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

  • http://howardthedunk.com Andrew Melnick

    Good stuff man, I feel for the passionate fans of Cleveland sports.

    LeBron’s a villain only in the eyes of his rivals.

    But, he is hands down the best players in the league. It’s not his fault he hasn’t had adequate help in his career so far.

    It appears that he does now, so anything less than a championship is a disappointment, but LA, Orlando, Boston and Denver probably feel the exact same way – I know Orlando does.

    If you had to pick a real villain team/players in the league, it’d have to be Boston.

  • J.H.G.

    I read this whole post and it almost brought me to tears. This is our city and it is awesome. The home of John D. Rockefeller and real men. LeBron will stay and his reign shall be glorious.

  • makemebarf

    oh, boo hoo for you and Cleveland and poor Lebron. Who doesn’t love all the hype about himself more than Lebron? And when he isn’t getting enough, he creates more. Jordan got his accolades after he won; Lebron seems to think he deserves them before winning anything. Big difference.

  • Patrick Allen

    Thanks for reading makemebarf…great name by the way.

    I don’t recall ever hearing Lebron say he deserves anything. As for him loving attention, who wouldn’t?

    Whenever I go over to ESPN boards I see folks, Laker fans and Magic fans and Cavs fans acting like a bunch of asses. Arguing about which team is better, who has titles and so forth.

    See, we aren’t going to do that here at KJG. We are Cavs fans we love Lebron and we’d be out of our minds not to want him to stay.

    The Lakers are a fantastic team. Koby is a fantastic player. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them, as well as the Magic and Dwight Howard.

    I don’t know why fans can’t just let the teams play the game.

  • Rod

    I grew up west of Cleveland (Sandusky area), moved to Cincinnati 20 years ago, but I still love the Cleveland teams. I remember being at the I-X center and watching “Red Right 88.” I was unfortunate enough to have tickets to the AFC Championship game remembered for “The Drive.” I was ready to drive 4 hours to Cleveland to celebrate the World Series victory, when Mesa blew the save. My father still hurts from the 1954 Indians losing the Series.

    Our hearts have been broken by Elway, Jordan, Renteria, Mesa, and the Orlando Magic. Ramirez, Thome, C.C., Albert “Don’t call me Joey” Belle are all names that deseted us. It hurts to be a Cleveland fan.

    Then came LeBron. Hope. The Indians are lousy again, the Browns have not fielded a contender in years, but we have LeBron. I now live in a city that worships a baseball team from the mid-70′s. Pete Rose is King here. The Big Red Machine. We have the Ben-Gals. There is no hope here at the moment.

    LeBron is greatest thing to happen to Cleveland in years. He gives us hope.

  • Patrick Allen

    Excellent comment Rod! Thanks very much for reading and for contributing! We could use more of that around here.

  • Dia

    Sorry, but you and all Cleveland fans must accept that Lebron has the right and responsibility to himself to be happy first.

    He has given Ohio sports fans years of great entertainment; has worked hard on the court and has been a solid citizen and role model for the time he’s been there. That is all Cleveland or any other city should expect of its sports figures. Nothing more.

    It is not his fault that Cleveland has had bad sports teams for decades. It is not his responsibility to right the injustices of the Ohio sports world to make you feel better.

    If he will be happier in NY, Miami, LA or Cleveland that’s good for him and good for the sport. Stop being so selfish.

  • Rod

    I don’t think LBJ should stay in Cleveland because he owes the city anything. It’s his life and he is free to do with it what he wants. But I think he will stay in Cleveland and here is why.

    Only one player in the NBA has ever turned down a max deal to change teams…Shaquille O’Neal. I don’t really see LBJ turning down the max contract. The Cavs have made moves every year to upgrade the team around LeBron…what more can he ask for? He has dictated or approved most of what they have done.

    Where can he go that gives him a better chance at a championship? The Knicks? Even with two max players, they have nothing else.

    The Nets? They win the lottery, get John Wall, sign LeBron, and another stud. A possibility, but LBJ would be banking on John Wall maturing pretty fast.

    The Clippers? Careers die there.

    The Heat? I could potentially see this if DWade re-signs. Miami, DWade.

    The Bulls? I don’t see LeBron going to a city where his legend will always be second to MJ. 6 titles. Monuments have been built for Jordan. The shoes are too big to fill. Anything less than 6 leaves LBJ in second place.

    I think LeBron is using the Kobe Bryant playbook. He will sign another 3 year deal with Cleveland, with player option for a 4th. That way, the Cavs will be forced to continuously upgrade the team around him and keep him happy. If the front office takes the petal off the metal, then he will leave. As long as LeBron’s free agent year is less than 3 years away, LeBron will maintain control.

    Plus, he has sent the rest of the league into a cap clearing frenzy. New Yorkers believe every top athlete wants to play there. They only go to the Yankees because the Steinbrenners overpay…not because they love New York. The beauty of the NBA…the Knicks, Nets, Lakers, Celtics can’t pay anymore than the Cavs. Actually, the can’t even pay as much as the Cavs. That’s why the Nets and Knicks suck. LeBron James has destroyed the Knicks for the next 5 years. By doing nothing, except torching them everytime he goes to MSG. He played the New York egos.

    Finally, LBJ is a hometown boy. He accepted his MVP at his high school. He built a mansion outside of Cleveland. He loves Mike Brown and his teammates. My money says he stays.

    Jamison locked up for 2 more years. JJ developing nicely. Mo Williams still under contract. His best chance for titles is at home.

  • Patrick Allen

    Eloquent argument Rod.

  • Dia

    Yes, eloquent argument Rod. Except for two things. First, the best team for him is not the Knicks, Clipjoint, Da Bulls or Cleveland. The best fit is the Lakers.

    Second, the Lakers have a long, long history of finding creative ways to lure, deal for and steal great players in their primes.

    As you even mentioned, only one player (Shaq) in NBA history turned down a max deal to leave for another team and that team was to go to the Lakers. And Lebron would make his move there for many of the same reasons.

    Selling this deal to Lebron is easy. If Lebron views himself as merely a great baller with some endorsements and that’s how he wants to be remembered for eternity, then he’s o.k. in Cleveland. But, if he wants to be more, much more, then he must be in a major media town, and the best market is LA. Plus, the Lakers management and LA as a town know how to coddle marketable superstars in the best way.

    You sell this to Kobe by telling him that by sharing the limelight with Lebron for the next 3 or 4 years, he’s guaranteed more rings that Jordan.

    Selling this to the league is simple..its great for ratings and merchandising all over the globe. David Stern couldn’t be happier and will do what he can to help (like he’s done many times before).

    A three team sign and trade does the deal. Cleveland agrees and comes away with players, or they don’t agree, get nothing and the deal is done without them. If I’m Jerry Buss I’m licking my chops right now.

  • Patrick Allen

    That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

    The only team Lebron and Kobe will ever play on together is an Olympic team.

    I was going to argue some points here but there is really no need. It is so absurd that my brain hurts just thinking about it.

  • Rod

    I can buy into that scenario, except for 3 things:

    1. Kobe will not share the court with another superstar. If Kobe wanted more rings, Shaq would still be a Laker and they would have 7 or 8 by now. Kobe wants it to be Kobe and the crew…Not Kobe and LeBron.

    2. The marketing would be better in LA, NY, Miami, or Chicago. But LBJ is already a global icon, I’m not convinced his value increases that significantly in a big market.

    3. If we wins titles in LA, he is just another in a long line of winners. Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Kobe, Shaq, etc. Someone LA will forget the day he retires and the next great Laker comes along. If he wins in Cleveland, they will build monuments to honor him. He will be remembered for decades. Just like Jordan. I think LeBron enjoys being the Big Fish in the smaller pond. In NY he would share the spotlight with the Yankees, In LA, he would share it with Kobe, and tons of celebrities. In Cleveland, he is the King.

  • Dia

    Love your take Rob. But…

    1. Shaq ate and lazied himself out of LA. Took being traded and Pat Riley to get him back in shape.

    And Kobe will swallow it whole; haven’t you noticed that he’s trying to sell the world on the ‘New Kobe’ these last few years. He’s matured and wants everyone to know it.

    2. Lebron’s value increases by multiples in LA. LA is the apex of the entertainment world.

    3. Being King of Cleveland is like being the King of Tonga. Nothing against Cleveland or Tonga. But wouldn’t you rather be the King of England instead of Tonga; and would it really matter how many English Kings came before you?

  • Mike

    Its comical that you blame fans and media from other cities for perpetuating rumors that LeBron is going to leave. LeBron is the one responsible for these rumors. He has done nothing over the past 2 years to put any stop to these rumors. Thats because he loves the rumors, he needs to be constantly coddled and reminded how great he is (LeBron is not alone in this, Kobe et al are just as culpable). Maybe the speculation will settle down when LeBron stops hanging out with Jay-Z, wearing Yankee hats, and talking about how much he loves New York. Until then, stop trying to play the victim card.

  • SJ

    Melnick,
    How is it that the Celtics are villains? We don’t have anyone on our team that refused to shake hands after losing in the playoffs, and we certainly don’t have any rapists on our team…so why are we the bad guys??

    • Patrick Allen

      I will not allow this discussion to become like the bitchy ESPN comments sections. This is a Cavs blog and we will be pro Cavs here.

      Seeing other teams, particularly rivals, as villains is natural for fans. I can’t stand the sight of most of the Celtics because they represent opposition to me. I never liked Powe when he was over there but now he is a Cav, so he is alright.

      Why, in God’s name, people want to get into spats about such crap is beyond me. Let the boys settle it on the court tonight and have civil discussions when you post here or don’t post here at all.

  • Murray Sussman

    Born and raised Clevelander now in So. Cal. Will die a fan of all Cleveland / Ohio sports. Huge Browns’ and Indians’ backers organizations here. Article is on the nose, have had my heart broken many times but will only make it so much more sweet when we win a championship.