Joe Throwback: A Boulevard Called Chagrin
This is a throwback piece of a certain time and place. The time was 2010, in the months after LeBron James made his famous and infamous “Decision” to leave Cleveland for South Beach. The place was Cleveland. I had returned home to remember my grandfather, Usher, who had died a year earlier.
So much happened after this. LeBron went to Miami and played in four consecutive NBA Finals, winning two of them. Then he came back to Cleveland, lugged the Cavaliers to four consecutive NBA Finals, and won one of them. Since then, he has gone out to Los Angeles with mixed results. He is, I believe, the greatest player in NBA history. But that’s a whole different thing.
This is about my hometown in aftermath of the Decision.
CLEVELAND — Angry? You have no idea. Let’s just put it this way. Last weekend, when I checked into my Cleveland hotel near the aptly named boulevard of Chagrin, the manager gave me a little gift bag (with water and such) and a letter. When you travel a lot, the managers always give you nondescript letters with multiple exclamation points, letters that look a little something like this:
Dear Valued Customer!
Thank you so much for your business! If there is anything we can do to help you enjoy your stay, please do not hesitate to Dial 0 and ask! We here at the hotel take great pride in our customer service! Please put us to the test! And thank you again for your business! We know there are many options for a busy traveler like you! Thank you!
The Hotel Staff!
I long ago stopped reading these letters, for obvious reasons. And I did not read this one. That was until my wife glanced at it and said, “Um, have you read this letter?”
“You might want to take a look at it.”
So I looked at it. It welcomed me to the hotel, said how excited they were to have me there, and all the usual stuff.
“Keep reading,” my wife said.
Then came this: “I wanted to also let you know that we especially appreciate the articles you have written in the past few weeks regarding LeBron James. I’m not going to expound on the subject, but let me just say that we all applaud the opinions that you have so eloquently shared in your articles.”
Angry? You have no idea.
The striking part is how many houses are for sale in and around my old neighborhood. Forbes magazine this year ranked Cleveland as America’s most miserable city, three spots ahead of Detroit, that rival rust-belt city that had been the final punch line of the most recent Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video gag on YouTube (“At least we’re not Detroit! We’re not Detroit!).
Well, people have been saying that sort of misery thing about Cleveland for many, many years, long before I was even born… but something about all those “For Sale” signs makes it feel a little bit different. The signs seem to be in every front yard, block after block, like they are political signs, like people want to encourage everyone to vote for RE/MAX or Prudential.
“You don’t know,” Michael, one of my childhood friends, tells me over corned-beef sandwiches at Corky and Lenny’s on that boulevard named Chagrin. “The city is dying.”
“Come on,” I say, “people always say Cleveland is dying.”
“Yeah,” he says. “But this time it really is.”
Angry? You have no idea. There are people who set up at Progressive Field, before Indians games, to sell anti-LeBron James stuff: T-shirts, hats, voodoo dolls, that sort of thing. This is not new or original. This is exactly the sort of thing that people do after various minor catastrophes.* In Lawrence, Kan., I remember them selling “Benedict Williams” shirts after Roy Williams left Kansas to coach at North Carolina. At Stanford, after The Play — the famous five-lateral play where Cal’s Kevin Moen finished it by crashing into the end zone and the Stanford band — they sold T-shirts showing all the various penalties that Cal’s players had committed but had not been called.
*Jerry Seinfeld once said that if they had T-shirts in biblical days, people would have sold them after the Ten Plagues (“Boils! I Was There!” “Locusts Descended And All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt!”).
But, eventually, the agony fades. And that’s what’s different about the anti-LeBron James feeling here: It only seems to be growing. The anger only seems to be rising. When LeBron James humiliated his hometown by going on ESPN to announce to the world that he was taking his talents to South Beach so he could ball it up with a few buddies and try to win the championship he could not come close to winning as the star here, well, there was the expected fury. People around the NBA questioned James’ heart. Former players questioned his competitiveness. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a Comic Sans screed that called James a quitter and a loser. The Cleveland Plain Dealer put up its now-famous front page photo of LeBron James walking away — with an arrow and small print pointing to his still naked championship ring finger. In time, around the nation, as was inevitable, the story lost steam. Yes, people were disgusted. But the Miami Heat — starring Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh — will be (after all) interesting to watch, to root for or root against, to follow as a sign of the times. Michael Jordan made the point that he never wanted to join Isiah Thomas or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird — he wanted to BEAT them, and that rings true. The Superfriends in Miami feels like something new. People will want to know how it turns out.
Only the story will not lose steam in Cleveland. The rage does not dissipate. When a fan showed up to an Indians-Yankees game on Wednesday wearing a LeBron James Miami Heat jersey, he was booed and heckled and taunted so mercilessly by so many hundreds of fans that he was escorted out of the stadium. Maybe the guy thought it would be kind of funny to tweak the Cleveland fans, to draw a little anger, to be the wise guy — some people are like that. And, hey, it’s just sports. He badly misunderstood. It’s not just sports here. This is no joke here. This is not funny here. Angry? You have no idea.
“Buy your F— LeBron shirts here!” the man in front of the stadium shouts. And then this: “The kids love them!”
I grew up in a circle of immigrants — my parents came to America and Cleveland just a couple of years before I was born. Their friends were immigrants themselves. And as they gather together again, all these years later, to remember my grandfather, I notice for the first time that each one seems to have a different accent. An English accent. A Hungarian accent. A Polish accent. A Russian accent. And so on. It seemed normal when I was growing up, I never even thought about it. That was just Cleveland to me… a flurry of accents, the smell of bread in Little Italy, the kids kicking soccer balls outside Arabica Coffee Shop in Coventry, the Wiener Schnitzel at Balaton, the guy throwing pizza dough in the air at Geraci’s, the orthodox Jews walking along Green Road…
Now, though, their different accents sound so odd together, because they are all talking about LeBron James.
“I think he purposely lost in the playoffs,” says one woman who has known me since I was born and, as far as I can remember, never once before has talked about sports. “I believe it.”
“It’s true,” says another woman in another accent. “He knew that if he won the championship, it would have been harder to leave.”
“He just played like a loser,” one of the men says. “There is no doubt that he was not trying. Remember that elbow injury?”
Everyone in the room nods. In the deciding game of the playoffs against Chicago, LeBron James’ right elbow hurt so much that he shot his final free throw left-handed… bricking it badly. The injury was called an elbow strain, and James played every game in the conference semifinals against Boston. But in this room — and all over this town — the elbow injury is just another odd subplot. “I think he knew he was leaving,” the man says, putting words to the theory. “And so he faked that elbow injury.”
“Why would he do that?”
“So he would have an excuse when he left,” the man says.
There is no talk in this room about the seven remarkable seasons of LeBron James in Cleveland, the 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists he averaged, the two MVP awards he won, the way he dragged the 2007 team to the Finals, the pride in basketball that he instilled in a city where the Cavaliers were a non-entity. There is no talk about the joy of watching LeBron James play basketball like no one ever had in Cleveland, and no room for such talk. Not now. Maybe not ever.
“I never want to see anyone get hurt, but…” another woman with another accent says, and I have to stop listening.
Angry? You have no idea. Bill Livingston, a sports columnist for the Plain Dealer and someone I have been friendly with for 20 years, just this week wrote an entire column under the headline: “Retire LeBron James’ No. 23 Jersey with the Cleveland Cavaliers? No Way.”
The headline describes Bill’s opinion, which is essentially this: Cleveland should never retire LeBron James’ jersey. Bill says that James’ greatness is indisputable… and the cruel way he chose to leave Cleveland is unforgivable. “It took a lot to turn such gold into lead, but he managed it,” Bill wrote. He wrote that the other Cleveland sports villains (with the exception of the never-to-be-forgiven Art Modell) were simply victims of the moment, and in that he is right.
• Craig Ehlo may be remembered in town as the guy that Michael Jordan made his famous shot over… but hey, the guy was Michael Jordan.
• Brian Sipe may be remembered for throwing the interception in the end zone at the end of the playoff game against Oakland in 1981 — Red Right 88 was the play — but Sipe had been the swashbuckling quarterback whose late-game brilliance had led the Browns to that playoff game.
• Earnest Byner may be remembered for the fumble against Denver in the AFC Championship Game that thwarted a remarkable comeback attempt… but it was Byner’s magnificence that drove that comeback attempt in the first place.
And James, Livingston writes, is “the indisputably great player who left in a manner designed to inflict the most emotional pain on the fans and do the most harm to the franchise.” For this, Livingston concludes, James “simply does not belong with men who took pride in the jersey and played to honor the city and its fans.”
I have tried to read the column two ways. I have tried to read it the way you might read it if you are not from Cleveland, if you have no emotional attachment to Cleveland, if you view Cleveland as just another city that you’ve heard jokes about. And I would bet that from that perspective, it reads as petty… all of this probably reads as petty. LeBron James, after all, played amazing basketball for seven years in Cleveland, and at age 25 he went to Miami, a fabulous city on the water, where he can play with incredible players and schmooze with the biggest stars and perhaps win a title. Yes, you would probably agree, his ESPN show, “The Decision,” was ill-advised and dumb and you might even grant that it was borderline cruel… but you probably would add that even if he had left Cleveland in the classiest way possible, it would not have made a big difference in the reaction. You would probably say that people in Cleveland should just get over it, the city did not have a lifetime contract with him, the guy has a right to follow his own path and all that.
I can certainly see how you would feel these things if you’re not from Cleveland.
But, then, if you’re not from Cleveland, if you are not connected to Cleveland, you have not lived through 45 years of uninterrupted sports heartache, season after season. You have not endured a river catching fire, a city going bankrupt, an NBA halftime show called “Fat Guy Eating Beer Cans.” You have not lived through a million Cleveland jokes, and endless Cleveland winters, and 10-cent beer night, and the collapse of Cleveland businesses, and the draining of the Cleveland population, and the countless hopes that build and collapse. The feeling in Cleveland was that LeBron James knew about all these things — he grew up in Akron, and he played his whole pro career in Cleveland, and he had to understand what he meant to a city.
Maybe he did understand. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he cared. Maybe he didn’t. Either way, he went on television to announce to the world that he was dumping Cleveland for someplace more exciting.
From Livingston’s column: “ESPN’s suck-up brigades will be out in force… accusing Cleveland of eating its young… they will say we let 28 minutes of that dreadful, self-serving The Decision show, courtesy of the Lapdog Network, erase seven years of excellence.”
Angry? You have no idea.
I have been on Chagrin Boulevard in Cleveland a thousand times in my life. I had never even once considered the meaning of the word. There is a lot of Chagrin in Cleveland — Chagrin Boulevard, the Chagrin River, the city of Chagrin Falls. All this actually came from a French trader named Sieur de Saguin, who had built up a good relationship with the Native Americans in the area. When he died — as I understand it — they wanted to name the river for him, but did not have an “S” sound in the language. So they went with “Shaguin.” Later, a surveyor named Seth Please changed the name to “Chagrin.” Anyway, that’s what the encyclopedias say. And this led to all the chagrin in Cleveland.
I never fully realized how many depressing word choices pervade Cleveland. The football team is called the “Browns” — it is named for the legendary coach Paul Brown, but, as Tom Hanks once said, it fits because everything in Cleveland is brown. The most famous building in town is the skyscraper called “The Terminal Tower.” The Cuyahoga River, the one that caught fire, is thought only to mean “Crooked River.” The lake is called “Erie.”
And chagrin… it means “distress or embarrassment at having failed or been humiliated.” Oh, the city will go on. LeBron James, in the end, is a basketball player, and despite the gigantic billboard of him that overlooked downtown and the joke that the economy was based on him, no, Cleveland will go on. There are always good things. The medical industry in town grows rapidly, and downtown has come back and there are great plans. In sports, the Browns have hired Mike Holmgren to turn things around, the Indians have some young talent, the Cavaliers have a determined owner and a clear mission. In life, Cleveland has come back so many times before, because the place still has the sort of diversity and industriousness of great places. The city will go on.
Still, as I go around, visiting old friends, seeing all the familiar places, counting the “For Sale” signs, noticing the T-shirts (“Born Here, Raised Here, Played Here, Hated Here,” is one of those shirts), avoiding the potholes… I feel this sadness. Is Cleveland angry? You have no idea. I wish people here could let go. And I understand why people here cannot. And I just keep driving on a street called Chagrin.