I am a recent Cleveland transplant, so when I comment on matters Cleveland I’m mostly a mouthpiece for my wife, who was born and raised in Northeast Ohio.
So I got an earful from her when LeBron James announced The Decision in 2010, and participated in schadenfreude-soaked ribbing she got in return from the entire rest of the country.
And her first comment about the news of, to paraphrase Seinfeld’s Jackie Chiles, the most public of Cleveland’s many humiliations? “The worst thing is, if he drops any hint of changing his mind we’ll come racing to take him back.”
Well, I wasn’t a Clevelander in 2010. Nor am I a basketball fan. So I never had a number 23 jersey to burn, I never booed his image on the screen or, bizarrely, tried to take credit for a completely different team, based 1,000 miles away from Cleveland, beating the Miami Heat for the title in 2011. And I certainly didn’t get fined $100,000 by the NBA for publicly burning every possible professional bridge with the Michael Jordan of our times in an unhinged rant (typed in Comic Sans, for good measure) calling him “narcissistic,” “cowardly” and “heartless” and ending by, seriously, putting a curse on him. And I didn’t then have to awkwardly apologize and take it down from the Internet the weekend before the announcement.
So theoretically I don’t have a dog in this fight. But that didn’t stop me, as a self-identified Clevelander, from cringing a bit at the public spectacle my home city became as the nation turned its eye on our intense love-hate relationship with King James and how, after all the shouting about James being a Benedict Arnold and forever banished, everyone is now rolling out the red carpet for him with one hand and frantically shoveling as much crow as they can swallow into their face with the other.
The main thing is I never really thought LeBron James deserved any heat to begin with. I know my fellow nerds find sports dominance hard to appreciate unless it’s delivered in graph form, but we’re talking about one of, if not the most, versatile and impressive NBA players in history, showered in money, hype and opportunities since he was in high school.
This is after a childhood characterized by poverty, struggle, and fear. There are tons of celebrities who’ve had way less pressure on them and way less opportunity to screw up who still didn’t make it to 30 without a criminal conviction.
By contrast, the absolute worst scandal on LeBron James’s record is The Decision. (If there were something worse, the incredible wrath of Cleveland’s whole population of sports bloggers would almost certainly have dug it up in the past four years.)
And what was so bad about The Decision? That a 26-year-old man finding success in his chosen career might move out of Northeast Ohio to pursue professional opportunities in a city with a lower median age where you’re not still shoveling snow on tax day?
Because that’s what everyone in Cleveland does. At least 10,000 Clevelanders in their 20s do that every year. Pretty much every year they do a news story about the city’s government and businesses wringing their hands trying to put a stop to it.
James then went on to say he was coming back to the Midwest now that he was married and thinking about settling down somewhere to raise his kids. Again, exactly like everyone else from Cleveland does when they turn 30. Exactly like why my wife wanted us to move back to Cleveland, in fact. The only thing that makes James’s story unique is that in his case the story took place on national TV.
Even the fact that The Decision disrespected Cleveland isn’t unique to him. I have, in fact, never lived in a place whose proud residents so consistently and gleefully disrespect their hometown as Cleveland.
Every time I meet someone in Cleveland and mention that I recently moved here after having lived in LA and DC I get jokes about Cleveland, many of them direct quotes from the wildly successful “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” sketch, itself a creation of lifelong Clevelander Mike Polk.
For a city whose greatest shame is supposedly the Cuyahoga River catching fire due to extreme pollution, we sure love bringing it up over and over again, in the names of our craft beer and local bands.
We’re a city with a theme song, and unlike “New York, New York” it doesn’t paint Cleveland as a land of opportunity; no, we have the mayor of Cleveland appearing at public events with Ian Hunter’s “Cleveland Rocks” unironically playing him in, a song that names Cleveland residents as “all the little kids growing up on the skids.” Our most popular T-shirt isn’t about the Cleveland Clinic being a leader in medical research or the world-class Cleveland Orchestra, it’s a smog-filled skyline with the slogan “Cleveland: You’ve Got to Be Tough.”
From the numerous digs against the city by one of its most famous native sons on The Drew Carey Show (the show that introduced “Cleveland Rocks” to the masses) to Mayor Jackson giving the key to the city to the stars of Hot in Cleveland, a show whose premise is literally based on Cleveland being “flyover country,” it’s kind of hard to deny: As much as I hate to engage in victim-blaming, I think the reason everyone dogs on Cleveland is that we ask for it.
Which, really, isn’t that unusual. The city of Detroit went even further with the Rust Belt chic thing with the famous Chrysler Super Bowl commercial starring Eminem in 2011, which seemed to imply that surviving to adulthood within Detroit’s city limits was equivalent to serving a stint with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Even people from the “nicest” parts of the country try to downplay that “niceness.” People who grew up in Westchester County pretend to be from Spanish Harlem, people who grew up in Orange County pretend to be from South Central, and then there’s the “mockney” phenomenon of British actors who went to Oxford dropping their H’s to sound more credible. (Even the Geico gecko did it!)
Everyone likes stories about underdogs. No one wants to be “privileged,” or spoiled. As SNL hilariously skewered in 2008, our political campaigns have partly become competitions for candidates to debate who had the rougher childhood. It’s fun to moan and complain about the hardscrabble struggle of Cleveland life, even though the “toughest” thing I personally have to do in any given week is find good Thai food that’s not too far a drive from the suburb where I live.
So, on some level, Cleveland had to play up how horribly humiliating and wounding LeBron James’s decision was, for the same reason that neither Alanis Morissette nor Ben Folds were able to get over their exes in the 1990s—it was built into our brand.
It’s the reason well-meaning Cleveland PR reps can’t win when they try to throw up “positive messages” about the growing Cleveland tech market or the beautiful Metroparks or the local music scene against the image of Cleveland as one big decaying slum—that image is coming from Clevelanders.
To an audience that’s coming to hate “bi-coastal” elitist snobs, that’s coming to bristle at portrayals of Americans as out-of-touch and spoiled compared to the rest of the world, being an authentic place where authentic people struggle against authentic problems is a blessing. Hipster gentrifiers don’t gravitate to communities that portray themselves as prosperous utopias, they gravitate to whoever’s got the best underdog narrative—and in that respect Cleveland has a big head start.
And sports, if anything, just serves as a way to act out this competition on a more melodramatic stage. Who talks about sports “curses” as much as the fans who stubbornly remain fans in the face of such curses? What teams are more popular to hate than the dominant, well-funded ones that conspicuously do not have a curse, like the Yankees or the Cowboys?
And when it comes to the overall Cleveland Curse on our sports franchises, it’s Clevelanders who generally won’t shut up about how we’ve played the Washington Generals to everyone else’s Harlem Globetrotters. The rest of the country remembers iconic moments like “The Catch” by Willie Mays in 1954 as a Giants victory, “The Drive” by John Elway in 1987 as a Broncos victory and “The Shot” by Michael Jordan in 1989 as a Bulls victory. Here, they are first and foremost Cleveland defeats. As The Onion reliably summed up in satire, this self-flagellation is a kind of Cleveland community obsession, while the rest of the country mostly doesn’t notice.
So of course we have to dramatize our collective feeling of being LeBron’s on-again-off-again jilted ex to stratospheric levels, ignoring that both leaving for Miami in the first place and coming back were decisions that made pretty good business sense.
We have to be on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. We have to nurse heartbreak and betrayal and newfound fragile hope. We have to turn this into a soap opera. We have to do something to maintain our sense of ourselves as downtrodden underdogs even with one of the greatest basketball players of all time back on our roster.