Shenanigan: Interpreting King James


Cleveland is, at this point, used to being abused. When you’re mostly known for a humiliating fire, there’s not much you can do for PR.* Even The Drew Carey Show and Hot in Cleveland mostly capitalize on the stereotype of Clevelanders as a bunch of long-suffering rubes with the collective sex appeal and cultural erudition of Joey Trebbiani from Friends.

I’m sure most people in the city would rather be known for, say, the Cleveland Institute of Art, symphonies at Severance Hall, or Playhouse Square, but instead we wind up featured in works like Major League, a movie about a sports team owner who tries to shuffle the team away to a city with a better climate. To add insult to injury, it was less than a decade later that Art Modell said, “Hey, that’s a great idea!” and moved the Browns to Baltimore, renaming them the Ravens.

So really, the fact that LeBron James just played the city like the ugly girl at the end of the bar is nothing more than the slapdash icing on a burnt and bitter cake. And in some ways, I’m glad to see him go. Cleveland and the local media have been playing the Helena to James’s Demetrius for seven years now, fawning over his basketball skills, throwing anxious fits about whether he’d play for his hometown or “betray” us for a bigger city, duly nosing about when his mother bought him (gasp!) a Hummer. The city went so far in recent years as to drape a massive scroll of his likeness over the side of one of the taller buildings in town, captioned “We are all witnesses” in a bizarre aping of both Messianic culture and Chairman Mao.

But the thing about attention and adulation is that jaw-dropping excess is still never enough.** And when a city has already done everything but elect you their god-king, what can you do to get even more attention? Why, let your eye wander, of course. And with the end of his contract with the Cavaliers approaching, James milked the media for all they were worth. And at the end of it all was an hour-long ESPN sideshow, culminating in a very public break-up. There was some money donated to the local Boys and Girls Club, however, which I’m told makes it all okay.

For a brief moment in the city of Cleveland, LeBron James became more reviled than Goldman Sachs, BP, Miley Cyrus, the United States Congress, and Chad the Alltel guy combined. People burned his jerseys in the street, threw rocks at his enormous likeness, and generally bemoaned the fact that Cleveland’s economy no longer has a leg to stand on. The Cavs’ general manager sent out an angry little press release (in Comic Sans, no less), declaring that James was “taking the curse” with him and that the Cavs will win a championship before James can.

Personally, I’m less of a believer in storybook endings, no matter how tempting the fantasy. Most likely, Cleveland will continue to be the butt of the joke, the ugly girl at the end of the bar. And James, barring a change of heart or career-ending injury***, will probably go on winning games and making his new hometown proud.

Oh, well. At least we still have the Rock Hall.

* Chicago got loads of sympathy for their fire . . . but that was the 1870s rather than the 1970s. Not to mention that Chicago burned down the city instead of the river, but I digress.
** As an experienced fisher for compliments, I should know.
*** I’m not wishing such on him, but goodness gracious would it ever be poetic.

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