Thursday's night return of LeBron James to Cleveland brought up a melange of emotions along the North Coast. Sentiments ranged from sheer outrage among Cavalier fans who still hold a grudge against James' unwarranted free agent docudrama – to general apathy among exclusively hardcore Browns fans. After all, for many of us, James never truly represented more than a nice distraction during the peak years of expansion football malaise.
The instant narrative being crafted after James left town again on Thursday night announces some oddly timed renaissance for a star-laden Miami Heat team struggling to realize their self-created expectations. Somehow, articles like the following point to LeBron's domination of a subpar Cavalier team as both a turning point on the path to further greatness, along with a native son gaining an inexplicable sense of retribution against a city who abandoned him.
Or, something like that….
Anyway, if it wasn't obvious before, the old adage of "winners write the history books" is still a vital axiom of sporting society.
Articles like these brilliantly demonstrate the vicious American media cycle of tearing down and building up celebrities at hyper speed. Only a few days ago, LeBron was cast as the central villain in a story set in a city ravaged by the effects of post-industrialism society and a culture of dread. 38 points later, LeBron has suddenly re-emerged as the conquering hero – a Spartan soldier surviving insurmountable odds.
I guess some of those planned crowd chants were pretty biting.
Anyway, national stories like these are nothing new to Cleveland. For the past several decades, the city has been characterized as nothing short of a third-world orphan. Soon enough, charitable foundations will be begging late-night TV viewers to adopt Cleveland's residents for just a dollar a day.
Perhaps the best example of this pseudo-mocking tone comes from Wright Thompson, who channels his inner Howard Zinn in an attempt to explain how Clevelanders somehow manage to exist in an economic, cultural and social ghetto.
While the article itself is beautifully written and well-researched, the aftereffect is akin to watching child soldiers slay each other, or animals devouring a fallen pack member.
Although it's honorable for people outside Cleveland to occasionally offer what they feel is some type of emotional salve, the greater point is completely lost. Granted, we turn to sports because of their majestic healing powers, but in no way are the ills of society cured by some improbable championship run.
Case in point – the Saints' Super Bowl title cannot be credited with returning the New Orleans' manufacturing base to a prominent status or fixing the city's levees and floodwalls. Last time I checked, Drew Brees also hasn't been credited with fixing yet another failing inner-city school system.
Thompson's piece – although of a higher caliber, but far too similar to others that have gone before him – fails to make a realistic connection between sports and city.
"There are signs of death: closing mills, blocks of boarded-up buildings. There are signs of life: a thriving arts scene, a booming health care industry."
Was LeBron James somehow responsible for either?
Could some other athlete or piece of championship hardware somehow breathe life into an abandoned building or find a cure for cancer?
As both sports fans and literate citizens, are we really this naïve?
Perhaps the one redeeming point that Thompson makes can be found when he finally separates the intersection of sports and city.
"They have to figure out what's next. Their problems actually have little to do with LeBron James, so maybe he was a distraction from solving them. They don't need sizzle. They need steak. The current mayor, for instance, is both popular and boring. Michener calls him the "invisible mayor." The new heroic is reliable and competent. Glitz, after a seven-year fling, is out."
Of course, Thompson's narrative is again fractured by his reliance on LeBron as the city's personal messiah. As if somehow, the city ceased to function and evolve for the seven years that LeBron was in town.
If you follow this logic, LeBron's departure and the subsequent decline in our city's sports teams have finally ushered in a much-needed Cleveland reformation and renaissance.
How's that for a stimulus?
Anyway, in the spirit of Thompson and marching towards some triumphant future, perhaps it's best to re-evaluate our relationships with sports heroes.
Or at the least, maybe we should just act like grown-ups and realize that sports as a whole – much like individual athletes – are nothing but a distraction from real life.
In this sense, it's obvious that we've already found some new 21st century heroes – athletes who represent the metaphorical "steak" of Thompson's piece.
The criteria is simple. Find a player who is exciting to watch. Bonus points if the player is proud to represent the city he plays for.
How about this guy?
"Supposedly, Miami has so much other stuff, but Cleveland is football. Cleveland is sports. This is one of the greatest cities to play sports in, because the whole city is behind you."
Or, if Cribbs doesn't do it for you, perhaps Peyton Hillis will.
"I feel like I can relate to fans on a personal level." They're hard-working people, they love football and they don't ask for much. They just want to see their team play. This city's hungry for a winning team."
And isn't this the point?
Cleveland never needed a sports savior, they simply needed sports. And however inconvenient it may be for social reformers trying to craft some sweeping study in urban decay, LeBron, Cribbs and Hillis are not going to bring jobs to the North Coast, or fix the school system.
They are simply going to play hard – and be rewarded by the city for their efforts.
And regardless of their success, the city of Cleveland will continue to rise and fall.