Friday, May 19, 2006

Cleveland & Sports:
A Tortured History

To really understand the soul of Cleveland, I would argue, you have to understand at least a half-dozen crucial things about the place.

You have to understand its unique racial and ethnic makeup, its location at about the midway point between Minnesota's iron ore and West Virginia's coal. You have to understand that for many decades, it was a welcoming home to the mob--or rather, many mobs--and was in certain respects run by unions, some of which were heavily influenced by organized crime (which in turn was a feature of the town's ethnic hothouse). You have to understand how much of its development, economy and outlook sprung from its brief moment as the headquarters of the world's oil industry, and how that continues to exercise influence to this day, well over a century after the fact (among other things, it explains, why so much of the coatings industry is based here--they're chemical derivatives of oil--and why the base of large law firms is way out of proportion to the size of the city).

You should understand, as well, that its tortured, clashing soul is in many ways a reflection of its triple-chambered ethnography/geography: it simultaneously constitutes the very beginnings of the foothills of the Appalachians (the west side) and that Scotts-Irish stock with the old High Protestant New England Yankee culture of the Western Reserve (the east side). And a half century ago was added the northern migration of southern blacks into the mix. In other words, this town is an amalgamation of incredibly disparate things, people and traditions thrown into a pretty tight geography. It makes the place yeasty and endlessly interesting, but also accounts for many of its serial dysfunctions and maddening divisions.

But one of those topics crucial to understanding the town's DNA is certainly sports. And to understand the town's soul on the subject of sports, you have to understand loss and pain and municipal grief, which has long since become a metaphor for the entire town's larger pains and challenges.

I recently came across a new book by a Philadelphia native in which he makes the argument that that city is the longest-suffering major sports town in America. Why? Because it hasn't won a major sports championship since 1983. To make his town come out on top, he has to engage in a bit of trickery: including only those towns that have four major league sports teams. And to do that, he has to mount what I'd consider a faulty argument: that hockey constitutes a major sport. The National Hockey League's anemic TV ratings would suggest otherwise. Hockey's only a major sport in a relatively small portion of the country--places like New England and the extreme upper midwest, where proximity to Canada (and cold weather) has created deep popular roots for the sport. Everywhere else, it's stuck in there with tennis, golf, motor sports and the like--important to millions, but still a second-tier sport compared to the Big Three--baseball, basketball and football. And of course when you limit it to that trio, it leaves Cleveland as by far the longest-suffering town, with no championship since we rode Jim Brown's back to an NFL title way back in the days of floppy-eared presidents named LBJ (1964).

This is a proud, stubborn town. It's home to arguably the two most non-politically correct corporate logos in the world--the Indians' Chief Wahoo and Sherwin-Williams' globe-drenching paint can, a hoary image so appalling to the modern environmentally sensitive eyes that it often makes me chuckle, no matter how many times I see it. The important point, though, is that in almost any other place both of these logos probably would have long since been banished for something more in tune with the times. Not here, where we value our traditions, sometimes to a fault.

All of which brings me to the point of this meandering piece, tonight's Cavs playoff game.

It could be decisive (or not). Either way, the excitement and intensity of the region for this team is beginning to remind me of the Cavs' Miracle of Richfield in the '70s, Browns fever in the '80s and the sustained fever pitch for the Indians of the '90s. The fervor from callers on WCPN this morning was palpable.

Last year, after shadowing the Cavs and Lebron around the court and into the locker room for nearly half a season, I wrote a piece in which I tried to answer, at least for myself, the riddle of the guy. The world didn't need another profile of Lebron, I figured. And in any event, I was far more interested in a different story: his effect on the town's morale. What has always interested me about Lebron was not so much his game--he's of course got serious game--but his maturity, his almost surreal confidence and self-mastery. Where does a poor ghetto kid with one parent, who was often forced to shuffle him to extended family members who could afford to raise him when she could not, come by that?

This week, the Detroit News
surveyed its readers online, and asked them what they thought the major reason for the Pistons being down 3-2 might be. Nearly half said they overlooked the opponent, the Cavs. We've gotten used to being overlooked, laughed at, ignored, dismissed. After several decades, it's seeped into the pores, affected the confidence. And sports hasn't provided any outlets--if anything, it's driven much of the problem. You can only get so close to the brass ring so many times before it shatters your confidence. What's worse: being beaten to a berth in your first Super Bowl by Denver's John Elway on a seemingly impossible, epic 98-year drive, after you thought your gimpy-legged, ugly-but-effective (another metaphor for the town) hometown boy Bernie had engineered a win, or getting beat in the last inning of Game 7 of the World Series by a recent expansion team? Or maybe Michael Jordan throwing a dagger in your heart? The epic scope of this accumulated heartache is almost unimaginable. It's as if some cruel cosmic playwrite were creating a dense, layered scene of torture. Only you wake up and realize it's your town that's written into the play.

But Lebron is a stunning reminder of how greatness has a way of changing equations.

One important measure of Lebron's confidence is how he ignores naysayers. Or more accurately, uses them as a challenge to improve himself. Take, for instance, his chief critic, Charles Barkley. The cranky former player was once dubbed "The Round Mound of Rebound," but now he's a sneering bully with a TV-analyst's pulpit, a bad gambling habit and, apparently, a special hankering to put the new boy in his place. All season, he's bated Lebron on TNT, dismissing him as an upstart who's not worthy of the greats of his era.

Lebron chose to mostly ignore him, letting his game be the sole answer. One by one, he knocked down the criticisms. When they said he couldn't take the last shot at the buzzer, he did, but only when it made sense not to pass.

But the other night, he finally answered Barkley, gamely choosing a moment when he knew he'd have a maximum audience, just minutes after leading his team to an unthinkable victory over the NBA's best team, a moment when he and his team were becoming the biggest national story in sports. He talked about the things that winners should never do, before arriving at the last no-no. "And don't ever listen to Charles Barkley--ever, ever." He wasn't smiling or showboating. He certainly wasn't bragging. He was just standing up to the bully.

The Pistons' Rasheed Wallace, another sneering bully, has become famous for the prediction gone bust. But after the crushing fifth-game loss the other night, he stepped back and regrouped to a fallback boast: "one man's not going to beat five," he said. But there's a gaping error in his math. In any pursuit, but especially in team sports, excellence, mental toughness and a good work ethic are eminently contagious. And Lebron's teammates have begun to catch it. Sorry, Sheed, but this one will be five on five. Or maybe six on five, if you count the hometown crowd.

So let the game begin...


At 10:46 PM, Blogger Chris McVetta said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 10:47 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

Great piece, John. Funny, but I was thinking many of the same thoughts today. Like how much the inhabitants of this knocked-down city draw from the performance of this basketball team, and what an enormous impact it has our psyche.

Even with the Game 6 loss, Game 7 is looking like an extremely tough win, but anything can happen.

That Philadelphia native wouldn't happen to be Joe Queenan, would it?

At 11:03 PM, Blogger Chris McVetta said...

Chris McVetta said...
Nice work, John! A very good essay on your part.

And when things "shake down" in the modern-day history of Cleveland, I think you should play a pivotal role as a writer who deserves more than just a passing nod of acknowledgment in "the grand scheme of things."

In an age where "19 Crackhead News" shamelessly exploits their "Jerry Springer talent" in hopes of higher ratings from their trailer park demographics, you are truly a much-needed breath of fresh air for Cleveland.

The only thing left to look forward to is your one-on-one interview with Donald Trump in "Entertainment Weekly."

I'm kidding! (Well, actually, no - that would be damn entertaining!)

Perhaps we could discuss it more when we are shackled in Dick Cheney's dungeon...

(But I DO have faith that Larry Dolan will come forward to pay our bail...)

I just don't know when to stop, do I-?

Good luck to you, John!

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Daniella said...


I never read sports essays but this was so well written, so well researched and so full of passion that I was hooked. I also felt emotion rising like pride for Cleveland our much maligned city.

You are an inpired writer and many people in this town need to read you and also feel their civic jolt into action. This should be submitted to a National magazine or newspaper it is too good to keep from the many Clevelanders who have no access to the blogosphere.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your writing is so good that I have now taken to deconstructing your sentences. Yes, this piece should reach a larger audience, as perhaps Lebron should--let's all hope you both keep your energy and spirit focused in/on Cleveland!


At 2:42 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, everyone, for visiting, and especially for leaving a comment. And thanks to my friend George ("instapundit with a soul," as our friend Jerry R. immortally dubbed him) and his BFD for the link. It was with him partly in mind that I wrote this, because like many, he's not a sports fan, but I've tried to explain to him why I think sports is nevertheless crucial to understanding the soul of Cleveland. I hope this began that explanation.

I don't know whether to appreciate or shudder over being deconstructed, dear anonymous. But deconstruct as you will. Miles, it was not Joe Queenan who authored that book to which I referred. I'll have to find it somewhere in my notes and let you know. The guy is not a household name is all I can tell you just now. Chris, I always love your energetic little riffs. We'll have a lot to discuss if we both get caught up in a Cheney-Bush sweep.

And finally to Daniella, my special French-Canadian pal, who keeps me plugged into the real interior (and exterior) monologues and dialogues of smart, mature women, you've focused on a topic near to my own heart: the need to always be thinking about how to find larger audiences for one's work, and not just online. That's an important thing to keep in mind, and one which I've been making headway on. Some fun things are in the works, which I'll write about soon. But just know that as I continue to broaden my reach to national audiences and subjects, Cleveland and the region will remain a subject of intensifying interest, as I try to take everything I know and have learned about my hometown and try to make sense of what it means. And by far the best way to do that is to write about it. This was just the first of many attempts to begin doing that on a systematic basis.

At 6:43 PM, Anonymous Lou said...

...and the torture continues.

At 9:39 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You said it, Lou. But then, no one I know thought they'd make it this far. It sure does give you a good feeling about next year. Having said that, I'm pretty damn sick of waiting till next year, aren't you?

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Chris Thompson said...


A true Cleveland moment would have been a win for the Cavs Friday night followed by a loss in five games to the Heat. To be followed by 30 years of people saying "remember the Miracle at the Q."

As someone who listened to the last Miracle via long distance radio (I lived in rural Cheeseland at the time.), I was amazed when I moved to Cleveland that that event was still so fondly remembered. Over time I learned why -- every time this town's teams get close to winning it all something terrible happens.

Only a world championship will take the huge chip off of Cleveland's psyche. When will that happen? Who knows. I never thought my Packers would make it to a Super Bowl again, so anything is possible in sports. Just don't hold your breath in Cleveland.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Dear Cheesehead,
I shudder to think that even a championship may not remove that chip from our shoulder, Chris. After all, it's pretty large and it's been there for several decades. But I sure hope to find out before long.

I find myself mostly in agreement with this morning's PD editorial: that this one didn't feel nearly so bad like the other disappointments before it, both because few if any expected them to go this far this year, but also because this team's not yet reached its peak, and for once provides hopes for better in the near future.

And speaking as one who remembers the Miracle of Richfield as a high school kid going gaga for hoops, I can tell you most of the excitement came from our being hoops virgins then. Our team was pretty new, and Cleveland sports teams weren't then so used to a string of near misses.

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Brendan said...


I'm a newcomer to your website and to your writing, but I have quickly become a fan. I enjoy any writer who can capture the spirit and personality of our city in a few short paragraphs.

I'm sorry that I didn't catch this essay sooner (and even more sorry that our Cavs couldn't clinch this past weekend!), but I really enjoyed it. Some "civic leaders" dismiss the idea that a sports championship could improve the "loser" attitude of many Clevelanders, but you could not be more right. "We've gotten used to being overlooked, laughed at, ignored, dismissed. After several decades, it's seeped into the pores, affected the confidence." It will take many things to boost Clevelanders lacking self-confidence, but without a doubt one very strong way is through the success of our sports teams. Just look at the bustling Gateway District this weekend and the spirit with which Clevelanders wore Cavs gear and held "Witness" posters. It was just as much about our pride in the city as it was supporting our basketball team.

I'm looking forward to reading more of your essays about Cleveland and its great residents. Thank you.

At 2:39 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Brendan, many thanks for reading and especially for commenting. I have at times at least partly glossed over my hometown as a major subject, but that's changing. There's so much to write about, and people are hungry to read about it, I'm finding (perhaps partly as a result of how many local media outlets have so little depth of knowledge about the place). After years of watching and listening and reading and learning about it, I find I have so much to say about it, and so many fine writers and thinkers to point you to who are doing their own fine work. I hope you'll keep reading, and continue to provide feedback.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger Jon said...

that was a really good article and definately captured the tortured cleveland fan's bitterness and pain we've all grown up around.

I added you to my blog if you dont mind..

At 2:24 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

How could I possibly mind, Jon? And you have an interesting blog. Good luck with it, and thanks for visiting here.


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