The Culture of Me!

lebron-james1Did LeBron James quit on the Cleveland Cavaliers two nights ago against the Celtics of Boston? On July 1st is he leaving the city that has venerated him as their King, their Savior of Cleveland sports, their emperor who would deliver their first championship parade in five decades?

As a St. Vincent-St. Mary high school and University of Akron alum, and a longtime New Yorker (since 1981), I have suffered through all of the Cleveland sports miscues and misadventures since our beloved Cleveland Browns won a championship in 1964 when I was 7 years old! Since then, many Northeast Ohio sports fans feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick that proverbial football through the championship uprights only to have Lucy yank it away at the last second, time and time again.However, I couldn't agree more with an article that was posted yesterday on Yahoo Sports by sports writer Adrian Wojnarowski.

His piece nailed it: "Across the regular season, James can play hard, let his talent take over and embark on all the side gigs that gobble his time.

This isn't a part-time thing. Winning everything takes a single-minded, obsessive devotion. Michael Jordan had it. Kobe Bryant does, too. They didn't want to win championships, they had to win them. They needed them for validation and identity and, later, they became moguls. LeBron James is running around recruiting college kids to his marketing company. He picks up the phone, tells them, 'This is the King,' and makes his pitch to be represented in his stable. Think Kobe would ever bother with this? Or Michael? Not a chance when they were on the climb, not when they still had a fist free of rings."

Sure, some Cleveland sports journalists and radio folks have hinted at LeBron's attitude and celebrity entitlement jag, but none of them put it all together in one brilliant article. I have shared his piece with many of my ailing Cleveland sports-obsessed brothers and sisters. And they all agree.

The sense of entitlement that our society affords celebs, athletes, politicians, etc., without delivering on anything is staggering. Huge financial windfalls, marketing campaigns, witty slogans, et al. Remember Nike's Kobe/LeBron puppet campaign last year? Looks even sillier this year. How about all the number 1 draft picks in football signed to staggering deals that flame out in a few short years while many of the NFL retirees can't afford health care to treat their battle wounds?

Andy Warhol was right about the "15 minutes of fame" jag. Problem is, everyone wants their 15 minutes. Everyone. The internet and social media sites have created a culture of "Look At Me!" that is staggering.

As I've told my two young children, the real celebrities/heroes are their teachers, grandparents, and friends. Those folks that nurture, teach, and influence them every single day. Not spoiled, over-exposed celebs who create inessential drama to be consumed and regurgitated by newspapers and websites ad nauseam.

As Public Enemy pronounced so many years ago... "Don't believe the hype."

'Bron, as a fellow St. V-St. M alumni, last time I checked, team sports meant playing for each other, for the team, even for a much-beleagured city. Inspiring each other, lifting up each other. Leaving it all on the floor. Sure delivering championships on the promises afforded your god-like athletic prowess may be totally unrealistic. And two consecutive MVP trophies are fantastic testaments to your greatness, but your enduring sports legacy will be measured by winning championships. Just ask Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Bill Russell (he won 11 rings!!!). I doubt they worried about marketing their image/brand before (or after) they won anything.

But even with all of that, regardless of the outcome tonight against the Celtics of Boston, and whether LeBron stays or leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers for greener pastures, I know I'll be able to sleep because, I've been able to deal with all of the Cleveland sports heartache over the years by remembering one timeless mantra:

"It's only a game!"

dusty5a

peace, Dusty 

Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.

Hostages of the Manchild

In the wake of the most catastrophic week of basketball a Clevelander could ever dread witnessing, I have to admit that I don’t have the stomach for anything approaching reasoned analysis. Play-calling, statistics, matchups, substitutions – all of it seems meaningless in discussing what actually happened in the Cavaliers gruesome meltdown against the Celtics.

But while I may find myself incapable of engaging with the particulars of such a grim all-around performance, one thing remains clear: blame for this travesty can’t be placed in any one place.

First, let’s get past the obvious. LeBron was clearly hurt. The way he handled the injury – first with cryptic explanations that seemed designed to cultivate national curiosity, then with his bizarrely disengaged play – well, that was disconcerting. But ultimately, this wasn’t about a strained elbow or a mental lapse. This was about a colossal failure of heart.

Anyone who’s talked basketball with me in the past five years knows that I’ve been on the fire-Mike-Brown bandwagon since before there was one. I credit him with instilling a defensive mindset in the franchise – and absolutely nothing else. Zilch. Anyone who argues for his worth always talks about the Cavs regular-season success the past two years, but by any measure of the actual skills on which a coach should be judged, his record is dismal. Throughout his time in Cleveland, he has been consistently unable to figure out rotations for his rosters, utterly inept at gauging time-outs or substitutions, bafflingly unwilling to develop anything resembling a playbook, and most damning of all, simply lacking in feel for the rhythms of his teams. If you can’t tell the ebb from the flow, you have no business coaching basketball at any level.

But it’s only in the last week, when the consensus for firing Brown is at last approaching unanimity, that I’ve come to understand he’s not the real problem. Sure, he he needs to get the axe – he stinks – but he’s more a symptom than a cause of what’s wrong with the Cavs. And what I’ve now come to see is that what’s wrong with the Cavs is, finally, and sadly, a reflection of what’s wrong with Cleveland.

The only reason an obvious dunderhead like Brown (and really, come on, just LOOK at the guy) was allowed to coach the Cavs for so long is that the franchise has been held captive by a manchild who has preferred to have lapdogs and sycophants than teachers and guides. For all the seeming generosity and selflessness that LeBron has shown given his once-in-a-generation talent and status as a global icon – he has lacked the one thing that would show true humility: the willingness to submit to the basketball wisdom of someone smarter than him. Time after time he has called himself the leader of the team – and that has been the problem. He shouldn’t be the leader; he’s the star. Not the same thing. Far from it, in fact.

And, as has been amply written about, LeBron is a new kind of star – the star as 21st-century globalized mogul whose image and value is maintained by exerting control over every aspect of his brand. And that’s fine, even kinda cool in its own way, except that the game isn’t a brand, and when a franchise starts hiring people because of their blind support rather than their willingness to challenge the elephant in the room, it shows up in the game. All that nail-biting BronBron used to do was a tell-tale sign: the control freak lurking inside the class clown dancing on the sidelines.

But, come on. We were foolish to expect that kind of maturity from an 18-year-old kid from Akron who was given – in startlingly quick succession – the keys to the city, the league and really, the world. And this is where the failure of the Cavs seems an almost unavoidable consequence of being from Cleveland. They are representatives of a city that has stopped believing in the possibility of its own good luck.

Ever since the decline of domestic steel production, not just Cleveland, but Northeast Ohio as a whole, has suffered one indignity after another. The legendary sports meltdowns are really just the punchline to more than a half-century of a region’s genuine pain, suffering, mismanagement, ever-deepening poverty, malaise and hopelessness. The Cuyahoga River catching on fire doesn’t even rate any more. At least we had working factories to produce river-burning chemicals back then. When I visited Cleveland after the mortgage crisis hit last year, driving through parts of the city was like
touring the set of a post-apocalyptic thriller – except that there were no thrills, no moments of drama, not even any storylines, just things broken beyond repair.

So back when the sporting world, and then the world at large, anointed LeBron as The Chosen One, we Clevelanders were always haunted by self-doubt, by our nagging certainty that our luck couldn’t last. “Born here, raised here, plays here, STAYS here,” reads the billboard they erected in downtown Cleveland last month… but we never could quite get ourselves to believe that last part. That he’d be the hometown kid, then that we’d be able to draft him, then that he’d actually deliver on the promise of his talent and finally bring a single ray of positive attention to our city? Well, our luck just couldn’t keep going. We weren’t quite sure how, but we knew that one way or another, it would all end in pain and disappointment again.

And so the franchise was tentative and solicitous, adopting the stance of the city, coddling LeBron, catering to his every whim, nobody willing to tell him that we love him and depend on him but that’s all the more reason that sometimes he should shut the hell up and listen to those older and wiser than him (and Warren Buffett doesn’t count). Up until the Orlando series last year, we just kept hoping that somehow his youth and talent would outpace our fear and misfortune and he’d at least get us one before bolting. Fool-me-twice chumps that we are, we even allowed ourselves to hope that if he tasted one, he might want to stay for more. But we never believed. We knew we needed him more than he needed us. And he knew it, too.

So… to the question supposedly on everyone’s mind. Where to now?

For my money, the way LeBron ripped off his jersey the moment he was out of the arena and into the tunnel at the end of Game 6, you gotta think that was curtains for Cleveland. Whatever else he needs to learn, the most image-conscious superstar ever to play professional sports doesn’t need lessons in staging. No way that seemingly casual act of disrobing was anything but premeditated and intentional. In the seven-year run of The LeBron James Show (Cleveland Edition), this was the key moment, the opportunity to forge the iconic retrospective image for years to come, the chance to make metaphor. I bet he even knew exactly where the camera was – the low-angle tracking shot perfectly framing his neoprene-clad musculature against the receding light of the Garden to capture the moment #23 was off his back.

Three weeks ago, I could never have imagined I’d be writing these words, but I hope that was it. I hope that was goodbye. For seven years, I firmly believed that LeBron’s high-wattage celebrity cast a ray of hope on a once-proud, long-suffering town. “He’s really the only thing we have left,” I often told people. But now, with the media circus of his free-agency hanging over the next six weeks like a nauseating, toxic cloud of narcissism, I see LeBron’s time in Cleveland for what it was – the long shadow of an immense ego, cast over a region where the skies are already grey enough. He literally overshadowed an entire city. And no city should have to settle for the reflections of one athlete’s bright-burning vanity when what it so desperately needs is real change, real light.

So thank you, LeBron for giving us seven thrilling, yet ultimately heartbreaking years – and I say that without a hint of sarcasm. But really, in the end, what you gave us is nothing special in Cleveland. We’ve seen that before. It’s true, we acted like you owed us everything for a long time, and we can admit it now – that didn’t turn out so well for either of us. But it’s time for you go now.

It’s OK. Really. We promise. We’ll be OK. You can go be #6 now.

Just one last favor, though. Could you maybe just do it quick? We know that the whole world is watching and waiting, and we‘re sure that makes you feel pretty good – like you’re not just sports important, but really important. But for your hometown’s sake, how about doing us a solid and not toying with us for the next six weeks? Let us go, too. Let us get back to nursing our wounds of rejection, pondering the relentlessness of divine disfavor, and reconnecting to what's unique about Cleveland – a relationship with failure so intimate, so strangely comfortable that it's almost like love. Maybe that’s the reason we’re still here at all.

Or Maybe

Or maybe LBJ has a good excuse for the other day. Maybe his elbow is killing him. Or maybe his has been diagnosed with ALS, MS, or AIDS and can't bring himself to disclose it. Maybe he just had a bad game, and tonight he will take a step toward delivering us all to the Promised Land. Maybe I pee Cold Duck. Misery out!

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