We Are All Witnesses

(Ethan Gates)– As I’ve explained on this blog before, I’m a Clevelander by technicality but not in spirit. Home to me has always meant Boston or New England in general, but after four years of high school and numerous vacations stuck in the Cleve, I have grown fond of my fallback residence, albeit in an occasionally passive-aggressive fashion. I love catching indie and foreign films at the Cedar Lee theater or the Cinematheque, I love relatively cheap concerts at the Grog Shop or the Beachland Ballroom or the Masonic Auditorium (I’m pumped right now to see The Shins tomorrow night) and there’s actually a fairly lively night life down on East 9th. But there’s still one point of contention between die-hard Clevelanders and I: sports. I pity the Indians, the Browns and the Cavaliers, and will root for them for the most part. But should any of those teams run up against their Boston counterpart? I will proudly fly my Bah-ston colors in Progressive Field, Browns Stadium or the Q.

Luckily, the NBA playoffs have provided me and Cleveland sports fans the opportunity to agree on something: we both want the Boston Celtics to pulverize LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Though I’ll always be a Celtics fan first and foremost, I have a soft spot for the poor Cavaliers. I don’t know if the rest of the country understands just how much this city invested in LeBron. He was GOING to bring a championship to the tortured franchise. He was GOING to end almost 70 years of professional sports failure in Cleveland. And he was going to do it because he was the hometown boy (I know he’s from Akron, but don’t let LeBron convince you that’s a bigger deal than it is; everyone in Akron is loyal to Cleveland teams).

So everyone here felt shocked and betrayed when LeBron decided to leave the Cavaliers and play in Miami with his best friends, spelling-challenged Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. It didn’t help that he announced his decision in a nationally televised press conference, one of the most bone-headed, tone-deaf, self-absorbed PR moves ever made by a star athlete. The national sports media machine sympathized with Cleveland for a while – until about a year ago, when Miami lost in the finals to the Dallas Mavericks. After one season of vitriol and criticism toward LeBron passed, Cleveland fans were suddenly informed that it was time for them to get over it. I don’t know how many times the talking heads on ESPN compared Cleveland to an obsessive ex-girlfriend (a cringe-worthy enough metaphor even if it were appropriate) or insisted that our desire for Miami to never win a championship was just sour grapes. Just a few days ago Rick Reilly, one of the most famous sportswriters in the country, wrote a column calling for the LeBron hate to end.

So I feel obliged to defend why I still root against LeBron. Why the cries of “gosh, get over it!” annoy me. Why I hope the Celtics send the Heat home tonight.

First off, let’s be clear that this is a sports rivalry. And in sports, you decide you don’t like teams and you cheer against them even though you don’t know any of the players personally because that’s what you do. It’s just how the system works. And as long as you keep that to shouting harmlessly at a TV screen, fine. In the heat of the moment I might say that I “hate” LeBron, but I don’t really mean it. I wouldn’t wish any physical harm on the man. I hope he and his fiancee and children have a happy life, especially once LeBron’s athletic career is over. What Reilly says is true: LeBron doesn’t treat valets like crap, he doesn’t have a terrible temper, he doesn’t call out his teammates or punch his coaches. But I’m not rooting against LeBron the person. I’m rooting against LeBron the athlete.

And yes, LeBron the athlete faces a tremendous amount of scrutiny. The 24/7 media gauntlet that ESPN has created is a brutal beast, unforgiving in its criticism of every move LeBron makes. Every time he passes off to a less talented teammate in crunch time. Every time he misses a free throw. Every time his team fails to win a championship. And yes, that criticism of his lesser moments often overshadows his tremendous, selfless talent on the court.

But I have little sympathy for LeBron, because he wasn’t just unsuspectingly thrust into this situation – he asked for it. He accepted the Messianic treatment Cleveland gave him. He chose to wear the number 23, inciting comparisons to Michael Jordan rather than dampening them. He explicitly promised on multiple occasions that he would not leave Cleveland until he brought the city a championship (and to be clear, this went beyond the usual sports posturing).

And even if I got over him leaving Cleveland, which is certainly possible – he did have a right to determine his own future, he just handled it badly – the crucial thing is he seemed to learn nothing from his Cleveland experience. Right after the Decision and the fallout, he went right back to promising Miami 8+ championships. LeBron sets a high standard for himself because it seems fun at the time, and then seems surprised when there are people who want to hold him to it. It wasn’t ESPN or Cleveland fans or Miami fans who created “Crown or Drown” for LeBron – he did.

I want that to be exposed. I want LeBron to reveal himself as the non-leader that deep down, Cleveland fans feared he was. LeBron positions himself as someone who can carry a team on his back all the way to a ring, but I don’t think he has it in him.

So I root against him because you know what? I like to be right, just like Rick Reilly or any other sportswriter likes to be right about stuff they will never be able to predict for certain. Will LeBron prove me wrong? Maybe. If he does, I’ll shut up. Until then, if I’m a “hater”, so be it.