07/09/2010 03:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

LeBron Shouldn't Define Cleveland

I've been gone from Cleveland almost two years now, but it came as no surprise to me that basketball star LeBron James picked Miami in a quest for slam dunking fortune and fame. If I understood that he would eventually leave the Cavaliers - after living and working in the city for almost a decade - then the good folks who have never left should have understood it even better.

But what does surprise me is the status so many citizens of Cleveland have bestowed on their local hero now that he's departing. Shouldn't Cleveland be proud of more than an extremely gifted man-child athlete? Shouldn't the city seek celebration in something more meaningful to the daily welfare of its populace?

I guess not, given the reactions of spurned fans in Cleveland. The same fanatics who gleefully shelled out hard-earned money for expensive replica jerseys and WITNESS t-shirts set fire to their souvenirs on television cue after James announced he was taking his game to South Beach. No less than the diminutive team owner Dan Gilbert showed how really small and petty he is by posting a blistering letter on the team's website, accusing the object of his affection of "cowardly betrayal." I wonder what Gilbert might have said if James had pledged to continue to make him and his team wealthy?

LeBron--one of those rarest of American celebrities known by one name--will still be the same person he is today as a future Miami resident. Nothing's changed since a parade of civic leaders from across northeast Ohio begged him to stay close to home. (Curiously, the video has been scrubbed from most Internet sites, suggesting the shame of the failed and humbling effort.) Perhaps the only difference is that some in the region can't lean on LeBron to make themselves feel better. That's the shame of it all.

For some in the Cleveland community to pin its civic pride and ambitions on the whims of one coddled and spoiled young athlete is sad--and dangerous. You don't have to be brilliant or a native to see what's real in Cleveland. Nation-leading levels of poverty. Racial tensions. Corrupt political leaders. Disrespect for the value of education. Resistance to egalitarian and progressive views. Xenophobia. I saw and wrote about it all as a newspaper columnist.

To be sure, a great many people across northeast Ohio are working their hardest to make positive improvements. I met and wrote about them too, the community activists, business leaders, philanthropists and private citizens doing amazing feats with little of the public attention that follows a three-point shot. Why not spend as much attention celebrating and cheering them on? Where are the 20,000 fans, like the ones who filled The Q last season for Cavalier home games, for sincere civic leadership?

The loud and obnoxious Cleveland sport fans who feign hurt feelings from LeBron's foolish spectacle on ESPN, which gave up any pretense of journalism in that hour-long infomercial, speaks more about misplaced priorities than it does about character of a 25-year-old who wears short pants to work. Let's face it, LeBron was never going to be a lifer in Cleveland and folks across the city should have known he wasn't staying any longer than necessary. His passion wasn't in the region; witness his wardrobe of New York Yankee caps and Dallas Cowboy paraphernalia.

What's more, Clevelanders knew--or should have known--he would seek out an opportunity to win an NBA title elsewhere because it seemed unlikely in his hometown. If the Cavs' season-best record didn't produce an NBA title last season, it wasn't going to happen.

I still have warm feelings toward what Cleveland could be. But for that to come to pass, many more residents must put the same level of passion into civic concerns as they do in their beloved, if hapless, sporting teams. I left Cleveland thinking that the people who claim to love the city most do the most damage to themselves by wallowing in prideful denial and taking comfort in palliatives such as sports heroes who eventually and sadly let them down.

So when LeBron decided in the glare of ESPN's klieg lights that the savior's job was too big for him to do alone--and decided to make himself happy by moving to Florida--the entire region felt its stomach sink to its toes. That's not only an unfair indictment of LeBron, it's a sign that folks in Cleveland need a firmer grip on their reality.

Sam Fulwood III is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress