Monday, June 20, 2016

Cleveland

I have a love-hate relationship with Cleveland.

I was born and raised in the exurbs. I left for college but eventually came back to the suburbs but only because I had to, not because that’s where I wanted to live. When it comes to sports, I always rooted for the Cleveland teams, but in all honesty have never been a diehard Cavs fan, that description being much more apt for how I follow the Indians and the Browns. Even in those cases it might not fully apply, since I pride myself on striving to be too rational about baseball to fall into the sheer emotion of fandom (post-childhood), and the Browns have been too bad for too long to not laugh at rather than lament the losses. My sheer sports fan emotions, assigning good v. evil to every game and opponent, living and dying with the team was transferred to my future alma mater around adolescence and will never be directed elsewhere.

Yet there's no question that my baseball team is the Indians, my football team is the Browns, and my basketball team is the Cavaliers. At times this has been embarrassing. Not due to the failure to win championships, but more due to the Cleveland fan culture. Cleveland fans have taken pride in their victimhood, with the heartbreaks (sometimes more real than imagined) a perverse source of pride. Where else does a 35 year distant divisional playoff game (i.e. two games removed from the championship) have a name that every young Browns fan learns ("Red Right 88")? Cleveland had some bad breaks, but more often than not they just had bad teams. Bad management, a little bad luck, and on the rare occasions when the teams had a chance to win it all, the dice rolls were not kind. But the only way one can reasonably expect to win championships is to put multiple championship-caliber teams on the field and let the chips fall where they may. Cleveland's three largely failed in that regard.

Of course, franchise ineptitude is largely not the fault of the fanbase, but there's an important distinction to be made between losing because you're bad and losing because fate didn't look kindly upon you on a given day. Cleveland fans too often conflated the two, resulting in a fatalistic feedback loop that took the former as evidence of the latter.

The other maddening element of the sports culture is the unique grip that the Browns have on the city. For all of the elation that the Cavs victory has brought, it will pale into comparison to the day the Browns win or even make a Super Bowl. The Browns still rule the landscape, and benefit from a remarkable double standard. The Indians, a franchise that has achieved more in any one of nine seasons in the last twenty-five than the Browns have in any, are struggling with attendance. There is an overwhelming cynicism towards the Indians, rooted in a lack of understanding of the economics and nature of baseball. Every trade of a free agent to be furthers the downward spiral of the relationship between the city and the team, even as those trades bring back the future objects of lament (e.g. as Bartolo Colon becomes Cliff Lee becomes Carlos Carrasco). This is not to absolve the Indians of their very real failures in drafting/international signings that only now appear to be reversing, but the Indians have run rings around the Browns and yet it is the former that I will be pleasantly surprised to see take the field in Cleveland rather than Montreal or Portland or San Antonio in, say, 2030.

Cleveland fans have also had the opportunity to root for a winner, but many have passed it up, and I cannot feel too sorry for them. In the last twenty years, OSU has won two national titles in football and been to three Final Fours in basketball. A college team might always belong to the students and alumni most dearly, but the surely the flagship state university is as much an available rooting interest as a private entity that can be moved to Baltimore at the owner's whim.

Sports irrationality aside, one thing I will say for Cleveland and Northeast Ohio is that there is a real pride in their hometown among people here. I'm not well-traveled enough to declare that this feeling is unique, but I can contrast it to my other hometown, Columbus. People in Columbus don't generally exhibit the same pride in their city that Clevelanders do in theirs. Columbus residents might be proud of OSU or proud of Ohio, but they aren't as proud of Columbus per se. Some of this may be due to sports teams; minus the recent (and so far unsuccessful) addition of the Blue Jackets, Columbus' sporting identity ties to OSU and thus more to the state than the city.

This is why it is so appropriate that Cleveland's title drought was ended about as single-handedly as one could be by one man, LeBron James. LeBron was a native son, and that meant something here. Everyone probably feels some sort of connection to LeBrown, however tenuous or forced. Mine is that LeBron and I are the same age. LeBron was a first-name basis celebrity by the time we were freshmen in high school. The night of the 2003 NBA Draft Lottery, I was in a cabin at a state park in Southeast Ohio on our mandatory "senior trip" watching as the Cavs came up with the #1 pick (and a parent chaperone insisted that they had to draft Carmelo Anthony).

LeBron was asked to shoulder the burden of the city himself, and unfair ask for anyone but especially for a rookie. And when he dragged a ragtag bunch to the team's first ever Finals appearance, he simultaneously hurt both his "legacy" in the ridiculous media environment when the Cavs were swept and obliterated any remaining thought of patiently building a worthy team around him. For the next three seasons the Cavs chased in vein, leaving him with the impossible choice of staying to try to drag this motley crew to the promised land, or going to chase titles with a group of stars.

Of course, the way “the Decision” went down was an extra gut punch, but while many Cleveland fans condemned LeBron, I’d like to think that I was fairly level-headed (this comment on The Book Blog is as intemperate towards LeBron as I got, and I still didn't lose sight of who the real villain in sports is):

The real villain in this whole thing, IMO, is ESPN. They cannot try to pass themselves off as a news outlet of any sort when they are willing to whore themselves out for an hour as a player’s personal press corps.

It has been apparent for years that ESPN wants to be part of the stories it reports on, but it has never been more plain to see then it was last night.

On another note, I do not support the childness of the Cleveland fans, but it is worth noting where they are coming from. Cleveland has not won a major sports title since 1964 despite fielding three teams (at least since 1970)--and that one isn’t even celebrated by anyone outside of Cleveland because of the NFL’s whitewash of its pre-Super Bowl history.

Yet here, nearly miraculously, was a local player who just so happened to be the best basketball prospect in anyone’s memory. He was not called the Chosen One for no reason. He was the one who was destined to finally break through the wall, to give Cleveland its championship. Twice the team has looked liked the NBA’s best team in the regular season, only to fold in the playoffs.

I’m not saying that those expectations and hopes were fair, that they all should have been thrown on LeBron’s shoulder. They plainly weren’t. Still, I may be a little biased, but I think that all things considered, this has to be one of the biggest kicks in the gut that an athlete leaving a team as a free agent has ever delivered. That doesn’t excuse Dan Gilbert or Cavs fans, but this is not just ARod leaving the Mariners.


The truth of the matter is that I was still a LeBron fan. The most endearing quality of LeBron in a sports sense to me was his support of OSU. He was on that bandwagon prior to the 2002 national championship (an article on his senior season of high school included an account of his enthusiastic celebration of this victory with his teammates), and he remained a friend of the program even after going to Miami, which he didn’t have to do. Sure, OSU is an important college asset of Nike, but Nike has contracts with a million other colleges, there was no need to keep up appearances.

It seemed like a crazy pipe dream in the spring of 2014, but was realistic by summer, and then remarkably came true. LeBron was coming back, to try to lead a new supporting cast, rebuilt largely through the fruits of the lottery picks that never would have come had he stayed (Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waters, Kevin Love via trade). For all of the fury that surrounded The Decision, had LeBron’s goal all along been to win a title in Cleveland, he couldn’t have done any better.

However, nothing is assured, and being Cleveland the natural insecurities were ratcheted up a few levels. Had the moment for LeBron passed, was he just far enough past his prime that he could not deliver? Was the supporting cast good enough (or in the case of Irving, healthy enough) to provide him support? Unexpectedly a new question emerged--would the suddenly dominant Warriors serve an insurmountable foil?

Hopefully the answers to those questions will reduce some of the irrationality of Cleveland sports observers (of course, the probability of the Cavs winning when down 3-1 was greater than the probability of a collective of sports fans becoming more rationally). Whatever small change to the city’s sports mindset might result, Cleveland’s overall inferiority complex is not going to change. On the very morning after the Cavs won the world championship, a new banner appeared on the side of a building bragging that the first traffic light was installed in Cleveland in 1914. This will certainly make the political hacks in town next month to do political hack-y things real impressed. Cleveland is a weird place.

And yet I can watch a ridiculously hokey, wildly overproduced local news commercial from 1995 and find it tugging at my inner childhood Indians partisan in a manner I can’t rationally describe. "Give me a reason for believing in Cleveland." Cleveland can surprise you.

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