. My first thought was: "Oh my ... really?" Clearly, the city was moving into the future, readying for a big comeback. This was evident when I arrived at the city's theater district that's now revitalized with businesses, restaurants, shops and boutiques. The old buildings that I remember have been sandblasted, steamed clean and remodeled as apartments and condominiums for downtown living.

The visit culminated with a last look at the spot where Terminal Tower is located.

It's a building that has fascinated me more than any other back home and I saw it too gleaming with new vitality. Wow, I thought, my city, Cleveland, is alive again, proud of its great universities, renowned hospitals, museums and a world-famous symphony. Young people were present everywhere, a sight that inspired me to contemplate a full-time return to this city. With my wife and two daughters, life could be grand in a condominium downtown where I could take my morning paper and get coffee at a café nearby, as if I were in some old, French town.

LeBron will only add to this revival. He won't define it. Yep, all is forgiven. We've all grown up. We've learned that why we go away and why we come back are more complicated than we'd like -- much as LeBron writes: "Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It's where I walked. It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled ... My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now." I can only applaud his belief that he has a responsibility to lead and inspire kids growing up in the area to value their roots, or, as LeBron puts it: "Like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there's no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."

The truth is Cleveland belongs to all of us who have ever had roots there. I know that every city has its issues, but this great American city has given the world so much from the Industrial Revolution to this brand new age and it's still "the best location in the nation."