Hey, kid, I see you’re out delivering newspapers. The Cleveland Press! I loved this paper. What’s the date, there? Its 1981, huh? Well, the Press won’t be around much longer; it shuts down in 1982. How do I know that? It’s complicated, kid. It’s complicated.
Mind if I walk with you for a few minutes? Yeah, I know, it’s five degrees below zero, and that Cleveland wind is blowing ice picks at us. It’s OK. Here, what you do on days like this: You walk backward into the wind. That blunts the force of the cold. Oh, you learned that already. Well, of course you have. You’ve lived in Cleveland all your life. You learn that trick young.
There’s a lot of stuff I’d love to tell you, kid. Invest in Google. Invent Facebook. Write a series of books about a school for young wizards. Oh yeah, I forgot, you don’t like writing yet. You’re just 14 years old. You think that you’re going to play second base for the Cleveland Indians. Well, I can’t promise that’s going to happen for you. But I can promise you one thing:
Someday, kid, Cleveland is going to win a championship.
Sure, sure, you believe that now. But your faith will be tested. There will be times — a hundred times, a thousand times, a million — when you will wonder if maybe this sprawling, ambitious, struggling, messy, bighearted city where you grow up is cursed. Or doomed. In those moments, you’ll shake your fist at the sky, and you’ll think about all the things you love about this place: The corned beef sandwiches at Corky’s and Lenny’s; the exotic sounds and smells of the West Side Market; the hard-hat factory workers like your dad who bowl on the weekends and mow their own lawns and rub your head at Cleveland Municipal Stadium when the Indians score a run.
You’ll think about the bountiful and wonderful Higbee’s department store downtown, the one with the thin escalators, where your mom and dad take you every now and again when they want to show you that you live someplace grand. They will close that Higbee’s down some day, kid. They will close a lot of places down, even Randall Park Mall, the one they call the world’s largest shopping center.
I don’t even want to tell you what happens to your Cleveland Browns. Brace yourself.
You’ll think about the suburbs and sections of town — Parma and Willowick and East Cleveland and Brooklyn and Rocky River and Euclid and all the Heights — and how they’re all little towns, all their own, but they’re Cleveland too. You’ll think about how the baked bread smells in Little Italy and all those old men playing chess over at the Arabica coffee place in Coventry and the chocolate dipped ice cream cone at Cream-o-Freeze that you get after your little league team wins a game.
It will happen, kid. Cleveland’s going to win. Now, I’m not going to lie to you because I can’t lie to you — it won’t happen soon. There’s a lot of pain and heartbreak coming between now and then, some of it for you, much more of it for your city. Bigger stuff than sports will haunt Cleveland, stuff you can’t get your 14-year-old mind around. Heck, you’ll have to move. Jobs are drying up. Factories are closing down. Your dad will have to take the family South because that’s where the work is. Get ready for something called sweet tea.
But here’s the good news: When it does happen, when Cleveland does win that championship, it will be spectacular. And you will feel it down to your Cleveland bones. There’s this guy, well, he hasn’t been born yet. But he will be soon, down in Akron. His name will be LeBron James.
And LeBron James will take you and this city on the craziest, wildest, angriest and happiest journey. James will be a basketball player, but not like one you’ve ever imagined. OK, think about Magic Johnson, only even stronger and more physical. No, wait, think of Julius Erving, only a more ferocious rebounder and even better passer. No, that’s not it. Think of Larry Bird but way faster and more explosive. No, think of Michael Jordan … oh, wait, you don’t know about Jordan yet.
Forget it. Just think of a player only just beyond your imagination.
The greatest skill of LeBron James, you will find, is something that you will never be able to describe. He will develop an ability to see the game down-tempo. That is, the game will not just slow down for him, it will open up for him. Sometimes, you will swear, he jumps up with the ball, and as he jumps he has no idea what he will do. Shoot? Maybe. Pass? Maybe. Write an opera? Maybe.
Then, at his apex, he will look around and still not know what to do. There will seem no options. Everyone is covered, his view to the basket blocked. So he will just wait, and wait, dangling in air, scanning the scene, waiting, until, yes, at the very last possible millisecond, with his feet a fraction of an inch above the ground, he will fire a pass to someone underneath the basket who did not even know himself that he was open. He will do this thing so many times and yet it will never cease to amaze.
Transcendent, this LeBron, and when Cleveland drafts him with the first pick you will think: FINALLY. Cleveland has its first transcendent player since Jim Brown. And Cleveland will finally get its championship.
But it won’t be that easy, kid. You know already: Nothing is that easy in Cleveland.
* * *
Right now, I happen to know that you’re utterly shattered because you just saw Brian Sipe throw that horrifying interception against Oakland in the playoffs. Red Right 88. That’s the name of the play, Red Right 88. I promise you will never forget it. There will be other heart-crushing plays that you will never forget.
But what you don’t know is that you’ll never forget any of the good stuff, either. Cleveland will climb inside your soul and stay there no matter where you move. Yes, you will move around, and you will find another city that you love, another bighearted city with great barbecue, and you will get married there, have a couple of kids, and that city will become home. But Cleveland will stay with you, too. That’s what Cleveland does.
You will always think about that cranky and unconquerable television journalist Dorothy Fuldheim. You’ll think about Superhost, that guy who dresses up in a superhero costume and hosts the Saturday Monster movies on Channel 43. The jingle for 1220-AM (1220 … WGAR!) will play in your head sometimes when you try to sleep and so will that commercial for home improvement (Garfield 1, 2323, Garfield 1, 2323). You will get emotional thinking about the Cleveland Orchestra, even if you don’t like getting dragged downtown to see them. Some day, you’ll appreciate they’re one of the best in the world.
You will get emotional thinking about stuff that doesn’t seem all that special now, stuff like ol’ Herb Score, the pitcher and Indians announcer, who, no matter the weather, would say, “It’s a beautiful day for baseball.” You’ll get emotional thinking about Joe Tait, the best basketball announcer going, and the rhythmic way he used to say, just as a player drove to the basket: “The line, the lane, the shot, it drops!”
You’ll even get emotional and nostalgic thinking about the smoke pouring out of the factory chimneys and the grayness of the sky and the potholes in the road and the way the telephone lines snake and meander over the city’s streets and all those dreadful Cleveland jokes that they tell around the country. You’ll remember, I promise you, the hopeful way Clevelanders would call in to sports radio pioneer Pete Franklin.
“I think this is the year for the Cavaliers, Pete!” they would say.
“You,” Pete would respond gently, “are an idiot.”
This city, this place, gets inside you. Believe it or not, that’s what makes all the difference. See, this LeBron James I was telling you about, his first time around in Cleveland will not go too well. Oh sure, he will play supreme basketball, incomparable basketball, and he will lead the team to many victories. But he will not quite lead Cleveland to a championship. And the longer that goes on, the harder the feelings between the city and the man.
Cleveland will wonder: How can this near-perfect basketball Hercules, who was obviously sent to us from Olympus, not, finally, after all these years, bring a title home?
And James will wonder: How can this city with so much hunger and wanting not understand that I’m just one man, and I can’t fill all their pain all by myself?
He will leave on national television. He will leave and go down to Miami, the same place where many Clevelanders flee after the winters chill them numb. James will win a couple of championships for a city that already has everything. Cleveland will take it pretty hard — I can see you’re already taking it hard, kid. People will burn his jersey. They will tear his posters from their walls, pull his name from their restaurant menus, yank down his face from the billboards. From Willoughby down to Elyria, from Avon Lake to Chagrin Falls, they will curse his name. And Cleveland sports will die again.
And then … at the very lowest moment … he’ll come back.
Why does he come back? I don’t know any better than anyone else, but I think it’s just because this place gets inside you. I think James feels that silent but powerful tug of Northeast Ohio, and he comes to realize that the greatest thing he can do in sports, and maybe even beyond sports, is make Cleveland a champion, just once.
The second time around with LeBron isn’t easy either. Yes, this time, James will get some help. He will have a marvelous little teammate named Kyrie Irving, a guard with a special talent for needling a basketball through a gauntlet of flailing arms and into the basket. He will have another teammate, a tireless Canadian forward named Tristan Thompson, who will loiter around the basket and obstinately pull rebounds away from opponents who lack conviction. There will be others.
Still, LeBron’s labor will not be easy because just as he is trying to bring a championship home, a superteam forms in Oakland. The Golden State Warriors will set records. More, you will love watching the Warriors play. Everyone will. They are like a symphony of switching defenses and quick passes and long jump shots that swish. That team will beat Cleveland in one NBA Finals. And in the next, they will take a 3-1 lead in games and everyone in America will turn away, knowing the series is over.
And then … well I want you to see it. LeBron James goes supernova. I guess that’s the only way I can describe it. He takes over three basketball games in a way that I suspect no player has ever taken over games before. He will launch his already towering game into space. He will score at will. He will rebound with fury. He will pass through walls. He will steal the ball again and again. He will block shots that — let’s just say that one of those blocked shots will blow up your mind.
And this Golden State team, this record-breaking team that will re-imagine how basketball can be played, they cannot stay with him. They cannot match his altitude.
When that Game 7 comes so many years from now, kid, you will be a whole different person. But you will be the same too. Everybody will tell you later that it is a great game, an all-time NBA classic, but you won’t see it that way because your stomach will be in your throat and your heart will be in your shoes and you will be so nervous and so thrilled that none of it will really make much sense.
But it will happen. Believe it. The last game will come down to the final seconds, and Kyrie Irving will not throw away his shot, and Golden State’s magnificent Stephen Curry will miss his, and it will happen.
Yes, someday it will happen, the city that never leaves you will have its grand moment, its moment on top of the world, and these big, plump tears will drop from your eyes as you see LeBron James cry, as you see video of people dancing and hugging and running madly through downtown Cleveland, as you think about all your friends and all your family and those Cleveland people all over the world, people you don’t even know but love just the same.
And then what happens after that? Well, then you’ll end up right here, walking this paper route on Warrendale Road, delivering the Cleveland Press door-to-door in a winter storm. I know it’s cold, kid. Just turn your back to the wind.