|Ben McLemore guards Trey Burke during the NCAA Tournament. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)|
Ben McLemore was clearly the best player on the floor for the Kansas for the majority of the Jayhawks' season before it ended in the Sweet 16 to Michigan, the eventual national runner-up revolving around point guard Trey Burke. Both ended up at their respective colleges after options closer to their hometowns fell through, either because they eschewed them (McLemore) or there was not enough playing time available (Burke).
Despite a push from his mother to attend Missouri, McLemore signed with Kansas before the 2011-12 season and was an unseen factor in the program's run-up to playing in the national championship game during what was expected to be a down year. McLemore was able to practice with the team as a partial qualifier, challenging starters to bring their best in empty gyms, not just in front of packed crowds.
In the same high school class was Burke, a native of Columbus, Ohio. Before his Wolverines squad played in the national championship against Louisville on Monday, Burke admitted his adolescent hoop dreams included counting down imagined buzzers while pretending he was an Ohio State player. When it came time to make a college decision, though, the Buckeyes had a starting point guard that perfectly fit their strategy and the defensive identity of the Big Ten in Aaron Craft. Burke's decision was surely spurred along by the fact that, given its roster, Ohio State did not offer him a scholarship, even with Burke's former high school teammate, Jared Sullinger, powering the Buckeyes.
The rest is well-known by now. Burke went to Michigan, adding to the program's resurgence and sweeping the college player of the year awards after leading his team to the national championship game in his sophomore year. Whether or not Ohio State would have been better off with Burke splitting point guard duties with Craft is an argument without a definitive answer, but it wouldn't be Ohio if everything went right in sports, would it?
Burke was never a Buckeye. He didn't transfer to Michigan and never had the opportunity as Ohio State didn't give him chase. LeBron James was Ohio, through and through, until the summer of 2010. He had grown up in Akron, a stone's throw south of Cleveland. When the in-state product declared for the NBA Draft after his senior year of high school, the Cavaliers were coming off a season in which Ricky Davis led the team in scoring (I was surprised, too) and the franchise finished with a 17-65 mark, won the draft lottery and held the top overall pick. James' arrival instantly changed the culture and the buzz around professional basketball in Ohio then spent the next seven years trying to bring an NBA championship to the state that relied on his young success, but reached the Finals only once and could not bring home a banner.
His supporting cast was never grade-A, and the LeBron James of those seven years was still far from being the LeBron James of today. Somewhere through the progressions of James growing frustrated and experiencing playing with other superstars in the Olympics, he thought it best not to sign an extension with the Cavaliers. He strung along the franchise and fans, considering offers from other teams before announcing his chosen team on national television. The Decision was a debacle. Fans burned jerseys, cursed James' name and stood behind Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's comic-sans promise to win an NBA title for Cleveland before James could earn a ring.
That didn't happen, obviously; the opposite events took place as Miami's new Big Three claimed top Eastern Conference honors and played in the Finals directly after uniting, then won a championship while the Cavs toiled near the bottom of the NBA ranks, though not without collecting young talent, including point guard Kyrie Irving. Nearly three years later, the strife seems to have dissipated and there is hype around James' potential return to his home state to don a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey in 2014 after playing out a final season in Miami.
The previous seven paragraphs are filled with old news in a time-driven cycle, but they lead to an old point: the influence of a hometown in sports is a powerful thing. Whether it is nostalgic magnetism that leads to a triumphant return for LeBron in Cleveland or a renewed disgust of the Cavaliers' fan base after a second scorning next summer; whether McLemore spent his sole year playing college basketball at the right school in choosing a blue-blood powerhouse known for producing pros instead of the one under two hours away from his St. Louis roots; these are personal decisions, but in all these situations, there must be an inkling of what Burke felt. Shunned by the school whose players he grew up idolizing, Burke became a certified star on the NCAA level at Ohio State's fiercest rival. He wore gold and navy, but even before the biggest game of his life to that point, Burke was fondly ruminating on those backyard memories of non-existent crowds roaring as he launched a final shot with a game on the line, clad in grey and scarlet during his daydream.
More often than not, athletes do not get the chance to compete for the pride of their land, that place they grew up. For every Larry Bird at Indiana State, there are a dozen Dorian Green's playing at Colorado State instead of in his backyard Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. Burke and McLemore are the rule, not the exception. Deron Williams opted to stay with the Brooklyn Nets instead of playing with the Dallas Mavericks, a franchise near his home. But every once in a while, there is a LeBron James who has it both ways; who knows what it is to play at home and away in a sense that most athletes will never understand. Even rarer is someone with the opportunity to return home after turning it into a fiery mess not so long ago, and to be received with open arms.
Of the 82 games in the NBA regular season, 41 are played on the road. When players return, they are typically not returning to an environment where they have spent the majority of their lives or anywhere near such a place. Coming back to a familiar place is comforting for the average person without the scrutiny of innumerable pundits, onlookers and hangers-on carried by professional and, to an extent, collegiate athletes. Loved or hated, hometowns hold a special draw. They all have specifically tailored legends, tall tales and folk heroes. Athletes often get to be all three, but to build such a reputation while performing exactly where you have sown all your seeds? That's truly admirable and, I have to think, exceptionally satisfying.
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