Thursday, May 13, 2010

Cavaliers Win: LeBron Leaves or Stays; Cavaliers Lose: LeBron Stays or Leaves; Cleveland: We Have Problems

I take a back seat to no one in my detestation of all Boston sports teams. I went away to high school within shouting distance of Boston, and I learned to detest the smug arrogance of the Celtics as personified by their radio announcer, Johnny Most. As a young black person coming of age, I resented how Celtic success was undergirded by Bill Russell, Satch Sanders, and the Jones boys,Sam & K.C., -- all of whom were black -- but Bostonians’ love of their team was centered on Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, and Tommy Heinsohn – all white. I also couldn’t help but notice that the Red Sox were all white, the last Major League baseball team to integrate. They stunk, so that was o.k.

Cleveland’s major teams, on the other hand, were both uniformly good and thoroughly integrated during the time my attachments were formed. Marion Motley, Bill Willis and Dave Pope lived in my neighborhood. Our little league teams were named for Luke Easter, Larry Doby. Life would have been heavenly but for those damn Yankees. Elston Howard couldn’t even redeem them.

Don’t misunderstand, it wasn’t all about color: in fact, it was mostly about excellence. I loved Bob Lemon, Al Rosen, Vic Wertz, Otto Graham, Dante Lavelli, Lou the Toe, the whole lot of them. But those Cleveland teams were inclusive, and that was an essential ingredient of their excellence.

Away from the field or diamond we are far from a post-racial society, and not likely to get there for a long time. In the arena, however, is where we are perhaps closest: we all pretty much like winners and admire talent. There is no Cavs fan of any stripe or hue who wouldn’t want Nowitzki the German Maverick, Gasol the Spanish Laker, or Parker, the French Spur. And we all appreciate our own Lithuanian Z, even as we in the moment denounce the Mississippian Williams and Brown the peripatetic coach [army brat].

But back to Boston and the matter at hand: the Cavs, surprisingly, face elimination tonight against the Celtics. More incredibly, even given our history of sports disappointments, Greater Cleveland is already resigned to both defeat and departure, the latter of course a reference to the impending free agent loss of the world’s best player, LeBron James.

Losing to the Celtics would be terrible for me personally. I have two stepsons who live in Boston. Neal -- the handsome, generous, bright, lovable one -- is a staunch Cavs fan; his favorite player is Delonte West. Neal’s brother? Well, I love him too, but he has a really annoying habit of calling me up and gloating whenever his Bosox, Patriots, or Celts vanquish our local heroes. And their mother, my wife — a casual observer of sport but an acute observer of life — will always pontificate after the fact on the cruel psychological burden Cleveland sports teams carry for the entire region’s inferiority complex.

In 1964 I shivered in youthful joy in the upper deck of Memorial Stadium with my father and brother on that gloriously frigid day when the Browns shut out the Baltimore Colts, the last time a Cleveland team was world-best in a major sport. There was no shortage of heroes that day: Gary Collins, Jim Brown, Frank Ryan, the offensive line, the entire defense.

Cleveland was a major American city in 1964. We aren’t anymore, though we remain lead dog in a major region. Since then, our educational production has declined along with our population, our industrial output and our political muscle. Yet in the midst of our reversible decline, our biggest civic fear seems to be LeBron’s inevitable, imminent departure.

I want the Cavs to win, for personal and civic reasons, including enormous bragging rights. But if they lose, tonight, or Sunday, or to Orlando, or to Phoenix [more relatives] or Los Angeles, and Lebron leaves, it won’t be nearly as catastrophic as if we can’t find a way to get the Cleveland school administration and the union to collaborate on how best to educate our children, or if the world’s best medical institutions can’t find ways to arrest our third-world infant mortality rates, or if we can’t find ways to overcome our regional parochialism, or weave all of our citizens into a plan to restore our economy.


Andrea said...

Thank you for the last paragraph. I love basketball and Lebron but we have so many other problems than whether 25 year leaves or goes somewhere else.

Richard said...

Thanks Andrea! We love first-time commenters (repeaters even more!).

"NBA Champion Cavaliers" would sound great. It would be even better to be known as a diverse and welcoming urban community with an outstanding educational system, an equitable health care delivery system, honest, efficient, innovative regional government, and a vibrant local economy. If that were our rep, all kinds of free agents would flock here.