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12:40 pm
Fri July 25, 2014

A Fan’s Notes: Hometown Heroes

Credit Rybass / Wikimedia Commons

Last week in a coffee shop, I saw two young men, each with single name emblazoned on his chest. The first one read, “Jesus.” The other? “LeBron.” Because, hey—every savior deserves his own T-shirt.

The biggest sports news of the summer is the second coming of NBA superstar LeBron James—specifically from the Miami Heat back to the Cleveland Cavaliers and his native northeast Ohio. The national media has been giddy over his maturity and grace in trading the Sun Belt for the Rust Belt and a mere $42 million over the next two years.

This high-profile tale of redemption and return transcends its sport, and many a KC fan cracked an empathetic smile for our counterparts in Cleveland, with whom we share a certain sports ennui.

But meanwhile, a similar story—with its own happy ending but a different moral—was unfolding right here.

Soccer fans in Kansas City watched Team USA’s heady World Cup run with an unprecedented measure of hometown pride, since two of the breakout talents belong to Sporting KC: Graham Zusi, and, in particular, Matt Besler—an Overland Park native and the first player from Kansas ever to appear in a FIFA World Cup.

But as soon as the boys got back from Brazil, the new fame gave rise to a familiar dread. Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Roy Williams—the good ones always left us, right on the verge of greatness. Sure enough, Besler soon confirmed the rumors that some English Premier League clubs had already made bids. How long until the Blue Valley West grad took his talents across the pond to Sunderland or Fulham (which I think is in London).

But there was no “Decision,” and little drama. Besler immediately let it be known that he preferred to stay home…but his contract was due to expire in 2015. Within days, the club struck a long-term deal was done to keep him and Zusi in KC.

Any of us who were surprised only have ourselves to blame. Sporting KC is the only professional sports organization in town with completely local ownership, including the founders of Cerner, the homegrown health-care tech giant.

Luck, or sentiment, had nothing to do with this. Robb Heineman, Sporting’s typically soft-spoken CEO, put it bluntly enough: “Any reference or thought that it's not a first-class opportunity for these guys to be here, to me, is just complete crap.”

Sure, MLS and the NBA aren’t yet in the same ballpark, so to speak. Though he’s sure to get a nice raise, Besler’s current $220,000 salary is barely one percent of what the Cavs will pay LeBron next year.

But this is a big story here because it's changing the narrative.

Having collected two NBA titles in Miami, LeBron now says the only thing that matters to him is winning just one for his hometown. How touching. Besler made no such vow. As captain of the reigning MLS champs, he didn’t have to. When he spoke from the heart, it was all about what his hometown was doing for him.

“I’m overwhelmed with excitement,” he said. “I had chills. This is a dream come true to know that I'll be playing my whole career in Kansas City.”

Besler, Zusi, and their bosses realize something we way too often forget: this is a major-league town. You don't have to go to Europe to play elite-level soccer. You don't have to go to Silicon Valley to be a global high-tech leader.

You don't have to leave Kansas City to be world-class.

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