The following is a guest contribution to Cavs: The Blog.
Everyone has an opinion of LeBron James. It may not be a stretch to say that after Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, more Americans have an opinion about LeBron James than any other living person. I attended a banquet for an engineering professional society last Thursday and spent some time meeting the wives of my colleagues. At one point I was engaged in a lengthy conversation with an extremely outgoing 60-year-old woman from Panama. After covering a wide spectrum of topics she asked me “who do you like for the basketball?” ”You mean the Heat vs the Mavs?” I asked. ”Yes, who you like?” In the past I’d have answered a question like this with “I just want to see a good series.” After all, she may have family in Miami, or have a particular fondness for Udonis Haslem – who knows. I don’t think about things like that any more because I don’t think when it comes to LeBron James and the Miami Heat – I just react. So I answered the sweet lady “I want Dallas to destroy Miami – I really hate that team.” After I said it I realized the tone of my answer was incredibly out of place next to the high-level pleasantries that were being exchanged. She smiled and said “GOOD! I CAN NOT STAND JAMES LEBRON!” She seemed genuinely excited and continued: “Listen to this! I heard a VERY funny joke. I gave LeBron one dollar bill and ask him for change. He give me seventy-five cents!!!!!” I laughed convincingly despite failing to comprehend. Later, through twitter, I understood that LeBron wasn’t able to give the poor old lady a 4th quarter. Everyone has an opinion of LeBron James and I am no different. But understanding why I want LeBron James to fail at basketball for the rest of his life requires a deeper understanding of the prism through which I view LeBron James.
I grew up in a Cleveland suburb and was indoctrinated at an early age about where my loyalties lie. I knew my teams were the Browns, Indians, and Cavs. It was an easy concept for me even as a child – these were MY TEAMS, the best of the best representing me, my family, my neighbors, my community. These weren’t overpaid, selfish, prima-dona, egotistical, godless athletes setting out to claim their place among the gods – they were strong, hard-working, blue-collar, God-fearing underdogs. Maybe that was my mistake – being a 6-year-old with role models, a naive romanticized understanding of professional sports (the same one that every single professional league wants us to embrace) and never really growing out of it. My father definitely fostered my admiration for Cleveland’s professional athletes. He knew my favorite player was Mark Price and he believed (as I do to this day) that Price was a worthy role-model. A 6-foot farm boy that became the best shooter in the history of the NBA and played the game the right way. A second round draft pick that never missed his foul shots. I remember my Dad telling me over and over that “you know where games are won or lost? The free throw line.” He wrote Price a letter at some point basically saying he was glad that he played for the Cavaliers because it gave his son an all-star to look up to that was also such a great person. Then he asked Price to sign an enclosed photo for me for my birthday. Price even personalized it – one of the best presents I ever received.
For whatever reason, I fell in love with the Cavs at an earlier age than the Indians and Browns – probably because I enjoy basketball more. I remember begging to stay up to watch all the games on channel 43 and quietly listening to all the action under my pillow when the games were on cable, or it was bedtime. I can remember exactly how Joe Tait would call out plays. Minute details, like how his voice would get excited, fast, and high-pitched when Larry Nance would come over for a weakside block (BLOCKEDbyNANCE!) , and how that call always seemed to differ from his draw-out, methodical, (as if he expected it) tone of voice when Hot Rod Williams battled for a rejection in the post. (Blaaaaahked by Haaaaaaaht Rahhhdd!!) I remember that Larry Nance was always “wham with two hands” and Brad Daugherty was always “WHAM with the Right HAND!” I can remember where I was when I heard Steve Kerr drain a half-court shot against the Celtics in the playoffs. I remember Craig Ehlo hitting a 3 at the buzzer to beat the Jazz after he was the inbounder and there was only 1.3 seconds left in the game. I remember listening to the Cavs beating the Suns (on the road) in 1993 when the Suns were the best team in the NBA – I was so excited I almost couldn’t contain myself. It was shown on tape-delay later in the evening and I watched start to finish – even though I knew exactly what was going to happen. I cried the day my Dad told me the Cavs traded my favorite player – and that’s when I fell in love with Terrell Brandon, Tyrone Hill, and the rest of Mike Fratello’s scrappy bunch.
Growing up I was unaware of Cleveland’s reputation. I remember my Aunt telling me that my Grandfather had helped coin the phrase “Best Location in the Nation” – Cleveland’s motto. I knew that a Christmas Story was filmed in Cleveland, and that we had the best Orchestra (read the description) in the world. It wasn’t until 2004, LeBron’s 2nd season, that I realized how much everyone outside Cleveland dislikes Cleveland. That we were called “the Mistake by the Lake”. That we were the Yankees farm team, a decaying pit of rusted steel mills, and the place that could NEVER hang on to LeBron James. I had known that our sports teams were cursed and that we never had a chance to win the big one because we traded away Rocky Colavito (my Dad’s favorite player) but I had no idea people, particularly writers, straight up thought, as a city, we were trash. I rejected it all. This was my home, my roots, the place where all my family and friends live – WE were Cleveland, OH. At some point, sometime after this, my love of Cleveland the City, NBA basketball, and The Cleveland Cavaliers organization converged.
After the 2006 season I became immersed in the online basketball sub-culture. My best friend got me involved – he had joined some forums and been in a back and forth with a deranged Laker’s fan (the only kind). Of course the topics of contention almost came to define our fandom for the next 5 years – LeBron vs Kobe and Cleveland vs Free Agency. At first I merely looked up a variety of statistics and fed them to my friend so he had more credibility in his arguments. Eventually, he convinced me to create a user account – I did and it really opened up a new level of intensity and commitment to my fan experience. I was no longer just an NBA fan ready to be entertained, I was a solider on the front lines of the battle between Cleveland and “the haters”. I embraced the NBA’s statistical revolution and became a huge fan of John Hollinger and Neil Paine – not because I particularly cared about advanced stats, but because they proved to be the best argument FOR LeBron in the never-ending internet battle with Kobe’s minions. When 82games.com came out I relished the opportunity to debunk the “Kobe’s so clutch” claims every Laker fan held as canon. The arguments that Henry Abbott mercilessly repeats today were started by Cavs fans 5 years ago. I knew the advanced stats by heart, recorded every Cavs game, and did my best to constantly fend off the “LeBron’s just going to ditch you guys” lines that followed every basketball argument after I destroyed my ill-prepared illogical foes. Every game was discussed – the implications were great. The best days were those when the Cavs started beating the Lakers – I really went to town then, and decided I needed a blog more than I needed to be fighting off Laker trolls in comments section. My Facebook photo was a LeBron dunk, my internet avatars were PER lists sorted by rank with LeBron and Kobe highlighted. Now I was writing articles 4 or 5 times a week. Long articles, REALLY long articles, articles that maybe 5 people were reading and 4 of them were angry Laker fans trying to find any weakness in my arguments. When Kobe joined Team USA I buried my patriotism and live-blogged his putrid performances. I noted how much LeBron dominated the competition and played within the flow of the offense while Kobe jacked up hero-shots and was constantly getting burned at the other end by shamelessly going for steals. I bookmarked the FIBA stats pages and reproduced them as often as I could. I wrote an almost four thousand word essay in response to Sam Smith claiming that LeBron got preferential referee treatment and that his low foul rate was an obvious example of extreme star protection. Four thousand words on LeBron’s fouls. I don’t emphasize that as an outlier in length, as I had a propensity to try make my arguments so thorough that people wouldn’t dare disagree just out of fatigue – but what an obscure and fairly meaningless topic! Truehoop linked to it and the tagline was “don’t complain about LeBron’s fouls unless you want to deal with THIS guy.” (MISSION ACCOMPLISHED)
I even tried proving that Cleveland was good enough for LeBron and that he would never leave. I believed the entire speculation was fueled by elitist writers (read my comments) who were simply jealous of our good fortune and lusting for our home-grown star. I believed that their goal was to turn speculation into a self-fulfilling prophecy – sending LeBron to a larger market where they thought he belonged. I had the Tim Duncan arguments, the “he just built a huge mansion” arguments, the “his license plate is KNG of OH”, I had hundreds of hours of video examples of LeBron the consummate teammate, not LeBron the entitled star that threw his young teammates under the bus and demanded trades. At one point I wrote an article for a friend’s blog and ESPN used pieces of it for a Daily Dime-type special on LeBron’s presumed future departure. The article was titled “The Top 10 Reasons LeBron James will Never Leave Cleveland”. It’s chilling in some ways to re-read that piece. Not just because of how wrong I was and how fooled I had been – but because it is dated January 2008! Two years before “The Decision” my fan experience was being so tainted by threats of such a decision that I felt compelled to write something that defiant – and it was such a pertinent topic that ESPN, the worldwide leader, felt it apropos to cover. And in the very first paragraph I point out that this constant nagging assertion from the media and fans that Cleveland is not worthy of LeBron had been bothering me “for years”. I remind myself of this every time some smug writer tells me to just appreciate what LeBron did for me for 7 years – that is, that almost 5 of those years were under a constant shadow of anxiety – that he would leave. I convinced myself at the time that it was 100% media generated, but I was just kidding myself, LeBron had a lot to do with those rumors, particularly in 2009 when it became difficult to “enjoy the ride” because our collective psyche was that of a helpless kid waiting for someone to pop his balloon.
I think when people ridicule Clevelanders with a half-serious “getting dumped in a relationship” analogy to describe what happened when LeBron James left they may not realize how accurate that analogy is. He was the Prom Queen and we were the envy of the whole school. LeBron James was a shining beacon of success, style, fame, and jaw-dropping talent. He was also local. He went to school with friends of mine. He played AAU ball against my cousin. [He may have been "from Akron" but that distinction never resonated since the vast majority of NorthEast Ohioans aren't "from Cleveland proper". In fact the Coliseum was located closer to Akron than Cleveland, so drawing battle lines between Akronites and Cavs fans on issues related to the Cleveland Cavaliers is absurd.] The media and the trolls could take their uninformed pot shots at Cleveland but they certainly couldn’t de-legitimize the game’s best player, and our homegrown son, not on our watch. And that is how he became more than a player playing a game – he became our face to the outside world. That is why we hung a monstrous Christ-like image of a man in our city – that is why we bought Witness T-shirts, that is why we took it so personally when he refused to represent the Indians – since they were also a part of our collective psyche. It became unhealthy. Looking back it was pathetic. A ridiculously awful music video using the tune from We are the World (yes) featured the GOVERNOR OF THE STATE (really). That happened! And it didn’t happen because Cleveland was addicted to chase-down blocks and Kraken-releasing dunks. It happened because (for many) LeBron James literally became the symbol of Cleveland, OH. And LeBron’s “decision” would be the ultimate endorsement or indictment of our beloved home.
LeBron’s decision, intentionally or not, meant this to me: ”I don’t care at all about you or your city.” Quite simply, there are a lot of people that don’t care about me or my city – in fact MOST people don’t. But this stung – it really really hurt. It cut both ways. I didn’t spend thousands of hard-earned dollars on t-shirts, shoes, jerseys, posters, and other memorabilia bearing the name of most people – I bought LeBron’s. I didn’t spend thousands of dollars on tickets to cheer on most people playing basketball – I spent them to lose my voice spurring up MVP chants for LeBron. Way more importantly, I didn’t spend hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours blogging, commenting, photo-shopping, compiling, and publishing in support of most people – I did it in support of LeBron. I fought an NBA sub-culture war, (quite possibly the silliest thing I’ve ever admitted to) in defense of LeBron’s honor. Because to me, LeBron became Cleveland – and I will always support Cleveland.
I felt rejected, betrayed, and those feelings quickly gave way to embarrassment and shame. Embarrassed that I would go so far and expend so much energy on someone that did not even know I existed. Someone that, at his core, could literally not care less about what I thought of him. Someone who’s “fans” existed solely to elevate his already incredible ego – disposable fans. It was the ultimate disrespect. In one instant I knew that I would always root against LeBron. LeBron, the man that preferred tattooing himself with slogans and themes instead of living them. But that is only half of the reason I want LeBron to fail (repeatedly). That is the static half. The other half is what is left – a singular question. One that has been feverishly answered by many pundits but not the masses, and not yet by Cleveland. Did he make the right decision? The question is loaded, the answer is complicated, but when you tear away a few layers the wrong answer has paralyzing implications for a region struggling with its identity. The correct answer of course is that he made the wrong decision. Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you, just like the old times…
Check back for Part 2 of “Why I Want LeBron to Fail (Forever) “