Letter from Cleveland


On Sports

Who am I to deny LeBron James a chance to move away?

LeBron James is thinking. And Cleveland is worrying. At twenty-five, the two-time NBA MVP is the most admired, elaborately talented, and imaginative basketball player of this era. He is also, by an unfunny and indisputable margin, the most important Clevelander in memory, if not history. Harvey Pekar, Bob Hope, Paul Newman, and Drew Carey can fight it out for second place. Born in nearby Akron, he was preternaturally composed, having achieved crippling levels of notoriety before turning sixteen, generating the most unrealistic expectations in decades, and calmly proceeding to exceed them all. Ever since he signed a contract extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers four years ago, his fellow Clevelanders have dreaded July 1, 2010. This was the date that, seven years into a triumphant—though still championship-less—career, LeBron became the most coveted free agent in modern team sports.

After a year or two of local consternation, a couple of months of over-thinking, and a full week of orgiastic, self-negating theorizing and maneuvering, the care-worn, hostage-taken people of Northeast Ohio know that LeBron plans to make his decision and announcement during an hour-long, live special on ESPN at nine o’clock this Thursday evening. We know because ESPN, whose band of specialist scrutinizers and hypothesizers have, at various points, overwhelmed Twitter’s tube capacity in the last week, “broke” this story about their own network’s broadcast, abetting LeBron’s unfortunate, hubristic tendencies. His fate will require a dedicated hour of live television.

And since the final game of the shamefully frictionless eastern conference semifinals, when the Boston Celtics overwhelmed the Cavaliers, ESPN has helped ratify what all Clevelanders understand to be a fact: we lose. Most often, dramatically. There is a dazzling catalog of defeat engrained in the cringing lizard brain of every Northeast Ohio sports fan, and ESPN had the soul-puncturing, spirit-killing montage of upper-case humiliations cued up. Each anti-triumph represents a picturesque, late-game failure by a once-promising Cleveland pro team. We Clevelanders know them all by sickened heart.

Yet each time a Cleveland team threatens to reverse this hated history, a rundown of the city’s reputed and pervasive crappiness, its habitual sad-sackery, is swiftly proffered. Whether because of our Cuyahoga River (the one that caught fire in ’69) or Johnny Carson’s ticks or Harvey Pekar’s inspired self-analysis, it is understood that Cleveland and civic misfortune are interchangeable axioms. And statistics tend to support these easy assumptions. Cleveland was the nation’s thirty-third most populous city in 2000. Today it ranks forty-third. Murder, high school drop-out, and poverty rates are perennial humiliations. Our micro-fleet of yellow cabs boast the tagline: I Like Cleveland.

Small wonder if we are hysterically devoted to our sports franchises, defiant after almost fifty years of waiting. Small wonder that—in a region that once esteemed football beyond all other earthly pursuits—LeBron has made basketball matter more.

It started in the early aughts, as LeBron helped lead his small parochial high school, St. Vincent’s St. Mary’s, to national prominence, winning three Ohio state titles, and repeatedly selling out the Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron’s Fighting Irish sometimes out-drew the consistently dreadful Cavs. With another odious season, and thus a better chance at winning the NBA’s annual draft lottery, the Cavs claimed the city’s greatest sports coup in many years by winning the right to make LeBron the first overall pick in the 2003 draft. It took a literal lottery, but a Cleveland team’s losing record finally produced a miracle. Men hugged in taverns.

But seven years and many disappointments later, LeBron is being courted by five other teams. Last weekend the New Jersey Nets, L.A. Clippers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and the incumbent Cavaliers were each granted an audience with LeBron at the office of his marketing firm in barren downtown Cleveland, each incoming mini-motorcade exchanging glances with the outgoing in a three-day woo-athon. Each team stands ready to restructure its payroll to accommodate his ‘max’ salary. Each had a turn in explaining to this reportedly impassive young man why their city affords him far greater opportunities than, ahem, Cleveland.

And who among us departed Clevelanders, each gone at the earliest opportunity (I am a member of the fleeing class of ’96), can rightfully deny a twenty-five year-old who’s never lived outside of Northeast Ohio a chance to move away from home? As a concerned local friend put it, we have imposed on LeBron our own burdens of guilt. As the big city teams shuttle through, with their better lists of better restaurants (the Cavs were far better during the last four years than each team that came to woo), we can only squeak-scream: Loyalty, please! The route between LeBron’s house and that downtown office has actually been papered with signs bearing the one talismanic word “HOME.” Clearly, we have nothing to offer but our unapologetic need—our need, and the modest suggestion that if this self-proclaimed “Chosen One” is seeking an enterprise worthy of his towering talent, then no challenge in American sports can match the unlikely, long dormant glory of winning a title in and for Cleveland. In the major cities, what is fandom? A trifle. New York, Miami and Chicago all know how to over-commit to their teams. But they cannot begin to appreciate our thirst, and the quenching hopes we attached to this local man. This courtship extravaganza has been unattractive, self-aggrandizing, cruel, and it has strained all manner of goodwill. But we are a resilient people, generous with our forgiveness. So stay, LJ. Be our better, prouder selves. Who could possibly need you more?

UPDATE: A legitimate consensus is building this morning that James will join the re-built Miami Heat, who’ve just signed the two other most valued free-agents of this off-season (Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh). Seven years of dangerous devotion are being undone. The rebuilding starts tonight.

When he isn’t visiting his parents, Jim Rutman is a literary agent in New York City.