Lebron’s Legacy: Hero or Villain?

“The characteristic of genuine heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits and starts of generosity. But when you have resolved to be great, abide by yourself, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I think it would be grossly inaccurate to claim that the amount of responsibility placed on the shoulders of Lebron James, not just by the city of Cleveland but also by the entire basketball world, is unfair. Lebron has been given incredible physical gifts that have made him a worldwide superstar. He has been given all the money he will ever need. No, to say Lebron’s lot in life to this point is unfair would be farcical.

But that doesn’t mean it is easy.

I grew up just outside of Cleveland. My dad, while not being the obsessive sports fan I turned out to be, was a loyal follower of all the Cleveland teams. He never really forced his allegiances on to me but one of my fondest memories was sitting on the front porch with him on a warm summer night, listening to the Indians game on the radio. He told me all about Albert Bell, how he was the best player on the team and that he hit a homerun almost every time he was up to bat.

The Indians were an easy team to like in those days. When I started little league, the other kids used to joke that our team was “as bad as the Indians.” Not long later however, we were trading Tribe cards in the dugout and comparing ourselves to the pros. The newly built stadium, Jacobs Field, brought with it a newly built ball club that would soon be contending for a World Series. “Indian Mania” swept across Northeastern Ohio. The Indians had been bad for so long. We finally had something to cheer about. Tribe tickets became damn near impossible to get. Unfortunately, like most Cleveland sports contenders, it ended in heartbreak.

Twice.

Thus I  experienced the pain of being a Cleveland sports fan early on in my life and Albert Bell turned out to be kind of a jerk but I never forget that moment on the porch with my Dad.

After all, those are the moments that make you a fan for life.

***

When Lebron was first drafted, I don’t even think most Ohioans knew that Cleveland had a professional basketball team. Or if they once had, they had tried to put the Cavaliers as deep in their subconscious as possible. There had been too much losing and too much heartbreak as far as the Cavs were concerned.

Though I was growing up a baseball lover and an Indians fan, I never quite caught on with the Cavs. When you are a kid, you want to root for a winner. It is natural. I remember when everyone in my class was wearing those giant, puffy Dallas Cowboys jackets. It seemed like the Cowboys were in the Super Bowl every year. Who the heck would want to root for the lowly Browns?

The same thing happened to me when choosing my favorite basketball team. Yes, I began my life as a Bulls fan. I wish I hadn’t but you have to admit, Michael Jordan was a pretty big pull for an 8 year old.

I watched as pretty much the only good basketball teams in Cavs history to that point, had their title dreams ended by Jordan. I was

Look at the faces of the Cavs players in this picture of "The Shot." They play for Cleveland. They know what is coming.

too young to remember “The Shot,” but I was watching 4 years later, in my living room with my family, when Jordan basically did the same thing again, in the same building, on the same end of the court, to knock the Cavs out of the playoffs for the 4th time. I was the only one in the room cheering.

What a dirty little front-runner I was. I even had a Bulls garbage can in my bedroom. What the heck did I know about Chicago? I had never been there. Hell, I didn’t even know anything about basketball.  I was never a real Bulls fan. I stopped following them and basketball all together for that matter, after Jordan left.

No, I didn’t start following basketball again until I was in college and the Cavs got Lebron. I decided my long layoff from basketball, coupled with the fact that I was in elementary school at the time I was rooting for Chicago, meant it was ok for me to choose a new team and start fresh as an adult. I decided on the Cavs, partly because I wanted to rep my hometown and probably partly because of Lebron. I guess you could say I am a front-runner again but I plan to stick with the Cavs. Even if Lebron doesn’t.

I think that trash can might still be in my old room at my parent’s house.  I must remember to throw it out next time I am in Ohio on a visit.

***

David Ortiz and his steroid infused arms helped lead the Red Sox to improbably comeback over the Cleveland Indians in 2007. The same steroid infused arms also helped the Red Sox to an improbable comeback over the steroid infused New York Yankees in 2004.

If you are from Cleveland and you root for Cleveland teams, you know how much Lebron means to that city and to the state of Ohio. Since Boston won their World Series, people are starting to give a little more credit to Cleveland’s miseries. Boston, who may have been the only city of people in the entire world who could understand the meaning of misery as well as Clevelanders, won the World Series twice in the last decade, eliminating the Indians from the ALCS in 2007 after being down 3 games to 1. They did it, as we all now well know, with a bunch of juiced up cheating power hitters, including Many Ramirez…a former Indians star who blew town for a bigger paycheck and apparently, a whole lot of roids.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons gave Cleveland some serious props when he mentioned the city in his recent list of most tortured sports cities. I think Simmons is an excellent judge of sports town misery but I don’t think even he can fully grasp what the folks of Cleveland have been through. The Drive, The Shot, Red Right 88, The Fumble and Renteria’s Single…the list goes on and on.

Perhaps what most folks can’t understand about the “Cleveland Curse” is that it goes way beyond losing. Our river caught on fire for goodness sake. We

Uh-Huh. That's water on fire.

were blessed with the lovely moniker, “The Mistake By The Lake.” My favorite song about Cleveland is “Burn On” by Randy Newman! That’s right! The best song ever written about Cleveland is about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire and it isn’t even by some cool rock and roll group like the Rolling Stones. It’s by Randy freaking Newman. Cleveland’s most well known celebrity, outside of Lebron, is Drew Carey. Drew put a show on TV that was set in Cleveland and it was actually fairly successful. Still, it was Drew Carey. With all due respect to the man, and I do respect him and his love of the city of light, could we have an un-sexier mascot? New York gets stuff like Law and Order and Seinfeld. Cleveland gets the host of  “The Price Is Right.”

But maybe we like it that way. It’s familiar anyhow.

In case you are just a Cavs fan with no real ties to the area, let me give you a quick run down of Cleveland’s major sports teams and the last time they actually won it all, if ever.

The Cleveland Indians have won the World Series twice. The first time was in 1920 and the second was in 1948.

The Browns have won eight league championships, including 4 as a member of the NFL. However, since the merger, they have never been to a Super

To this day, there are still grown men in Cleveland who wake up in cold sweats screaming out "ELWAY!" at least a couple of times a year...usually in January.

Bowl, having lost 3 times in the AFC Championship Game with varying degrees of heartbreak. The team was actually taken away for a couple years in the mid 90’s by former owner Art Modell. Modell moved the original Browns to Baltimore, where they changed their name to the Ravens and promptly won a Super Bowl.

The Cleveland Cavaliers entered the league in 1970. They have had 1 NBA Finals appearance, in 2007, when the Spurs swept them 4 games 0.

***

Lebron James is supposed to change everything for Cleveland. Born in nearby Akron, Lebron isn’t just some great athlete from elsewhere in the country who got stuck playing the beginning of his career in Cleveland. He is one of us. He has a chance to erase all the decades of pain and misery with one brilliant career. For Ohio, I think he really does serve as a sort of “Chosen One.” He is the man that was born of our land to deliver us from all that we have ever suffered from. It is all very dramatic.

That is a lot of weight for one man to carry. I sometimes wonder if Lebron will come to resent it, especially if Cleveland fails again this post season. The man is great every single night he steps on the court. He never takes a night off. Still, no matter what he does, no matter how many points he scores or MVP trophies he has, anything less than an NBA Championship will be a colossal disappointment. You could argue that even if Lebron leaves and goes off to LA or NY or Miami, that the situation will remain the same. Those cities, particularly NY and LA, are used to championships. Failure to win it all will still be failure in NY but perhaps it won’t be as painful a place for James to fail as Cleveland. In that sense, I could understand if he wanted to make a break for it. Go to Miami, enjoy the weather and just play basketball. Though if James is smart, he’ll know that expectations will follow him everywhere he goes.

Maybe Lebron has known what he is going to do all along. He admits himself that he has a great interest in the business side of basketball. He knows that Cleveland can pay him significantly more than anyone else. Maybe he just wants to keep the pressure on the Cavs to give him the best supporting cast possible, while simultaneously forcing the competition into terrible business decisions after creating the illusion he might consider signing with them.

Lebron’s absolute best chance to win a championship is to stay in Cleveland and to continue to let the Cavs build around him. He isn’t going to win the title with the Knicks, even if they do sign another major free agent like Chris Bosh. At least not right away.  James and Bosh or even James and Wade, playing with a bunch of scrubs, isn’t going to be enough. He’ll be starting over again. He’ll be on a team with one other star and absolutely no depth and no cap space.

What it all really comes down to is what James wants. What direction does he want to take? Is living in a big city with all the bells and whistles what means the most to Lebron James? Does he want the warm climate and fancy beaches of Miami? Does he want to share the spotlight with another star like Dwayne Wade, regardless of whether it ever brings him an NBA Championship?

Or does Lebron want to create a legacy? Does he want to be the savior of his home state?

Does he want to be the hero or the villain?

Make no mistake, even if the Cavaliers win the NBA Championship this season, if Lebron leaves Cleveland, he will still be the villain. He will still be betraying thousands of Ohioans. It isn’t just about championships for us. We don’t have shelves and shelves of them like the New Yorkers do. We only have a handful and they are very, very special to us. If there is anything Ohio is used to, it is losing. What we never seem to get over though, what always seems to sting us the most, is being left behind. We have watched star after star leave us for brighter lights and fatter contracts, across all sports.

Yes, we lose a lot of games but we don’t like to lose our heroes. The most beloved figures in Cleveland sports history are the ones who stuck with us until the end or the ones who were forced out through no choice of their own. Guys that loved Cleveland and wanted to end their careers there, whether they were allowed to or not. Guys like Bernie Kosar, Omar Vizquel and Victor Martinez. To hell with CC Sabathia and Many Rameriz. Most certainly to hell with Art Modell.

It is about the respect that the city of Cleveland never seems to get. We are the butt of so many jokes. We have to hear the constant jeers about how bad Ohio sports teams are. Cleveland is rarely the best at anything but just this once, we have the very best. Yet, ever since the Cavs drafted Lebron James,

Look, I live in NYC now and I can assure you, the billboards don't get too much bigger here than this one located in Cleveland.

we have had to endure nothing but relentless talk about whether or not Lebron James is going to leave us for a better city. It is widely assumed that no one in his right mind would want to spend his career in Ohio, even if he has the financial ability to travel to and visit any city he wants pretty much any

time he wants. It is assumed that he will want to leave us all behind for less money, bigger buildings and a warmer climate. I sometimes wonder if the folks in New York have any idea how insulting it is to have to listen to people talk about how our hometown boy will leave the fans who love and value him more than any other cities fans possibly could, simply because he wants to go to better clubs and see his face on bigger billboards?

Probably what scares us the most is Lebron’s ambiguity about it all. Clevelanders wouldn’t believe it even if he promised today that he was coming back to the Cavs. We’ve been burned before. We’ll believe it when we see it.

Lebron has the potential to change everything for Cleveland, not by bringing us a title but by sticking with us until the very end. That is what it will take for Lebron to cement his legacy. He’ll be making a statement that there is nothing wrong with spending your career in a smaller market  with the “little people.” He’ll prove that he can be just as big a global icon in Cleveland as he can anywhere else.  He can represent the best of all of us.

He can represent people like my father, a hardworking truck driver who has worked the midnight shift for 30 years and will likely have to work it for another 15 before he can afford to retire. My dad, a guy in his 50’s who has never seen his beloved Indians, Browns or Cavaliers win it all.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have a son but if I do, I hope I get to sit on the porch someday and listen to my dad tell his grandson about that guy on the radio. I hope I get to listen to him tell my son about how that guy, Lebron James, is one of the best basketball players ever and how he grew up just a few towns over in Akron. How he spent his entire career as a Cleveland Cavalier when everyone thought he would take off to go play in some big city. That he stuck with us until the end.

After all, those are the moments that make you a fan for life.

Tags: Art Model Bernie Kosar Cleveland Browns Cleveland Cavaliers Cleveland Indians Lebron James Michael Jordan

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