LeBron's loyalties all in good cheer
LeBron James should never wear a New York Yankees cap or don the blue-and-silver colors of the Dallas Cowboys, as far as some cranky Cleveland sports fans are concerned.
If they had anything to say about it, the Cavaliers' superstar would not dine on New York cheesecake, New England clam chowder or Philly cheese steaks. Rice-A-Roni is out, too, since it is, after all, the San Francisco treat.
The touchiest among them do not want to see James' driving Detroit iron or even finding one of his European luxury motorcars clamped in a Denver boot. Nor would they appreciate his veering anywhere near the fine Ohio college in Oxford; sure, Robert Frost once called it the most beautiful campus ever, but that name -- Miami University -- is a problem.
No, fans of the Cavaliers -- a certain insecure subset of them, anyway -- want James to be all about Cleveland, Cleveland, Cleveland. Nonstop, 'round the clock. Twenty-four seven, not to mention 19 (Bob Feller), 32 (Jim Brown), 5 (Lou Boudreau) and 76 (Lou Groza). Come to think of it, James' own 23 is a little threatening because it is his personal tribute to a guy who played in Chicago and now works in Charlotte.
Why, oh why, couldn't LBJ have become buds with Tracy Chapman, Bobby Womack or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Clevelanders all, rather than cozying up to Brooklyn's own Jay-Z? Watching old Bob Hope and new Wes Craven movies, laughing at Drew Carey, admiring Halle Berry and generally living one's life by asking, "What Would Arsenio Hall Do?" has been good enough for most Clevelanders. It ought to be good enough for LeBron.
Clearly, though, it is not. James offended the local sports loyalists last fall when he showed up at an Indians-Yankees playoff game at Jacobs Field wearing his Bronx Bombers cap. Last Sunday in Cleveland -- in what the Associated Press report described as "in full view of Browns players" -- LeBron joked and glad-handed on the sideline before the game with Dallas owner Jerry Jones and controversial Cowboy players Terrell Owens and Adam (Pacman) Jones. That display really bent out of shape some Cleveland faithful, even if Browns receiver Braylon Edwards didn't seem to mind.
"It didn't bother me,'' Edwards said the other day. "As I've gotten to know LeBron, LeBron isn't a Cleveland guy. LeBron only plays for the Cavaliers, and who knows if he even likes the Cavaliers? He doesn't like the Indians. He doesn't like the Browns. He's a guy from Akron who likes everybody but his hometown.
"I don't know how that's possible, but it is what it is and he is who he is. You know, it's LeBron.''
No, it's outrageous. Audacious. And entirely understandable, even admirable, when you put it all in context:
Remember, James has grown up in a world shrunken by cable TV, satellite radio, cell phones, the Internet and Blackberries. He rooted for out-of-town teams in part simply because he could. For a kid in Akron, keeping up with George Steinbrenner's and America's team was about as easy as staying current on Cleveland's. Besides, Akron isn't Cleveland; maybe folks there get to root for other teams.
A Rust Belt city can't have an international superstar in its midst without expecting that he might feel some kinship with other international superstars. The rich and famous tend to gravitate toward, that's right, the rich and famous. There isn't anyone else in Cleveland these days as rich and famous as LBJ, so it's natural for him to look elsewhere for peers. A good measure of the pride Cavs fans feel about James' being one of theirs is the fact that the world knows it. Yet they want him to think globally and act locally, like he's fresh from a sales seminar at the Holiday Inn. Sorry, but as the song goes, how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree? Or Beijing?
James was born in December 1984. That means his formative years as a sports fan ran basically from 1991 through 2003, from about age 6 through 18, right? During that time, the Browns were 42 games under .500 -- and left town for three seasons (1996-98), from the time James was 11 until he turned 14. The Cowboys, during that same time, were 30 games over .500, posted 10 victories or more in seven seasons and won three Super Bowls.
The Indians, despite their overall history, were actually pretty good during James' Wonder Years. They finished in first place six times in seven years and won 101 games more than they lost. But the Yankees were, well, the Yankees, capturing 10 division titles in a span of 11 seasons, winning four World Series titles and going 305 games over .500.
In other words, what James' apparel choices and sideline antics prove is that, rather than being anti-Cleveland, he just roots for winners. Front-running? Yeah, something kids tend to do. It also might have a lot to do with his wanting to be a winner himself.
What matters is what James does while he's wearing the Cavaliers' wine-and-gold, when he's on the clocks (48 minute and 24 seconds) and truly in a position to lift or dampen Cleveland's sporting spirits. Remember, these are non-NBA teams he's rooting for. It isn't Allen Iverson's showing up for a news conference after a Philadelphia game in a Celtics throwback jersey, in what some Sixers fans felt was a shout-out to a rival franchise to come knocking via trade or free agency. The Cowboys might like LeBron's potential as a free safety -- actually, I like his potential as a free safety -- but they pose no realistic threat.
Not like, say, the Brooklyn Nets in 2010.
That is at the center of this, the incessant, pounding, clammy-hands-inducing paranoia that James, two years from now, will partner up with Jay-Z as the face and future of the New Jersey Nets once they're relocated and he's contractually free to go. Showing so much affinity for people, things and places decidedly not Cleveland is a scary reminder that they're all on the clock -- James, the Cavaliers, their fans -- to accomplish what arrived with so much promise back in 2003.
Regardless, even if James is being a bit of a brat by flaunting his out-of-town allegiances smack dab in Cleveland venues, that is no excuse for the locals to react like rubes. It feeds the image of the city as having an inferiority complex, something to apologize for. Phillip Morris, a metro columnist at the Plain Dealer, called James on his loyalties in print this week but mostly just opened the insecurity vein a little wider:
"Does Cavaliers superstar James really hate Cleveland that much? Does the anointed one really think we're all a bunch of losers?'' Morris wrote. "If not, why does No. 23 go out of his way to show his disdain for professional sports teams in Cleveland that don't involve rims and orange balls? ... [Does] he have to keep getting in our faces with his love for other teams?''
Reaction to Morris' column, judged by comments on the paper's Web site, was as passionate as reaction to the stuff in LeBron's closet. Many readers attaboy-ed his sentiment, while many others griped that Morris' criticism would only sour James more on the city and region.
But then, the superstar's people reportedly are already unhappy with the Cleveland media, believing that they are too hard on, and demand too much from, their guy. On that one, LBJ might want to seek out another out-of-towner and see what Alex Rodriguez thinks about that. There's one superstar who might wish he were wearing anything but a Yankees cap.