Cleveland & Sports:
A Tortured History
To really understand the soul of Cleveland, I would argue, you have to understand at least a half-dozen crucial things about the place.
You have to understand its unique racial and ethnic makeup, its location at about the midway point between Minnesota's iron ore and West Virginia's coal. You have to understand that for many decades, it was a welcoming home to the mob--or rather, many mobs--and was in certain respects run by unions, some of which were heavily influenced by organized crime (which in turn was a feature of the town's ethnic hothouse). You have to understand how much of its development, economy and outlook sprung from its brief moment as the headquarters of the world's oil industry, and how that continues to exercise influence to this day, well over a century after the fact (among other things, it explains, why so much of the coatings industry is based here--they're chemical derivatives of oil--and why the base of large law firms is way out of proportion to the size of the city).
You should understand, as well, that its tortured, clashing soul is in many ways a reflection of its triple-chambered ethnography/geography: it simultaneously constitutes the very beginnings of the foothills of the Appalachians (the west side) and that Scotts-Irish stock with the old High Protestant New England Yankee culture of the Western Reserve (the east side). And a half century ago was added the northern migration of southern blacks into the mix. In other words, this town is an amalgamation of incredibly disparate things, people and traditions thrown into a pretty tight geography. It makes the place yeasty and endlessly interesting, but also accounts for many of its serial dysfunctions and maddening divisions.
But one of those topics crucial to understanding the town's DNA is certainly sports. And to understand the town's soul on the subject of sports, you have to understand loss and pain and municipal grief, which has long since become a metaphor for the entire town's larger pains and challenges.
I recently came across a new book by a Philadelphia native in which he makes the argument that that city is the longest-suffering major sports town in America. Why? Because it hasn't won a major sports championship since 1983. To make his town come out on top, he has to engage in a bit of trickery: including only those towns that have four major league sports teams. And to do that, he has to mount what I'd consider a faulty argument: that hockey constitutes a major sport. The National Hockey League's anemic TV ratings would suggest otherwise. Hockey's only a major sport in a relatively small portion of the country--places like New England and the extreme upper midwest, where proximity to Canada (and cold weather) has created deep popular roots for the sport. Everywhere else, it's stuck in there with tennis, golf, motor sports and the like--important to millions, but still a second-tier sport compared to the Big Three--baseball, basketball and football. And of course when you limit it to that trio, it leaves Cleveland as by far the longest-suffering town, with no championship since we rode Jim Brown's back to an NFL title way back in the days of floppy-eared presidents named LBJ (1964).
This is a proud, stubborn town. It's home to arguably the two most non-politically correct corporate logos in the world--the Indians' Chief Wahoo and Sherwin-Williams' globe-drenching paint can, a hoary image so appalling to the modern environmentally sensitive eyes that it often makes me chuckle, no matter how many times I see it. The important point, though, is that in almost any other place both of these logos probably would have long since been banished for something more in tune with the times. Not here, where we value our traditions, sometimes to a fault.
All of which brings me to the point of this meandering piece, tonight's Cavs playoff game.
It could be decisive (or not). Either way, the excitement and intensity of the region for this team is beginning to remind me of the Cavs' Miracle of Richfield in the '70s, Browns fever in the '80s and the sustained fever pitch for the Indians of the '90s. The fervor from callers on WCPN this morning was palpable.
Last year, after shadowing the Cavs and Lebron around the court and into the locker room for nearly half a season, I wrote a piece in which I tried to answer, at least for myself, the riddle of the guy. The world didn't need another profile of Lebron, I figured. And in any event, I was far more interested in a different story: his effect on the town's morale. What has always interested me about Lebron was not so much his game--he's of course got serious game--but his maturity, his almost surreal confidence and self-mastery. Where does a poor ghetto kid with one parent, who was often forced to shuffle him to extended family members who could afford to raise him when she could not, come by that?
This week, the Detroit News surveyed its readers online, and asked them what they thought the major reason for the Pistons being down 3-2 might be. Nearly half said they overlooked the opponent, the Cavs. We've gotten used to being overlooked, laughed at, ignored, dismissed. After several decades, it's seeped into the pores, affected the confidence. And sports hasn't provided any outlets--if anything, it's driven much of the problem. You can only get so close to the brass ring so many times before it shatters your confidence. What's worse: being beaten to a berth in your first Super Bowl by Denver's John Elway on a seemingly impossible, epic 98-year drive, after you thought your gimpy-legged, ugly-but-effective (another metaphor for the town) hometown boy Bernie had engineered a win, or getting beat in the last inning of Game 7 of the World Series by a recent expansion team? Or maybe Michael Jordan throwing a dagger in your heart? The epic scope of this accumulated heartache is almost unimaginable. It's as if some cruel cosmic playwrite were creating a dense, layered scene of torture. Only you wake up and realize it's your town that's written into the play.
But Lebron is a stunning reminder of how greatness has a way of changing equations.
One important measure of Lebron's confidence is how he ignores naysayers. Or more accurately, uses them as a challenge to improve himself. Take, for instance, his chief critic, Charles Barkley. The cranky former player was once dubbed "The Round Mound of Rebound," but now he's a sneering bully with a TV-analyst's pulpit, a bad gambling habit and, apparently, a special hankering to put the new boy in his place. All season, he's bated Lebron on TNT, dismissing him as an upstart who's not worthy of the greats of his era.
Lebron chose to mostly ignore him, letting his game be the sole answer. One by one, he knocked down the criticisms. When they said he couldn't take the last shot at the buzzer, he did, but only when it made sense not to pass.
But the other night, he finally answered Barkley, gamely choosing a moment when he knew he'd have a maximum audience, just minutes after leading his team to an unthinkable victory over the NBA's best team, a moment when he and his team were becoming the biggest national story in sports. He talked about the things that winners should never do, before arriving at the last no-no. "And don't ever listen to Charles Barkley--ever, ever." He wasn't smiling or showboating. He certainly wasn't bragging. He was just standing up to the bully.
The Pistons' Rasheed Wallace, another sneering bully, has become famous for the prediction gone bust. But after the crushing fifth-game loss the other night, he stepped back and regrouped to a fallback boast: "one man's not going to beat five," he said. But there's a gaping error in his math. In any pursuit, but especially in team sports, excellence, mental toughness and a good work ethic are eminently contagious. And Lebron's teammates have begun to catch it. Sorry, Sheed, but this one will be five on five. Or maybe six on five, if you count the hometown crowd.
So let the game begin...