An Athlete For The Ages

I never got to see Babe Ruth up at bat in a baseball game, watch Jesse Owens run and jump, or cheer as Jim Brown carried the football on a sweep . . . but I am getting to watch LeBron James play basketball.

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so spectacularly gifted that they break all the records, bust through every preconceived notion, and change their sport and the expectations about it in fundamental ways.  Babe Ruth singlehandedly turned baseball from a bunt and steal, scratch for a run, “small ball” game to one in which home run hitters and big innings were what brought fans to the ballparks.  Jesse Owens set records that lasted for decades and thumbed his nose at Hitler and his racist notions about a “master race” while doing so.  Jim Brown crushed every NFL rushing record then in existence and was such a dominant player, in size, speed, and power, that he is probably one of the few NFL players of his era who actually could have played, and starred, in the modern league.

And, then, there is LeBron James.  He hasn’t had quite the same impact on his sport as Ruth, Owens, and Brown, because he’s working against a much longer history of NBA players — but he’s still steadily moving up the all-time records lists, routinely scoring 30+ points in the playoff games when the challenges are the greatest, and winning, winning, winning, wherever he plays.  He’s probably not going to catch Bill Russell or Michael Jordan when it comes to winning championships, or score the most points every year, but in every game he is the dominant player and, to use Reggie Jackson’s phrase, the “straw that stirs the drink.”

And, speaking as a non-athlete, it’s pretty amazing to watch a barrel-chested, 6-foot-8, 270-pound man who can run like a deer, jump out of the gym, dunk from the free-throw line, shoot three-pointers, and block shots from the cheap seats.  He’s basically unguardable, and he imposes his will on every contest.  Watching LeBron James play is simply an awesome spectacle.

Let’s not engage in petty arguments about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, or worry about whether LeBron’s team wins the championship every year.  Let’s just savor the fact that we’ve got an athlete for the ages in our midst, and we’re lucky enough to watch him work his magic in real time.

In Titletown

This morning finds us in the City of Champions — Cleveland.  UJ, Russell and I came up yesterday afternoon to watch an early edition of October baseball as the Tribe beat the Detroit Tigers, 1-0, in a brilliant display of bullpen management by manager Terry Francona.  It was a fantastic nail-biter that ended in triumph.  Then we walked to a nearby pub to learn that, thanks to a well-timed rain delay, we could watch the entirety of Ohio State’s epic beat down of Oklahoma.  

Today we’re going to swing by Octoberfest on Public Square, then it’s off to see if the Browns can resemble a professional football team against the Ravens.  Can we complete the Cleveland-Buckeyes trifecta?  Or will we learn, as Meat Loaf once sang, that two out of three ain’t bad?

My Heart Is In Cleveland

I’m sitting at a computer here in Columbus, Ohio, but my heart is in Cleveland right now.

If I were physically in Cleveland, I’d be cheering my brains out, and drinking another beer, and buying a round for the bar, and wanting to stay out forever and talk about the game, and my town, and my teams, so the night would never end.

usa-today-8677789-0I’d want to think about LeBron James’ clutch block, and Kyrie Irving’s killer shot, and the nails defense that the Cavs played in the last quarter — because those plays had finally pushed The Drive, and The Fumble, and Red Right 88, and the ’97 World Series to the background, where they belong.  Bad thoughts have finally — finally! — been exorcised and replaced by happy ones.  And these are happy thoughts that we will always have.  I’ll never forget it, and I doubt that any true Cleveland sports fan will, either.

The people of Cleveland deserve it.  They really do.  They not only deserved to win, after so many years and so many heart punches, they deserved to win in historic fashion, with the northern Ohio kid who came home, with the first NBA team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win it, with the impossible three-game winning streak — including two victories on the road — against the best regular-season team ever.  No one will ever forget this NBA finals, and it went to the Cleveland Cavaliers.  LeBron James will never have to buy a drink in Cleveland, for the rest of his life.

When LeBron James fell to his knees and wept after the final buzzer sounded, I knew exactly how he felt.  My emotions were so close to the surface, I’m not sure if I was laughing or crying or cheering.  All I know is that 52 years of frustration was finally coming out, in whatever way it could.

Deep down, I think, I never really thought I would know what it felt like for a Cleveland professional sports team to win a championship.

Now I know.

Daring To Hope

This is for the Cleveland sports fans out there.  Anyone else is welcome to read it, but they won’t really fully understand it.  They can’t.

I know how you’re feeling.  You want to buy in to the Cavs, full-bore and without reservation, and go into the game tonight with supreme confidence that LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and the other members of the Wine and Gold can win and pull off the most improbable comeback ever and, for the first time in NBA history, bring a team back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA championship.

141204-clenyk-11But something’s holding you back.  We Cleveland sports fans don’t like to admit it, but it’s fear, and also guilt.  Fear, because we feel like we’ve seen this story before, and when we open our hearts to one of the Cleveland teams, our hearts always get broken.  I don’t need to recount all of those instances to you, because they’re engraved on our very souls.  The saying is “once bitten, twice shy,” and we’ve experienced that a hundred times over, to the point where we’re cowering in the corner when our teams do well or hardening our hearts by predicting failure in advance, thinking that if we do so and failure does come it won’t hurt quite so much.  That doesn’t work, by the way, because even under the hard, calculated public veneer there always lurks a delicate blossom of hope, fresh and unguarded, ready to be crushed anew.

Everyone — even non-Cleveland fans — can understand the fear component.  What they don’t get is the weird sense of guilt.  Every Cleveland sports fan I know personalizes the losses and believes, deep in the pit of their being, that they honestly are the cause of 52 years of misery.  Maybe it’s because they watched the game on TV, or because they didn’t.  Maybe it’s because they didn’t wear the right shirt, or because they didn’t go to church, or because they feel that they haven’t always been a good person.  I guarantee that, as I write this, hundreds of Cleveland fans are doing nice things for their spouses and kids and friends and are hoping that their good deeds might cause the cosmic tumblers to click into place for the Cleveland sports team, just this once.

It’s the professional sports version of the Butterfly Effect.  We know that we can jinx the Cavs because we have jinxed the Cleveland teams in the past, over and over again.  We routinely get accused of jinxing by our friends and family.  (I’m looking at you, UJ!)  I’m probably jinxing things by writing this, or I would have jinxed things by not writing it.

So we live our lives by these curious rules that make us watch games from a particular chair or eat a particular snack or send text messages to particular friends, hoping that we don’t do or say anything that brings it all crashing down around our heads.  We’re so bound up by our superstitions and fears and guilts that we can’t just enjoy it, ever.

I can’t change you, any more than I can change myself.  It’s just how I am, and it’s how we all are.  Because we’re all in this together, aren’t we?  We Cleveland sports fans are linked together in ways that fans of successful franchises can’t possibly imagine.

So, I wanted to wish all of my fellow Cleveland fans well, and tell you that I’m all in.

Let The Joes Go

As I write this the Cleveland Browns are getting shellacked by the Pittsburgh Steelers, and when the day is done the Browns will be 2-8 — one of their worst records since they came back to the NFL 15 years ago.  That’s saying something, because the Browns have had only one playoff appearance and lots of horrible records during that time period.

So, we’re in the midst of another awful year.  Why should I care?  I’m not watching the game today, because life’s too short.

But I do care, unfortunately.  I care because the Cleveland Browns fans most definitely deserve better than the steady diet of crap they get from this failed franchise.  But I also care because the Browns do have some good players, and I feel sorry that they are stuck on this perennial loser that never seems to improve, or learn from its mistakes, or figure out how to draft players who actually can perform as a team on the pro level.

So I say:  let the Joes go!

I’m talking about Joe Thomas and Joe Haden, and I’ll add Alex Mack, too.  All of them have earned All-Pro accolades, and all of them have spent their entire careers in Cleveland, living the same steady diet of crap that fans have endured.  They’re true professionals, one and all, but they’ve never tasted the sweetness of a post-season win.  The way the Browns look this year, that’s not going to change anytime soon.  And if Mike Pettine gets the axe at the end of the year — which seems to be the standard response of the Browns’ front office and owner — we’ll just go into another rebuilding mode with a new system and an entirely new coaching staff.

Let’s be fair to these guys.  The Browns front office should ask Thomas, Haden, and Mack whether they want to be traded.  If they love Cleveland and want to stick it out in hopes that someday, perhaps, the team will be better, fine.  But if they want to go somewhere where they actually have a realistic chance of playing on a playoff team, I think the Browns should honor their request and the fans should understand and thank them for their hard work.  We owe it to them for their years of tireless effort in the face of constant, crushing failure.

When LeBron James decided to leave the Cavs and go to the Miami Heat, I think many Clevelanders understood his desire to compete for a championship.  They didn’t mind the decision, so much as they hated the glitzy way he announced it.  (LeBron himself understands that was a mistake.)  I think Cleveland fans would be similarly understanding if Joe Thomas, or Joe Haden, or Alex Mack decided they wanted to shoot for the Super Bowl while they still can.

So I say, let the Joes (and Alex, too) go!

For The Cavs

I don’t particularly like the NBA.  I don’t like the one-on-one, isolation element of the game.  I think it’s ugly basketball.  I don’t like the calculated refereeing, or the glitzy, strobe light element of the player introductions, or a thousand other aspects of the over-hyped NBA version of basketball.

But, damn it, if the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t win this game and this series there is no justice in the world.  None.  Nada.  Zilch.

What does Cleveland have to do, anyway?  It has lost jobs by the thousands.  It has been humiliated.  It has had its river burn, and become the butt of sorry jokes.  It has had victory snatched from its grasp, and seen bitter disappointment by the score, again, and again, and again.

So, if there is anything fair, and proper, and reasonable in the world — if there are cosmic tumblers ready to click into place — if there is any semblance of balance — LeBron James and his teammates are due.

Damn it!  They are due!  Come on!

The LeBron Effect

The new-look Cleveland Cavaliers open their season tonight, playing at home against the New Your Knicks.  When I was driving home from work tonight, one of the local radio stations announced that it would be carrying the game.

“That’s odd,” I thought.  I don’t think any station carried the Cavs games last year.

And then I remembered:  LeBron is back.

If you ever wondered about the impact of one player on a team, a franchise, and a city, consider the LeBron Effect. When LeBron James announced that he was returning to Cleveland, it energized the city and the Cavaliers franchise, produced huge ticket sales and set the roster dominoes to falling.  Now the Cavs have a changed lineup and a changed attitude — and so do their long-suffering fans.  My friends up in Cleveland say that the Cavs are by far the toughest ticket in town.

With LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, the Cavs expect to contend for an NBA championship — which would be the first championship a Cleveland sports team has earned in 50 years.  Those expectations are a heavy burden, but LeBron James is used to the pressure.  It’s all just part of the LeBron Effect.