The departure of an athlete, the death of a true Cleveland original, and the new frontier…

If I didn’t address this at all, I think I would be disappointed in myself…so here goes.  My slightly personal post about Lebron James, Cleveland, and the recent passing of Harvey Pekar (my heart strains as I type that):

I’m a sports fan.  Specifically, a Cleveland sports fan.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m a die-hard, life-long, shameless Cleveland sports fan.  I’m the girl that wears the jersey to work on game day.  The one that has drawers filled with paraphernalia.  And basketball has always been my sport.

For the majority of my life I viewed it as just that – a sport.  I’m a student of the game.  I love the technical play, a strong team dynamic, the gracefulness of certain players, the brutal competitiveness of others.  I just love to watch.  But as I got older, the implications and peripherals of that game made it something more.

I moved out of Cleveland a decade ago and, at that time, swore I’d never move back.  I moved to Boston, as I’d wanted to for years, and felt that I couldn’t be happier.  That feeling lasted a few months.  Then something changed.  I realized that Cleveland wasn’t just my home, it was actually a place that I felt a deeply personal attachment to.  And it was a place that would allow me to live the life I wanted to live, amongst good people, and do it much more affordably.  It was, despite its horribly inaccurate reputation, a place that was exciting and filled with amazing cultural amenities, an abundance of parks and other outdoor gems like the lakefront, and some of the best restaurants I’ve ever eaten in.  But I wouldn’t return for almost 10 years.  During my time away I became a one woman ambassador for the city and vowed to move back and be a part of the revitalization efforts.

Basketball, however, kept me connected.  It became the fabric that kept us displaced Clevelanders on level footing with the contingent in the motherland.  I watched most games via the NBA league pass.  I loved all of the local TV spots, the hometown announcers – it was my little piece of home in a city that I could never feel that way about otherwise.

And, as the Cavs got better and better, I grew to like their star player more and more.  I loved the team as a whole through the years, but I thought of Lebron James as a kindred spirit.  It seemed, like me, he had this fierce sense of loyalty and hometown pride – not just because he was from Akron, Ohio, but because he seemed to understand after all of his travels that northeast Ohio is a special place.  He seemed, like many of us whom have gone away for long or short periods of time, to “get it” in a way that some of the folks that have only stayed in this part of the world don’t.  The grass is always greener on the other side…except when you’ve been to the other side for a while and you realize it really wasn’t as “green” as you thought it was.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel.  I love other cities – I even loved parts of my existence in Boston – but I prefer living in Cleveland to any place I’ve been.

So, when I watched “The Decision” last week, it’s not surprising that I felt shocked and deceived.  Call it naivete, but, despite all of the rumors, all of the articles I’d read, I still couldn’t fathom that Lebron James would leave the Cavaliers.  I thought it was too important to him to stay in the region and, beyond that, I thought he was a dynasty player.  I thought he wanted to lead, to build a team around his leadership.  I thought he wanted to inspire.  I thought he was more than an athlete – that his priorities would come through.  Perhaps they did – perhaps I just didn’t like what I saw.  Perhaps I made up a version of him that wasn’t real.  Perhaps, like many have said in the last few weeks, it’s “only a game” and all of us shouldn’t take his leaving so hard.

That rational doesn’t really work for me.  And it’s not because I think the city is going to implode on itself without Lebron James.  I think there is fantastic momentum here and I only see it getting better.  But what hurts is that we thought he was one of us.  A roll up your sleeves and get it done type.  Doesn’t seem like that’s the case anymore.

He’s a tremendous athlete – one who no doubt will have a long and extremely promising career.  But, beyond that, I find myself saddened and disappointed at what he revealed about his character last week.  He had every right to leave, but to do it with such disrespect for the people in this area that have supported him during his professional career and long before, that shows a lack of respect that, prior to last week, I thought he embodied.  It was hurtful.  And when something is “just a game,” it doesn’t purposefully hurt.  Doesn’t hurt individuals or a community emotionally or financially.  I had always thought of him as a class act but the way he handled his move to Miami didn’t support that theory.

But, as I’ve told the countless non-Cleveland friends that have called/texted/emailed/Facebooked to console me:  I was a Cavs fan before, and I’ll be a Cavs fan for the rest of my life.  And, I actually feel like a bigger fan today than I did a week ago.  Without the will-he-stay or won’t-he-stay drama, we can get back to focusing on what’s important: getting ready for a winning season.  Maybe not as successful as last year, but, we will fight for it.

This entire situation has raised so many questions to many people about loyalty, perceptions, trust, celebrity, deception and several other general themes.  But it also has this underlying theme that deals with the importance of “place.”  How important of a factor was northeast Ohio in James’ decision to stay vs. go?  To me, it has always been a driving motivational factor.  When I heard the ESPN commentators describing Cleveland as essentially a “dying, industrial town” I almost had to laugh.  It’s not dying – quite the opposite.  It’s revitalizing.  Quickly.  Despite the naysayers, the bright spots are here and exist plenty.

Ever since I moved back to Cleveland, friends from out of state have asked me “what is it like to live there now?”  Other than gushing about how much I love my life here, the other thing I usually tell them is that, in many ways, it’s like the wild west.  If you want to do something positive, big or small, it’s possible here.  The support and the funds will come if the idea is good.  It’s amazing what we were able to pull off for TEDxCLE with the budget we had – people were excited and we had a lot of support from partners that helped us make it happen.  The budget, in other cities, wouldn’t have even allowed us to rent a venue (let alone light it, cater it, staff it, fill it, film it, promote it, etc.).  But here, we had this idea – this small, positive idea – and the city rallied behind it to help us make it into a movement that each and every Clevelander can be a part of if he/she chooses.

And because I feel this way, my heart skipped several beats when I saw this – the new Levi’s campaign (here’s another link to the narrative version of the story).  This type of work, to me, is valueable.  It is powerful.  And I would wager it’s successful (I fully intend on buying a pair of Levi’s this week – yes, I drank the Kool Aid).

Cleveland is much more established (and on the right track) than Braddock, PA.  But it is, in many ways, the frontier.  If you’re creative, if you’re passionate, and if you want to make change, I can’t think of a better place to be.  Recently someone, a non-Clevelander visiting for business, described Cleveland to me this way:  there are creators, and there are dwellers.  If you’re a dweller, you go to Chicago.  You go to New York, Boston, or Los Angeles.  If you’re a creator, you go to Cleveland.  You go because you can create, you can write the future, and the community wants it and will support you.

And we have a lot of creators here.  Though, we just lost one of our most prized citizens: Harvey Pekar.  I actually gasped at my desk when I saw the news come through the wire yesterday.  He was one of my favorite comic book writers because his work was so incredibly real.  And, I think he really loved this city and its people.  I like this quote from director David O. Russell on Pekar (that I pulled from The Plain Dealer article): “It’s really great for people to see someone like Harvey Pekar, this guy who wants to remain authentic, isn’t going to buy [garbage], isn’t going to the malls, keeps on collecting old jazz music that’s important — that kind of independence.”  I urge you to read Anthony Bourdain’s post about Harvey Pekar – truly a great tribute to an incredible man.

Pekar was a true original, and embodied a lot of what I love about Cleveland and its citizens.  Under the cynical/self-deprecating front, there is optimism, warmth, hope, and the need to create.  R.I.P., Harvey Pekar.

Despite the blows we’ve been dealt in the last week, there is still so much opportunity here.  When I  look at some of the older abandoned properties, when I look at the state of business, I see so much opportunity – not death and decay.  If it sounds like you, join us.  Cleveland will prevail – but it takes all of us to make that happen.