Thursday, July 8, 2010

Goodbye, Cleveland*

Just one more word on this before we close out the topic.

Look, I enjoyed LeBron's self-generated circus as much as anyone. Watching him hijack one of the most tightly run leagues in pro sports was kinda fun. But it was fun under the assumption that he was just screwing around. Like a lot of people, I'm on record as thinking that this was all for show, and that he'd wind up staying in Cleveland. And we've beaten this horse to a long and painful death, but I think it's worth reiterating that 1) the guy is from Akron, and has played his entire career to this point with his "hometown" team. 2) the entire state has so little going for it that aside from the player himself, the best thing it's produced in the last decade has been a pair of YouTube videos highlighting how much Cleveland sucks.

We could talk about all the cultural implications of James deciding to team up with Wade in Miami. There's the idea that this could effectively end the era of the alpha dog -- that we're not going to see guys like Kobe and MJ lead teams that are greater than the sums of their parts. There are all the ideas about how this will transform the individual styles and legacies of Wade and James. I don't really give a shit about any of that.

I've long said that I'm a Pirates fan before I'm anything else in this life. But I'm also a native Pittsburgher. On one hand, Pittsburghers are -- or at least, used to be -- brought up to hate Cleveland teams, Cleveland fans, Cleveland residents, and the city of Cleveland. When I was growing up, Steelers-Browns was the hottest ticket in town, regardless of how either team was performing that season.

On November 6, 1995, Browns owner Art Modell announced that he'd reached an agreement to move the Browns to Baltimore. On November 13th, the original Browns franchise played its last game against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. I remember it well, because it was three weeks before my bar mitzvah and my dad took me as a birthday gift. I'd been to Steelers-Browns games at Three Rivers Stadium before, and it was always an affair. Just like always, the Browns fans showed up. But the light was totally gone from their eyes. I remember reaching the 200 level on an escalator and seeing a group of three Browns fans, all decked out in brown and orange dog-related paraphernalia. As my dad and I switched escalators, one man with a dog bone on his head yelled "Go to hell, Modell, you piece of shit!"

When you're a self-centered, not-yet-13-year-old and you can tangibly feel the life sucked out of an entire group of people you have nothing to do with, it's got to be powerful, and you can't help but feel bad. The Browns were as important to the die-hard Cleveland fans as the Steelers were to the die-hard Pittsburgh fans. We'd been beating up on these people for years, then kicking them while they were down. And then, just like that, we didn't have them to kick around anymore. And just like that, I felt bad we'd been kicking them in the first place.

But shortly after, when it was declared that they would get a team back -- not their team, but a reasonable facsimile -- they jumped back on board, and they've stayed there. Since the Browns returned, Cleveland fans have been rewarded with one of the worst-run teams in the NFL, despite their unflinching loyalty.

The Indians, who were great in the '90s after a 30-year stretch of shittiness, lost a heartbreaker of a World Series in 1997 to a Florida Marlins team that was remarkably easy to hate. The Indians never got over the hump before having to dismantle that team, and they haven't recovered since, despite being pretty well-run as an organization. Keep in mind, this team was so bad that there were at least two movies made about fictional version of them that were, themselves, more successful than the team itself was until the mid '90s.

The Cavs. Growing up in Pittsburgh, we didn't have pro basketball. Once a year, my family would go to Cleveland over a weekend, and we'd see a Cavs game. This was during the post-Brad Daugherty/Mark Price era, when the best they could muster was a backcourt of Bob Sura and the late Bobby Phills. Again, this is a team whose brief brush with competitiveness was followed by more than a decade's worth of struggle. Cleveland stockpiles these teams.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert posted an open letter to fans on the team's website this evening. And when I say "posted," I mean "you are redirected to this letter upon attempting to access the team's official website."

Apart from appearing as though it's scribbled in internet crayon, it's clearly a writ of passion (it's a short and compelling read, and I highly recommend checking it out):

You simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal.

You have given so much and deserve so much more.

In the meantime, I want to make one statement to you tonight:


You can take it to the bank.

I don't doubt that Dan Gilbert is upset, and I don't doubt that he's serious about trying to fulfill this promise. But the fact of the matter is the LeBron is now more likely to win a title before the Cavs are even able to unload Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison's contracts, let alone procure another superstar player of LeBron's caliber. As of this moment, the Cavs look like a team that, if they're lucky, might win 15 games next season.

For these peoples' sake, I really hope I'm wrong.

Nobody who desires only pity is deserving of it. But I don't think Cleveland fans want our pity. I think they're too defeated to even harbor ill will toward teams they used to spend energy on hating.

Again, as a Pirates fan, I know what it's like to root for futility year after year. But I can't even begin to imagine the despair Cleveland sports fans are experiencing right now.

I don't know if LeBron's motivation for going to Miami was just a desire to win quickly, or if it had something to do with a secret China Pact he had with Wade and Bosh. Honestly, I don't care.
There's really no point to hating on LeBron for leaving. He made the decision he thought was best for himself and for his career. We're way past the point at which we should be deluding ourselves into thinking that professional athletes do things for us. They don't. Nor should they. It isn't they who need to change in that regard -- it's us.

That said, I'm sure we're in for a steady diet of LeBron-Wade-Bosh overkill through our sports media feeding tube over the next few years, and I'm sure a lot of us will watch, regardless of any rooting interest. We'll complain about ESPN's Miami Heat overkill the way we complain about the overhyping of Red Sox-Yankees regular season games. But Cleveland fans have to live with this.

Can we throw these people a life preserver or something? Just the way most of America embraced the Saints in the Super Bowl, let's reach out to our fellow fans in Cleveland. If you meet a Cleveland fan at a sporting event or in a bar, buy them a beer. Give them a hug. Tell them everything's going to be okay. And when their time comes, if you don't have a real horse in the race, pull for them. They are beyond deserving of our support.

And for Pittsburgh fans, let's call this here and now: the Pittsburgh-Cleveland rivalry is dead, at least until they get their act together.

For as fiercely as we identify with and defend our teams, we share much more in common with each other than we do the guys in the uniforms. Let's start acting like it.

Except for Philly fans. You people are still cordially invited to have sex with yourselves.

*Hat tip to Ed Simon

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