The Politics of LeBron

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You don’t have to be a hard-core hoops fan to know that NBA star LeBron James, one of the most famous athletes in the world, is currently a free agent deciding where he’ll take his astounding game next. Teams in several major cities–including New York, Miami and Chicago–are courting James with massive salary offers and local sales pitches in the hope that he’ll leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, in his beloved home state of Ohio. (He’s from Akron, and even has the local 330 area code tattooed on his arm.) The stakes are high everywhere, but probably nowhere more so than Cleveland, where, let’s be frank, LeBron may be the best thing the city’s got going.

And so inevitably the LeBron saga has made its way into the state’s busy political season, which includes a toss-up governor’s race between the incumbent Democrat, Ted Strickland, and former GOP Congressman John Kasich. Last month, Kasich committed a dumb foul with a blase answer to an interviewer’s question about whether James would stay. “We’ve lost 400,000 jobs out here and the last guy I worry about is LeBron James,” Kasich said–a perhaps theoretically reasonable effort to stay focused on his core message–the economy–but practically speaking a position that recalls Martha Coakley’s disastrous ignorance of the Red Sox. Strickland, for his part, actually sang a few lines for “We Are LeBron” a tongue-in-cheek music video recorded by Cleveland “celebrities” (sorry, can’t resist those quotation marks; I’m a Knicks fan after all) urging King James to stay put.

We should know what James decides in the coming days or maybe weeks. If he breaks his home state’s heart, Kasich can brace himself for another round of Democratic mockery. “Democrats are going to try to milk it for all it’s worth,” says Ohio State University political science professor Herb Asher. And if LeBron stays, Asher wonders whether the scoring machine might mention the governor’s (semi) melodic appeal. “What does he say? Does he thank the governor?” Of course, LeBron’s decision isn’t likely to swing the governor’s race. But with both candidates jockeying for early position under the electoral basket, any small advantage now could set the stage for a slam dunk in November.

P.S. You’ve got to think Barack Obama is rooting for LeBron to join his hometown Chicago Bulls; indeed he’s even hinted as much. But the President is smart enough to know that rooting for LeBron to break countless Ohioans’ hearts wouldn’t  exactly help his chances in a crucial 2012 swing state…