Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Simple Mandate

The Cleveland Browns are scheduled to open training camp later this week and as befitting a summer like this, the energy level of fans seems low, at best.

Maybe it’s the twin disappointments of what’s gone on with the Cavaliers and Indians lately coupled with a season like the last that tried the patience of even the most hard core of fans, but the Browns are generating the kind of excitement usually reserved for another replay of A Very Brady Christmas.

And yet of the three professional teams in Cleveland, it may be the Browns that return to the winning circle sooner than any other. It just isn’t likely to be this season, though it doesn’t need to be. At this point mediocrity will do.

Entering into training camp, there are the usual battles for the usual roster spots. There’s uncertainty at quarterback, again, and the receiving corps don’t look to scare too many teams’ secondary. But on the plus side this doesn’t feel like a team at the crossroads anymore. A path has been chosen, finally, and now it’s just a matter of seeing if that choice was the right one. It will take time.

New team president Mike Holmgren and his hand-picked general manager, Tom Heckert, bring a kind of credibility that’s been sorely lacking on this team for years. The third person in this trio is, of course, head coach Eric Mangini. He’s the weakest link, at least for now, because he was inherited. If he’s with this ride for the long term, then he’ll have to find a way to go from the red-headed step child to the favorite son.

For now, though, Mangini gets the benefit of the doubt. Not because he’s a good head coach. At best, that’s unproven. But because Holmgren and Heckert deserve the benefit of the doubt and if they feel that he’s the right head coach right now then it’s a decision to respect and not dwell on, so I won’t, except for this.

Mangini may not be in the most untenable position imaginable, but it’s close. For the most part, Holmgren kept Mangini on for this season not out of respect for the job he did last season but out of respect for a fellow member of the coaching fraternity. Holmgren knows the difficulties of the job and knows that trying to turn around a sinking ship like the Browns requires a much better crew than Mangini had (though that was mostly Mangini’s fault).

So Holmgren gave Mangini a reprieve of sorts. It doesn’t mean Mangini’s on a short leash and that every loss, of which there will be several, is a reason to bang the drums anew for Mangini’s ouster. But it does mean that Mangini needs to find a way to harness is dictatorial tendencies, work within a system in which he is, at best, the third most important person in the mix and make noticeable progress on his vaunted process.

It also means that player insurrections better be few and far between. It means, too, that Mangini and his staff better develop and execute comprehensible game plans. And perhaps most importantly it means that Mangini must embrace the players that Heckert acquired and develop them meaningfully.

I can’t overemphasize that last point, by the way. The biggest difference between last season and this season as far as Mangini is concerned is that he’s been completely stripped of the responsibility for picking the final roster. Indeed this was the wedge that came between supposedly lifelong friends in Mangini and George Kokinis and led to Kokinis essentially checking out early in the season.

If Mangini is going to survive, particularly with Heckert, he’s going to have to accept the limitations of his current role with something more than a weak smile. It doesn’t mean that Heckert’s draft selections may necessarily have been better than what Mangini would have done (although all evidence suggests that would be the case 99 times out of 100). It just means that Mangini needs to continually demonstrate his appreciation that those decisions are not his responsibility anymore.

Too many times head coaches and general managers clash over this very issue. Arguing about it behind closed doors is one thing. But the key for Mangini will be to not take his complaints public by, for example, talking down a key draft choice or two at a weekly press conference because the player’s not progressing or inexplicably keeping the players on the inactive list week after week. The average fan may not notice, but Heckert will see it as an attempt to embarrass him.

If you want to know whether the Mangini/Heckert relationship is working, this will be it.

But the Mangini/Heckert dynamic is almost sideshow status at this point. The real key to the season is whether or not the latest regime can recapture this town. According to various reports, the Browns season isn’t yet a sell out, which even in a down economy is a bit of a surprise. Cleveland’s always been a Browns town but the fact that this team is struggling some to sell tickets tells me that at best fans are in wait-and-see mode.

That’s certainly understandable given the way they’ve been repeatedly been mistreated under Randy Lerner’s ownership. What’s most amazing, though, is that Browns’ fans don’t even demand all that much. Ask a Browns fan what they want out of this season and to a person they’ll tell you they’ll be happy with an 8-8 season.

In other words, the bar is low.

The real thing this team needs for its rabid fan base to awaken is an identity. Under Lerner’s ownership and all the various reinventions, the Browns have lost any sense of who they are or what they’re trying to accomplish. As a result, Browns fans are left to wander about, clinging to their dog bones and wishing that a generation hadn’t passed since the last time this team had an identity.

Fans may want to see T.J. Ward and Joe Haden resurrect the Dawg Pound and hope Montario Hardesty can be Earnest Byner reincarnate, but hopefully better things are in store than just trying to recapture a different generation’s vibe.

This team not only has the opportunity but the mandate to capture a new generation of fans, a generation that has been lost first to a morally and fiscally bankrupt former owner who yanked the team from this town an second to a new ownership group that’s been passionate but mostly incompetent.

In some ways, the Browns couldn’t possibly be better positioned for a resurrection. This town is reeling at the moment and is just waiting for a savior. Another 6-10 season, though, isn’t going to do it, even if that qualifies as incremental improvement from last season. It will take more.

Thankfully, though, at least team management and Browns fans are once again on the same page, and that page says that meaningful progress made by good, quality players that will be here for the next several years is crucial. Another season of drama punctuated by prima donna players and irrational coaches may just be the final straw for fans who just want to believe in something again.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Enablers

As predictable as a mid-summer Indians’ trade for prospects are the inevitable inside stories about what really happened with LeBron James and his so-called decision to leave Cleveland. The latest was Andrew Worjanowski’s inside look for Yahoo Sports.

Worjanowski’s column is a good one, I guess, depending on the standards by which you judge such things. He talks about how James is mostly uncoachable pain in the ass who almost was left off the 2008 Olympic team because of it. Worjanowski also claims that no one could stand James on the 2004 Olympic team, either, and without the intervention of Nike, well, things might have been much different.

It was all Worjanowski’s way of getting to his point that James’ decision to leave Cleveland was a long-time in the making and that maybe we’re all better off anyway.

That’s all well and good and may actually be true. My question, though, is why are we just hearing about this now? The answer to that question is simple. Its ramifications though go as long a way to explaining why James is the way he is, why athletes are the way they are and why fans are so ill-served by the traditional media folks that cover the games they love.

Stories like Worjanowksi’s usually don’t come out until it's safe, such as when the athlete is discredited for other reasons. If Tiger Woods doesn’t crash his SUV on Thanksgiving night and literally unravel in full public view before his handlers could get out ahead of the story, his bizarre and self-destructive streak would still be hidden by his caddie, his agents, managers and assorted advisors and the media that covered him on a regular basis. So much of their livelihood depended on Woods that it was convenient to look the other way, to rationalize all his bad acts as supposedly being unrelated to his golfing greatness.

That’s the way it is with James. As much as I respect Brian Windhorst of the Plain Dealer, for example, I don’t recall even one story about James’ alleged difficulties playing nice with coaches of all stripes. There were slight hints, at best. I don’t recall Windhorst reporting, as Worjanowski does now, about how James’ boyhood buddies were literally running amuck inside the Cavs organization. Again, just hints at best. Windhorst is simply too good of a reporter not to have had the same information, and probably better at that, for months if not years.

But let’s not single out Windhorst. The same goes for each and every reporter covering the Cavs, including Worjanowski. They were lock step in helping James and Nike craft the story arc of the local prodigy, messiah-like, delivering the long-deserved title for a dying city.

In his column Worjanowski says that everyone referred to James’ gang as “The Enablers.” How deliciously ironic. Maybe Maverick Carter and the boyhood pals playing dress up in the most amateur of fashion possible were a gang of enablers, but they weren't the only onse. That group includes Worjanowski and the rest of the traditional media such as ESPN that literally turned their network and journalistic integrity to James. Simply put, none of them did their jobs and now they look just as foolish as James.

Working journalists will tell you that so much of their ability to do their job depends on access to their subjects. That’s true, but not as completely true as the public is led to believe. A journalist’s role is to act as the eyes, ear and voice of their readers. In that role, journalists serve as important checks and balances to those in power, whether they are in the government or on the playing fields. Their function is to expose the truth and let the readers make up their own minds about what it all means.

In the world of sports, those maxims of journalism are just a rumor. Beat reporters since the days of Grantland Rice have been pulling punches about the athletes they cover because of the cozy relationships they maintain with them in order to preserve their access on the off chance that an athlete will actually say something of real interest. Editors have always looked the other way too because they view sports journalism as mostly sandbox play anyway.

When I took Indians beat reporter Paul Hoynes to task a few years ago for not having the journalistic integrity to take on general manager Mark Shapiro for supposedly hiding the injuries to Victor Martinez, Hoynes gave the predictable response: how come I never see you in the locker room? The implication of his rhetorical question was there are long-term interests a working reporter has to serve in order to do his job, something that is more difficult by the way if you go about alienating your with tough reporting about their shortcomings. In other words, supposedly if I had to face these players and club officials daily I, too, would pull my punches a bit.

While this mentality is rampant with sports journalists, it’s a part of journalism generally. One of the back stories in the whole Valerie Plame/Scooter Libby scandal had to do with the fact that a New York Times reporter, Judith Wilson, was revealed as being too cozy with and easily manipulated by her sources, like Libby, in order to preserve her access to them. As a result, it colored her reporting on the Iraq war and ultimately hurt the credibility of the Times.

Of far more recent vintage is the story surrounding Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hasting’s story on General McChrystal and his staff. Hastings, doing his job as a journalist, was able to ferret out one of the root causes behind all of the dysfunction in this country’s efforts in Afghanistan—divergent opinions within the command and an abiding lack of respect between McChrystal and his staff and the President and his staff.

Whatever you may think about the propriety of this kind of reporting about a working general in a war zone, what is at least as fascinating is how many so-called journalists took on Hastings for reporting the story in the first place. Their claim was the same as Hoynes’ complaint to me: that this kind of reporting only cuts off access and makes everyone else’s job all that much more difficult.

The problem with this mentality is that it makes the journalists complicit in creating the story the subject wants told and not the story that needs to be told. In other words, they become public relations tools of the subjects they cover rather than working journalists trying to find the truth. When the issues are so central to this country’s well being, it’s a very dangerous relationship. It matters little your political leanings to understand that if reporters are looking the other way when government officials are behaving badly, the country suffers.

Sports may be different because they don’t come with such serious ramifications, but let’s not kid ourselves that this is all harmless. LeBron James, like Tiger Woods, is an economic engine that helps line the pockets of dozens of people, from the bar owner outside Quicken Loans arena, to the publishers of the local paper who depend on readership of their stories about him to drive advertising revenue.

But in trying to preserve their access to this cash cow, all the reporters, including Worjanowski, instead helped make James into the monster they now condemn. It may have been the primary responsibility of James’ mother, James’ agents, James’ sponsors, James’ buddies, to tell him to grow up and act like a man, but it was also the responsibility of the journalists covering him to call him out on that very topic each and every time they witnessed him being a jerk. And every time they didn’t, it emboldened James to newer and greater heights of jerkdom.

The Akronites and Clevelanders I talk with these days are all saying the same thing about James: it was his right to go wherever he wanted but they don’t like the way he handled it. Accepting the premise, it’s not hard to understand why James didn’t handle it the right way. No one, including alleged journalists like Jim Gray, was there to tell him otherwise

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letting the Kids Play

You’re welcome, Cleveland.

When Indians’ general manager and president-in-waiting Mark Shapiro re-re-signed Russell Branyan this past off season, it never made sense and I wasn’t shy about saying so. Maybe he cost “only” $2 million, but he had a bad back and about one good half-season in an otherwise strangely long but predictably mediocre career. On a team perpetually rebuilding Branyan wasn’t a fit for about as many reasons as there are stars in the night time sky.

No question that most people following the Indians scratched their head at Shapiro’s latest experiment as well. But few went after it hammer and tong as I did. In late June it paid dividends as Shapiro was able to trade Branyan back to Seattle for living, breathing players of very minor importance.

Which gets me back to why you’re welcome, Cleveland. Since the Branyan trade (and as you say those words, put air quotes around the word “trade”) the Indians are 14-7 and are riding a season high 6-game win streak. Do the math yourself but just know that if you win twice as many games as you lose, in any league, you’ll be clearing space for some post-season hardware, unless you’re the Cavs.

Call it a coincidence if you want but in the same time frame Seattle has gone 5-14, which is roughly the torrid pace the Indians were setting with Branyan.

What all this proves, of course, is that Branyan is that gigantic sucking sound emanating from any franchise that employs him. His one skill is to seduce general managers into thinking that his occasional home runs more than compensate for truly, deeply, madly bad defense and more strike outs than the kid on your pony league team whose dad forced him to play. They never do.

One dimensional players like Branyan fill one niche in baseball. They serve as a spare part in a pennant race for a contender. That’s why it made no sense for the Indians to sign him and it made even less sense for Seattle to trade for him.

Now that he’s gone from Cleveland, it’s as if the Indians suddenly have a sense of purpose about them. No one expects them to much win but instead to develop, like the crop of new hires in accounting, so that one day they will be in a position to lead, to win.

It’s a great theory and in some major league cities it may actually play out that way. But for all the talk of Moneyball and new-found statistics that are supposed to help teams find those diamonds in the rough, it still takes money and plenty of it to compete year in and year out for championships. It’s as true in baseball as any other sport and it’s as true in Cleveland as any other city.

Unfortunately, as much as the Branyan trade freed this team, there isn’t more excitement because in Cleveland, the fans are completely clued in to how this all turns out.

At some point one or two of these young players will develop into very viable major leaguers that will be coveted by other teams with more brash and more cash than the Indians. Like vultures over a dead raccoon on the highway, they’ll just hover around the Indians until said players reach the final 18 months before they can be free agents then they’ll try to pick the Indians’ bones clean.

In the meantime, hands will wring and teeth will gnash. In that run up to their free agent year the naïve among us will hold out hope that the Indians will find a way to sign them. The realists will talk about trading them so that the team can get something for them. The team will comply and they’ll be gone. And the circle will begin. Again

That’s the full back story of why the Branyan signing didn’t make sense. It disrupted, however briefly, the narrative. But with Branyan gone, the Indians and Shapiro have finally, thankfully, stripped any pretense away from this team.

If you buy a ticket these days, you know exactly what you’re getting into. There are some veterans scattered about but mostly you’re going to see players who are still in the “prospect” category trying to play up to their potential. It can be an interesting ride if you’re a baseball purist.

The problem for the Indians, though, is that these days there are less and less purists. Most of those willing to plunk down their money to support this team are willing to go to one or two games a year just out of habit but to get them to more games the team will have to offer something more compelling than an all you can eat buffet and a very occasional win streak. Even fireworks aren’t the draw they used to be.

As much as fans talk about “letting the kids play” it’s a myth, at least here. Fans really just want a winning team and they know in a perverse way that the end result of letting the kids play is heartbreak anew. In this operating paradigm, winning will always dangle just out of reach.

I doubt that the Indians owners and management are in denial about their troubles because they know the basic facts better than anyone. The Indians have been bleeding fans for years as a result of their operating mode.

They are dead last in the major leagues in attendance with an average of 16,636 fans per game. For comparison purposes the Houston Astros are 15th in the league and they’re averaging a little more than 11,000 more fans per game. Before you start rationalizing this as a big market/small market thing, just know that the Milwaukee Brewers are 11th in the league in attendance and are averaging more than double the amount of fans per game than the Indians.

There aren’t any publicly available ratings for the Indians’ games on Sportstime Ohio so it’s hard to know if people are even watching on cable. But if the Arbitron ratings for radio are any indicator, the Indians aren’t exactly a huge draw at the moment for their flagship station WTAM-1100. Since April, the station’s share of the listening audience is actually down, which coincides with the baseball season. As a result, WTAM-1100 has gone from a tie for first place among local stations to 7th at the end of June.

I’d say that baseball in Cleveland is at a crossroads but it’s been at this crossroad many, many times in the past. For most of its existence, the Indians have been owned by good but cash-strapped citizens. It’s not a surprise, then, that its franchise record is so dismal. When there was finally someone able to spend some money, the team got good quickly. There is a correlation.

As much as dumping Branyan finally turned this season into an exercise in letting the kids play, at its core that’s never really been the issue. The compact between the fans and this team is broken and instead of trying to rope-a-dope the fans into thinking that somehow all this child’s play and revolving rosters will eventually result in consistent winners, it would do Indians fans a far better service if Shapiro and company actually found a way to build a better mousetrap. And if they can’t, then it’s time to give someone else a try.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ready to Move On?

Are you ready to move on yet? It doesn’t matter, because it’s apparently not a request.

After being publicly mugged in the worst piece of television since NBC greenlighted the Joey show a few years ago, Cleveland sports fans are being told, nee admonished, by national media types who don’t know any better that they need to move on from it all.

Easy for them to say. The problem for Cleveland sports fans is that nothing good ever comes from them moving on. When Cavaliers fans moved on from The Shot, what did they get other than years of mediocrity, fleeting superiority, and finally abject disappointment?

When Browns fans were told to move on from The Drive and The Fumble, what did they get other than the first crack at a churlish Bill Belichick and then a morally and financially bankrupt owner revealed his true self and moved the franchise to Baltimore?

And let’s not get started with Indians fans. When the 1954 series blew up in their faces, they were told to move on only to enter their celebrated blue period in which their team usually couldn’t even spell win when spotted the “w” and the “n.” Then when the team blew the 1997 World Series, they were told to move on only to find, once again, that except for fleeting moments, anomalies in retrospect, the celebrated blue period was beginning anew.

When it comes to Cleveland sports there really is no place to move on to, unless you’re an ill-mannered free agent with a leadership problem. Then of course you can pack up your talents and move them to South Beach or whatever better venue awaits.

Nonetheless expect the fans to take this latest slight in due course, mainly because it’s such a learned skill by this point that it almost seems rote. In fact, you can almost feel as if this town has moved well beyond this latest kick in the groin and it’s barely been a week.

Ok, so you've moved on. Here's where that gets you:

As an organization, the Cavs are officially in the rebuild mode. They'll have good company with the Indians and the Browns, both of whom are charter members of that club.

It will be awhile before the Cavs direction is truly revealed. The hiring of Byron Scott hints at the future but there's the hard work of finding the players to adapt to his system. At least there's a decent organization in place.

The Indians meanwhile are entrenched if not completely encased in last place. The Browns, on the other hand, are still a few weeks out from training camp, which tends to make things look more hopeful.

But that's just the overview. Here's the details:

The one thing you could say, though, about the Indians at the moment is that most fans are actually getting their wish. The Indians for once have listened and are letting the kids play. Of course they're charging major league prices, but that's a different debate.

If not getting what you want is the worst thing in the world, then a close second is getting what you want, especially with this version of the Indians. Watching minor leaguers play against major leaguers on a nightly basis is a rather painful experience. You tend to see them make the kind of errors they probably haven’t made since American Legion ball. They often looked overmatched at the plate, mostly because they are.

It’s a sloppy mess of a team, a puppy actually, trying it’s best to keep up with far better, stronger dogs. Sure every once in awhile, 38.6% of the time to be precise, the little dog wins a game. But if you’re heading to Progressive Field anytime soon then you better be a baseball purist. Otherwise the entertainment value vacillates somewhere between a re-run of the 1998 World Series of Poker and a re-run of the 2003 Greater Milwaukee Open.

If you're watching on SportsTime Ohio, don't adjust your set. Management there is not running the same tape every night, the numbing sameness of each game only makes it feel that way.

But at least Russell Branyan is no longer on the team. That development means more than just the fact that he’s practicing his own special brand of bad baseball somewhere else. It also means that general manager Mark Shapiro is taking most of the blockers out of the current system, the players seemingly added to the team specifically to block the development of the next generation.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the team that starts the second half of the season is not the same as the team that started the first half of the season, the team starting the second half of the season isn’t the one that will finish it, either and, for good measure, the team that finishes it won’t resemble the team that starts the next season.

Where the Indians are concerned, it’s what is called the Circle of Life. Nothing breeds fan indifference and confusion more than a revolving door on the clubhouse. Quick, you non-purists out there, name the Indians’ starting lineup? Now be truthful, how many did you get right? But don't worry. You'll have another chance in a few weeks when the lineup turns over again.

Jake Westbrook and Kerry Wood are the two likeliest candidates to be moved by Shapiro, though Jhonny Peralta is a strong candidate as well. Westbrook’s probably leaving because he said he’d like to stay and in this town teams pretty much do the opposite of what’s expected. Wood will move on because some contending team will need another guy out of the bullpen. Peralta, meanwhile, will probably just fade into the scenery somewhere else.

All this means that the shuttle bus between Cleveland and Columbus will get a few more clicks on the ol’ odometer, as Jerry Fleck might say. That’s not a complaint. It’s what fans in fact demanded.

As whatever remaining interest in the Indians wanes over the next few weeks, it will be just in time for the latest reinvention of the Cleveland Browns.

The team had a reinvention last season when head coach Eric Mangini was hired by owner Randy Lerner in the kind of rush that suggested Lerner had a soccer game to get to. Mangini in turn hired his own boss, which worked out about as well as that kind of thing tends to work out. When it all fell apart, Lerner, back from the pitch, reinvented the team again and this time may have hit on something.

With Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert in charge of the team, it finally has the professional management it’s so sorely lacked in the last decade. Someone who’s 150 pounds overweight isn’t going to get skinny in a week and a team in this bad of shape isn’t going to get good overnight. But you do sense an actual direction, which is as much hope as Cleveland fans are allowed to have anyway.

But even if the Browns season turns out better than imagined, fans know what happens next. There is a pending labor dispute and it would be a minor miracle if there isn't a lockout/strike that will halt the next season. Which means, of course, that whatever progress is made now is likely to be fleeting.

And that's the point, isn't it. Every time Cleveland sports fans head down a tunnel and find see some light, it turns out to be an oncoming train. But past being prologue here, they'll just move on once again.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Another Clown at the Circus

The real reason that it’s so difficult to hold athletes accountable for their bad behavior is that they have too many enablers ready and willing to give them a pass, like Jesse Jackson.

When you read and then re-read Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s Decision-night rant about LeBrand James, his main point was the lack of accountability by today’s athletes. It was personalized to James, certainly, but he also generalized about today’s professional athletes and he wasn’t wrong.

Whether Gilbert’s words were ill-advised from a business perspective is a healthy debate. But Jackson, never shy to play the race card when it suits his political purposes, likened Gilbert’s statements to a slave-owner bemoaning the loss of his best slave. As if.

Rather than see the situation for what it is, Jackson, in his usual knee-jerk fashion, sees it in only black/white terms and then comes down on the side, predictably, of the one that will paint someone like Gilbert as a racist when his only real experience with him are words on a sheet of paper. I guess Jackson doesn't embrace that whole content of character thing that his mentor espoused.

The history of slavery in this country alone remains a stain that can never be fully be eradicated. It rendered an entire class of people to second class status and even today the racist sting of that former status too often remains. It is shocking, actually, the amount of racism that still exists to this day.

And while the teaching moments from that unfortunate part of this country’s past are numerous, it’s not helpful when it’s trotted out willy-nilly by opportunists like Jackson because, ultimately, it merely cheapens the actual pain of the real victims of racism.

Whatever else James may be, he’s hardly anyone’s slave. Stated differently, if James is a slave, then so too is the rest of the NBA, including players like Steve Nash and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, not to mention every athlete playing professionally anywhere in the world for a sports franchise.

Let’s start with the obvious distinctions.

Anyone with enough talent to play professional sports does so voluntarily and in full recognition that his or her employment will be governed by certain rules, just like anyone who enters the workforce generally.

Those rules put limitations and restrictions on both parties to what is certainly a bi-lateral contract. Owners in the NBA, for example, aren’t free to do whatever they please with their franchise or its players and players, similarly, aren’t free to do whatever they’d like whenever they want.

Let’s not forget, too, that players like James have all sorts of protective measures in place, like the agents that shill for them and the union that collectively bargains for them. Anyone who stood up to actual slavery like, say Abraham Lincoln, put his life in jeopardy. The last I looked, nobody's marching on Washington D.C. over the the exploitation of professional athletes. The players themselves aren’t currently on strike so it’s safe to presume that they are satisfied with the bargain their freely elected union representatives struck.

All of which takes it completely out of the whole plantation scenario that Jackson infers. Let’s underscore again that James is under no compulsion to even play professional sports. He’s free to leave the NBA at any time he wants and get on with whatever his life’s work may be.

That James doesn’t do that is attributable solely to the fact that doing so would cost him millions upon millions of dollars, money, by the way, that he’s free to spend any way he’d like. To suggest he’s somehow shackled to an owner is ridiculous and inflammatory rhetoric designed not to necessarily blunt the enormous backlash that James so rightly deserves, although that’s part of it. Let’s face it; grandstanders like Jackson are always looking for the next controversy to make themselves look relevant again and if he can draft off of James to do it, well, let's just say that more than a few will think that Jackson is just as guilty of the exploitation he claims Gilbert engaged in.

But even beyond the mere bit of theatrics and opportunism of opportunists like Jackson is the more detrimental impact those words have on trying to hold these athletes accountable.

Professional athletes have always been a bit of a pain in the ass anyway. Far too many have an entitlement mentality borne out of far too much catering to them from an early age merely because they can throw harder, shoot better or run faster than the other kids. They already tend to think they can do no wrong so it's not exactly helpful to the dialogue when Jackson makes an athlete who just signed a $100 million contract feels like he’s the one being exploited.

My guess is that if you actually could document the thoughts that ran through the collective heads of the millions that watched James on Thursday night, I doubt that anyone outside of Jackson saw this as the emancipation of a runaway slave.

But if it was as Jackson suggests then isn't it likewise fair to suggest that all James really did was once again become enslaved to yet another white owner?

See, that’s the problem with this whole slave analogy that Jackson has now foisted upon the collective consciousness. I no more look at James or Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh or any of the hundred or so other NBA basketball players or the hundreds of pro football or baseball players as slaves. I don’t consider the team owners as plantation lords treating their human resources as chattel, either.

These are all just businessmen striking obscenely rich deals over the games kids play. Every once in awhile someone or other is going to get a little testy over the outcome of one of these deals and spout off.

Maybe it’s all childish in that sense but for most rational thinking individuals they can at least keep it in perspective. They recognize that James is the one who made his free agency into a circus and James. Whatever criticism he gets he deserves and it matters little if it comes from the talking heads at rival networks or the owners of sports team or little Johnny whose dad wasted $100 last year on a James fathead.

There's a societal impact to all of this that is worthy of discussion and maybe some good can prevail out of this mess. But the one thing you can be sure of is that the Jesse Jacksons of this world have no interest in that actually happening. For them to exist they need controversy, they need provocation to keep themselves in the public eye. Which means, of course, that the last thing they really want is an actual solution.

Jackson can change the subject all he wants but the bottom line is that if James were his kid, I’d like to think he’d have raised him with far more class than James exhibited throughout this so-called sham of a free agency process. Good manners and class never go out of style.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lingering Items--All LeBrand All The Time Edition

There's nothing about the LeBron James story that looks any better 24 hours later. Maybe some of the anger has dissipated, but the hurt will linger for a long time for a lot of people.

So much was wrapped up in LeBetrayal that it's hard at times to corral all the thoughts into a coherent narrative. There is the history of all the various sports teams in this town and the generations they've gone without a championship. There is the history of the two cities—Cleveland and Akron—that just screams that their better days are long gone. There are the people in these towns forced to endure the sharpest edges of everything bad, be it the weather, the economy, or just the scorn for well, being who they are.

And yet through it all I wondered what this town's reaction would have been if the situation were slightly different. What if James had been playing for some other former doormat town through the magic of the NBA's ping pong balls these last 7 years and then still gone to Miami even with the Cavaliers making their best pitch for him to come to Cleveland? What if it had been the Cavs, like the Heat and the Bulls, clearing cap space these last few years to sign James and another max free agent, only to find themselves abandoned at the alter? Would the reaction still be the same?

It's an interesting hypothetical. Sure James would have been turning his back on Cleveland and this area, but it would have only been in the same way he turned his back on far bigger media markets like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Cleveland fans would be disappointed certainly, but likely not to this level.

It's one thing to ask the prettiest girl out and get turned down. It's another thing to be married to the prettiest girl for 7 years and have two or three kids with her only to see her walk away emotionless abandoning everything the two of you've built because she likes the beach better.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I don't think it's ever going to be too harsh to call James' decision to abandon this town a betrayal. It feels that way because that's in fact what he did. He positioned himself as one of us, a guy who understood everything this town stood for and everything it had been through and he acted as if he was the one chosen to turn it all around.

That's maybe too big of a burden to put on anyone, especially a 25-year-old multimillionaire with a lousy upbringing, but gee it never felt that way until Thursday at around 9:19 p.m.

It was James who led Clevelanders down that path in the first place. He may have been playing it cool and close to the vest but in those rare unguarded moments when LeBron wasn't just building LeBrand he'd occasionally let it slip that this was his destiny all along.

Maybe it was all wishful thinking. Most of it probably was. But when you're only given tea leaves to read then all you'll read are tea leaves. And almost every one of them, even to this day, seemed to lead to but one conclusion for everyone around here but James himself.


Some of the national writers, those with a vested interest in defending LeBrand in order to maintain their limited access to his idiot ramblings, have come to the conclusion that James owed this town nothing, that he held up his end of the bargain. Really?

James played mostly hard throughout his time in Cleveland and for that he was richly rewarded with millions in salary and even more in endorsements. But that is only part of the bargain.

What those writers fail to appreciate is that two towns, Akron and Cleveland, literally raised James and put him in a position to do exactly what he just did. James may have put in the work on the court, but if it weren't for the people of these two towns, James may not have ever made it to the court. What did James do to repay that? Hold a bike rally in Akron? Have a 3-on-3 tournament? Pass out turkeys at Christmas?

That's all nice, solid stuff but pick a carpetbagging superstar in any town and you'll find them doing likewise. It's all part of building their brand as well. No, what I'm talking about here is the fact that at some point James became the King of the World on the backs of a town that literally raised him from the time he was a a mere king-in-waiting.

There are many individual heroes in the James story, the people who without recognition took in James as he was kicking around from apartment to apartment while his young mother was trying to straighten out her own life. There are the other heroes that showed him every little courtesy along the way, from those who maybe helped him get a good grade in history class to those who grabbed him by the shoulder from time to time and told him to straighten up and keep out of trouble.

There are also the hundreds and thousands and millions around the region that respected his privacy and literally let him be the superstar that lived next door.

That kind of love, that kind of respect demands a response in kind. Instead James became Tiger Woods, the spoiled brat with the otherworldly talent who Big Timed everyone else. My guess is that even now he can't imagine what all the fuss is over in this town.

It's laughable to read the quotes from the other athletes coming to his defense as well. The clueless are always the last to realize they're clueless.

James may not have owed it to this town to stay here forever, that's a debatable point. But he certainly owed it a far more gracious exit than he gave it. You may only get one chance to make a first impression, but it's equally true that you only get one chance to make a last impression. In this case, and no matter what comes afterward, nothing is going to change the way people feel about having a knife stuck in their backs on national television.

Establishing his own Twitter account, James used it on Friday to announce, as he headed to Miami and the only adoring fans he currently has left, that the road to history starts now. In a sense he's right. Just not for the reasons he thinks.

The chutzpah it took to send that Twitter message is almost a textbook reaction from someone who so rightly is taking it on the chin. Rather than acknowledge the missteps, the classless execution of a decision he didn't have to make, James instead seems emboldened by the backlash.

It won't always be that way.

There will come a point when James realize that of all the words used to describe him over his career the the most pertinent and the one that stings the most will turn out to be “coward.”

Some suggest that the issue isn't the fact that James decided to leave Cleveland. Baloney. On the most basic level, James is a coward because he chose Miami. He branded himself as the Chosen One and the King but he ended up someone who needed the reflected glory of someone else in order to make the history he now seeks.

What kind of Chosen One, what kind of King, what kind of superstar thinks like that? It's one thing to surround yourself with talent in order to make yourself better, but it's another thing to instead run away from the pressure of being “the Man” and instead become, essentially Dwyane Wade's Scottie Pippen. Anything for a ring, I guess.

Paint it anyway you want, and soon I expect the apologists to come out in force and try to write a different narrative, but none of that will change the fact that James simply doesn't have the guts to effectively lead a team to a championship. And it will be that way in Miami. James will never be seen as the one leading Miami and you can literally see the relief in his face at that fact. Seeking the shelter of a cocoon of a different making, James is now Wade's wing man and will never again be seen as someone that you'd ever want to fully trust with the last shot.

But that's hardly the only reason James is a coward. Mostly he's a coward because he didn't have the stomach to play it straight with anyone, including the owner who placated and catered to his every whim.

I don't buy it for a minute that this whole thing wasn't per-ordained months, if not years ago. James went through the public dog-and-pony show to make it all look legit but in the end it was all just a farce. He never was going to New York, New Jersey or Chicago. He wasn't ever going to stay in Cleveland. He wanted out and just didn't have the guts to publicly say it.

You can make the argument that by putting himself on national television to announce The Decision, James showed a special kind of guts. Hardly.

The camera is faceless. It doesn't blink and it doesn't respond. That's for real live human beings. When Gilbert detailed the classless way that James left town, it becomes all the more understandable why James went on television in the first place.

The same lack of courage that caused him to fold like a deck chair in the playoffs against Boston is the same lack of courage he displayed in running away, is the same lack of courage he displayed in not returning one call that Gilbert made to him throughout this process. See the pattern?

Think about that for a moment. Gilbert and the Cavs bent over backward to accommodate James' every wish. Sure they had a vested interest in doing so, but the fact remains that they did in fact make those gestures. Yet James couldn't even answer one of his 10 cell phones he probably keeps or respond to a simple text?

It may take a village to raise a child, but it turns out that Clevelanders all along were just raising the village idiot.

Consider that James didn't even have the courage to call Gilbert directly to say “thanks for all you've done. I know this will be difficult to hear but I'm heading to Miami because that's where I think I will have the best chance to win multiple championships.”

Instead James had one of his guys make that call, a classless move if ever there was one. Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it. When the Cavs were faced with a tougher than expected Boston team, James' lack of character actually came through. But that was just a prelude to the complete lack of character and integrity he demonstrated in dealing with Gilbert.

Debate all you want what team is a better fit for James in this phase of his career but there is no debate on how he should have handled this whole thing.

Then there is Gilbert. I'm not sure his own advisers probably thought it was a good idea to blast James as he did, but damn it sure felt good to finally hear an owner dispense with political correctness and just let his feelings fly.

Gilbert may come to regret his blast at James, but he shouldn't. And for those who disagree I say, point to anything Gilbert said that was objectively wrong and then maybe I'll listen to that point of view.


The other thing I keep hearing is that someone around James should have given James better counseling, should have pulled him aside and told him how poorly he was handling this all.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it assumes the people around him do in fact no better. What evidence is there of that?

James' inner circle is made up of close friends who have been drafting behind him since high school. He's an employee of Nike as well but Nike time and again has demonstrated that they are about the least likely to pull aside one of their own and get him grounded. His agent? Put it this way, an agent doesn't get rich arguing with his client.

Then there is ESPN.

In the pursuit of ratings they let one of their own, taking money directly from James, put the farcical show together and then sold it as “news.” I'd say that Jim Gray should be fired for his role in all of this but first you'd have to fire Jim Gray's boss.

After James' posse, his agent, Nike and ESPN, who exactly is left to tell James what he needs to hear and not what he wants to hear? There wasn't an adult in the room throughout this entire mess so it's really not much of a surprise that this was handled with all the intelligence of a group of second graders trying to stage a presidential debate.

This was always a car crash in the making so no one should be surprised when the car actually crashed.

I caught a glimpse on Friday night of some sort of celebration going on in Miami where the Heat was introducing it's new team. Not surprisingly there were only 3 players present, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Pretty telling stuff, actually. But it also leads to this week's question to ponder: Why exactly was James wearing a head band?

Thursday, July 08, 2010


We are all witnesses. Indeed. Witnesses to the fact that in the end, LeBron James turned out to be Art Modell with a better fashion sense.

Sitting in Greenwich, Connecticut at a Boys and Girls Club and announcing to the world that the Miami Heat is where he’ll ply his trade next, James took a knife, edgy and dull, and carved a 6-inch valley in the middle of Cleveland’s soul.

If you want to be placated by the charity angle to the whole thing, go ahead and be a Pollyanna. James co-opted the good intentions of a worthy charity in order to make himself look better as he sat, cynically, virtually ripping the heart of out a city and explaining, once again, that it’s not about the money it's about happiness..

Remember this: when they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. Think of James leaving money on the table by not signing with Cleveland as a temporary thing, something akin to spending money to make money. James is officially a brand now and this is all about giving himself a bigger stage to make even more money off that brand.

Now of course the paralysis by analysis will begin anew, focusing as it will on whether James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all share the same ball and who, exactly, will take that last shot in a game that matters.

Then there is the small matter on whether James stacking the deck in his favor in order to enhance his chances at “multiple championships” (the catch phrase of the free agent season if ever there was one) really has the opposite effect on the legacy he's trying to create.

Let me dispense with that one quickly. No, it won’t have the opposite effect. When James’ career is over, it will be judged best in retrospect. And if that retrospective look includes a few championships, no one is going to much care how they were won. Does anyone think that Derek Jeter’s career is somehow less because he plays along side Alex Rodriguez, or vice versa? Scottie Pippen is one of the top 50 or so best basketball players in NBA history and I’ve yet to hear anyone criticize Michael Jordan’s legacy that was forged in large measure with Pippen’s help.

What will matter, though, is James’ reputation. As they saying goes, it takes a lifetime to build and a moment to lose it. That moment, of course, for James, serious by nature, playful at times, was the exact instant he put that stake in the heart of a city that’s been killed a thousand times over anyway. At least in that, James’ can’t claim he was first. Sports disappointment, with its long and rich history on the North Coast, is about the only thing Cleveland seems to have mastered.

Actually, while Thursday night serves as the convenient marker for when James’ reputation as a the consummate team player took its biggest hit, it’s really been a reputational death by a thousand cuts since the season ended, actually ever since the Cavs were busy falling apart against the Boston Celtics.

James and his team, perhaps out of naïveté or perhaps out of callous indifference, have mostly looked like buffoons, with Thursday night’s “show” being Exhibit A. But yet it’s hard to be too critical in that regard when the adults in the room who should know better, like the executives running a major television network for example, willingly play into their hands by acting as if James and his manager, Maverick Carter, are the two most brilliant marketing minds since McMahon met Tate or Sterling met Cooper.

Truthfully, it will be difficult to ever consider James again in a purely basketball context. Over the last 7 years, basketball fans in general and Cavaliers fans in particular have been treated to some of the best basketball they’re ever likely to see. They’ve had the chance to watch James surmount the seemingly insurmountable hype surrounding him when he came out of high school. In that process, never painful always fun, James has become the best basketball player on the planet.

There’s probably still more upside to James’ game, who knows. But this time the seemingly insurmountable hype James has to contend with is completely of his own making. It’s one thing to live up to your own personal standards. It’s another to create expectations in millions of others that can never be fully satisfied anyway and then spend each and every day trying to do just that. At least we’ll find out whether James really is Atlas.

If you’re a fan of the Miami Heat, and I suspect there’s a whole bunch of folks jumping on that bandwagon about now, it’s going to be difficult to level set yourself. Do you expect the Big Three to win a championship each and every year? Will you be satisfied with three titles? How about two? If the Heat win one title in the next six years, will that be considered a failure? See what I mean?

As well informed as James thinks he’s been in this process, it isn’t nearly as well informed as it could have been. Listening to everyone but relying on no one, James came to the simplistic of all conclusions without the wisdom and perspective that comes with age. At some point, probably long after he retires, James will give an interview from whatever mansion he’s living in then and he’ll reflect on this time in more melancholy terms. He’ll regret the pain he brought to the city that raised him and he’ll likely regret the fact that he gave the city its hobbling on national television.

Just don’t expect that kind of reflection any time soon. For now and for as far as the eye can currently see, James will be resolute in trying to live up to just what he has wrought, without regret and without indifference. Time will change that.

The question is, will time change how Cleveland feels about James? Time hasn’t much tempered the animosity toward Art Modell, nor should it. Whatever Modell’s motivations, he had other options and yet, just like James, chose only what was best for him. So no, I don’t think it will.

Maybe you do only really owe yourself and no one else. Modell and now James certainly think that way. But yet there is a point where you actually become a citizen, where you accept the responsibility of what your fleeting existence on this planet gives you. James isn’t nearly as fully realized as he’d like to believe. I doubt he ever will be.

James can soothe whatever fractured feelings he’s created for himself by staying close to the Akron community, keeping his basketball tournament alive and sponsoring a bike ride, too. He’ll probably make Akron his summer home, mainly because the monstrosity of a house he built in Bath Township is unsellable. The only adapted use for it is a hotel and the street is zoned residential.

But spreading money around like that will only be about damage control, just like his cynical use of the Boys and Girls Club to temper the wrath his ego-fueled free agency created. He had a chance to make a real difference in this community for now and ever more and instead he just proved to be another mogul trying to take the shortcut to success. I’m not sure Cleveland would have been a tougher place for James to win a championship but even if it would be it just underscores that James never really was up to that challenge.

It’s doubtful that most of the locals will wish James well as he and the other two musketeers practice their basketball skills for another town. Indeed, he’ll be booed loudly and proudly every time he comes back to Quicken Loans Arena. But those are just little points in time, snippets in a far larger story that’s only half-written.

The rest of the story is that life goes on for all of us, even James. It's an object lesson, once again, you're best to love the game and not the gamers. And it’s some consolation, I suppose, that just as with Modell, James is still going to have to face up to his kids one day and explain why exactly he decided to sully a once great name. I have a feeling that when that time comes, even his kids aren't going to buy that whole happiness angle.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Decision

Hollywood could learn something from LeBron James.

Playing his free agency drama as if it were a movie scripted by David Mamet and directed by Oliver Stone, James is keeping the collective basketball fans of several major cities on the edge of their seats with absolutely no idea just yet how this story turns out.

With James’ decision now the culmination of the ultimate reality television show on ESPN Thursday night, James has maximized the tension and angst, particularly for fans in Cleveland. Once Chris Bosh decided to sign with the Miami Heat and Dwayne Wade decided to stay right where he’s at, the focus once again turned to James, just as he wanted it all along.

The only question now is whether “The Decision” ends up taking its place along side “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” “The Shot,” and “The Move” on the shelf of greatest Cleveland sports letdowns. The latter four events are still major headaches to Cleveland fans but the pain has slowly been receding. James has an opportunity to either freshen the pain and keep it throbbing for another decade or so or give Cleveland fans an appropriate retort every time they’re reminded of all their other sports failures.

Yea, we know how this is supposed to turn out. But for once, just once, hope still remains, even as the clock ticks off its final hours.

Listening to both Bosh and Wade explain their rationale for playing in Miami, you get the sense that all of this isn’t as scripted as it certainly could have been. Bosh discussed his decision with ESPN and gave mildly conflicting reasons for playing the prime of his career in South Beach.

First he essentially said that he made his decision irrespective of James because, supposedly, Miami is the best situation for him and his family. That tends to be code for it’s the place that allows him to earn the most money. (Before you send the emails, I fully understand that depending on how it all works out, particularly if there is not a trade with Toronto, that Bosh may earn less salary in Miami than, say, Cleveland. But salary is always just one piece of the money pie anyway.)

Later, in discussing why he didn’t want to come to Cleveland in a sign-and-trade deal with the Cavs, Bosh said he didn’t want to commit without knowing where James would be playing.

Taken together and giving Bosh the benefit of the doubt, it really sounds like the three marquee free agents, Wade, Bosh and James aren’t orchestrating this as much as it might seem.

It also suggests that neither Wade nor Bosh wanted to steal James’ spotlight or be subservient to it. Certainly Bosh could have waited for James to commit and then made a decision, but that would have made him look like, well, James’ bitch, and that’s not a position a guy making $100 million wants to be. This way, I suppose Bosh looks like his own man and you can’t begrudge him that.

With Wade and Bosh now out of the way, the media frenzy around James only grows more intense. In some sense, his decision (lower case “d”) to reveal where he’ll play on ESPN is a master stroke. For a guy building a brand you have to applaud, at least a bit, his ability to commandeer an hour of prime-time and then dictate where the sponsors’ dollars will be spent.

And yet, it still seems all a bit much, if not a bit unseemly as well, particularly if he uses the platform to give Cleveland the shaft. It would be about the worst way I could imagine for James to leave, publicly humiliating the team and town that has nurtured him and provided him every resource it could possibly muster in order to allow him to develop as he has.

It’s hard to overstate the embarrassment the city of Cleveland will feel starting about 1.5 seconds, if that long, after James announces he’s playing for anyone other than Cleveland on Thursday night. Art Modell stuck it to the city from a platform in Baltimore with all the media in attendance. But at least he didn’t stand front and center on primetime in a show of his own making to do it.

Rest assured, though, that if James does leave in this most public of ways, it will easily become at least as big a story as Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore, which up to now qualifies as the biggest story in Cleveland sports history. There’s a good argument it’s a bigger story than the Modell’s sell out.

The immediate economic impact will be huge, but temporary. What will linger far, far longer is the psychological damage. Essentially it will mean that Cleveland, given every economic advantage in this race still couldn’t convince one of its own citizens to stay at home for an extra $30 million.

And while I have great faith in Dan Gilbert and his ability to move forward and put a credible team together without James, it still does make you wonder how the team can ever attract a marquee free agent after having been turned down twice in two days, first by Bosh and then by James.

This is all a negative way of saying that I still think James is staying though my faith is a bit shaky at the moment.

The fallout from James leaving and doing so on national television seems so enormous that I simply have trouble believing he’d do that. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking that James is more thoughtful than that, we’ll see. But for another day or so I struggle with the notion that anyone could be that cruel to the city.

I also get the sense that James ending up in Miami makes it look like he was the follower in this process and not the leader. It’s possible, certainly, that James, Bosh and Wade collectively made the decision and decided on the order in which it would be announced, but it just doesn’t seem likely. Again, perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.

However this all turns out, the one saving grace is that this story will finally come to a screeching halt. We can dispense with the dozen or so daily rumors from all the “insiders” and other know-nothings and get on to cursing or praising a decision actually made and then moving on to wherever the road takes the Cavs next.

And as Cleveland sports fans, we’ll know how to deal with it, like we always do. With a shot and a beer and the quiet recognition that given the same choice, we’d have the same hard time actually volunteering to winter in Cleveland, irrespective of the money.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Lingering Items--Stupid Is As Stupid Does Edition

I don't own a gun. Never have and never will. In fact, I've never even shot a gun and have no desire to do so. And the last thing I want to do on the cusp of the Fourth of July and in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court's siding with the NRA on gun control laws is to get into a debate about guns. So I'll leave it at this: Are Robaire Smith and Shaun Rogers that stupid?

I ask that because in the span of one season, both defensive linemen were arrested as the result of trying to bring a loaded firearm on an airplane. Each had the gun in their carry-on luggage as they went through security and at least we know that the Transportation Safety Administration can spot the most obvious offenses.

What we also know is that while Rogers' arrest was months ago now, Smith actually was caught first, at an airport in Flint, Michigan last November. It's just that local police dithered over whether to file local or federal charges. They settled recently on local charges. The sweet irony though is that when Rogers was arrested last April at Hopkins Airport, Smith was traveling with him. It's almost as if Smith was playing Alan Funt setting up Rogers for some sort of Candid Camera moment. (By the way, am I dating myself with the Candid Camera reference? If so, here's the Wikipedia link : Except the only hidden camera is the one that documented the arrest.

In each case, of course, the two numbskulls pleaded ignorance and appropriately so. It's actually easy to believe that neither realized the gun was in their carry-on bag. Even the 8-year olds in Miss Landers class know that you can't take a gun on an airplane. But exactly why these two are packing that kind of heat in the first place and who exactly they are protecting themselves from is far more difficult to understand.

This is where the gun lobby jumps in, glosses over those questions and shoots (sorry) right over to every American's Constitutional right to bear arms and, of course, arm bears. But this isn't a Civics lesson. This is more practical.

The gun Smith had was a Five-seveN Belgium made semi-automatic handgun. Knowing nothing about guns myself, a little research tells me that this particular beauty with the strange capitalization (in honor of its manufacturer FN Herstal) is manufactured for use by police and SWAT units. The Browns' defensive line is a lot of things, but it isn't a police or a SWAT unit. In fact, it's almost the opposite of that so unskilled has it been at times at stopping any opposition.

I kind of get the notion that people like to keep handguns in the house to supposedly thwart an attack in the middle of the night. (I digress to tell you a true story about my friend, Tim: He is one such person. Because he has young children, he keeps the gun locked in a safe and keeps a lock on the gun. One late night, his wife heard what she thought was some rustling in the house. Tim tiptoed down the steps and into his office, carefully trying to evade the intruder even as the alleged intruder was helping himself to Tim's various riches, which aren't much. For all Tim knew, the intruder could have passed him on the stairs on his way up to see what awaited him upstairs. After quietly unlocking the safe, Tim grabbed the gun. The problem was that he couldn't get the safety lock off the gun because he couldn't find the key, despite trying for several minutes. By Tim's account, at least a half hour had now passed which means if the intruder was still there he's probably as dumb as Smith or Rogers. Rendered useless without his gun, Tim called the police, which was actually the most useful thing he had done. After a careful sweep of the house, which meant, I think, turning on the lights and looking around, there was no intruder. The theory is that the dog, who is blind anyway, walked into a door. The next morning, Tim diligently looked for the key, found it after an hour or so, and unlocked the gun only to discover it was so dirty from non-use that it wouldn't have fired anyway, kind of like the guns Barney Fife used to give Goober and Otis when he would deputize them. Now Tim keeps the gun nice and clean. He also keeps near the lock, which is about as practical as having a gun lock in the first place.)

What I don't get, though, is the immediate need for guys like Smith and Rogers, and millions of others like them, to pack that kind of firepower. Physically these two are pretty intimidating on their own, or at least they appear to be. But if they need the false confidence that guns give them, what chance, really, do they have in a straight out fight against an opposing offensive lineman every Sunday?

On second thought, maybe that's exactly why the Browns' defensive line has been so bad.


The post-post-post-post Russell Branyan era has begun in Cleveland and after Friday night's game, the Indians were 5-1. That means they're winning 83% of their games without Branyan and while I could do a little research on this point I'm not sure it's necessary. An 83% winning percentage will be good enough to get in the playoffs.

The one thing that struck me about the Branyan transaction, both going and coming, is how vastly different two teams can see the same thing. When the Indians signed Branyan, it was pretty much confirmation that Indians' general manager Mark Shapiro had simultaneously thrown in the towel and lost his mind.

It was recognition, really, that the Indians are being funded on the cheap. Branyan represented neither a missing piece nor a long term solution. Indeed he represented nothing much in particular except a guy with a bad back who would take at-bats away from Matt LaPorta.

In Seattle, though, Branyan is being sold by general manager Jack Zduriencik as tangible proof that his team is trying to win. Zduriencik's actual words was that the Branyan trade brings the team credibility. It's a fine line between credibility and crap and I suspect that Mariners fans have a pretty good idea which is which.

Seattle was a better team than Cleveland without Branyan. All his return to Seattle accomplishes for them is to perhaps bring the two teams closer, sort of addition by subtraction for one and subtraction by addition for the other.


There's a pretty high amusement factor in thinking about grown men who should know better literally dropping to their knees to lick the feet of LeBron James during a series of meetings in Cleveland this week.

New York Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni sounded positively giddy, like a teenage boy who discovered his father's collection of porn, at the freedom he now has to publicly declare his man-love for James. It's like college recruiting without the pretense that it's about academics.

As wordly as James is and wants to be, he's still just a big kid at heart. Two quick stories: Two weeks ago I was driving home from the grocery store. James lives in my neighborhood, about a mile away. As I turned the corner near, I saw James and one of his buddies riding bicycles like they were any other bicyclists out for a nice Saturday ride. James was wearing a helmet, by the way.

As I watched James ride, it struck me how innocent it all looked. At the same time various ESPN talking heads and so-called experts were talking all over each other in an epic quest to look smart while knowing nothing, James was just out having a nice, wholesome time in the neighborhood. There was something oddly affirming about it all and made me think “where in New York City will he ride his bike?”

Then, on the night before the official quest for James began, when most of these same talking heads and so-called experts were probably theorizing that James was in deep meetings trying to determine how best to proceed, James instead was at a local high school with his buddies playing a game of softball and signing autographs for the few that happened to notice he was there. If tells you that James is far more relaxed about this process than almost everyone else. It also tells you, once again, that James is happiest when he's around his friends doing the same kinds of things that a lot of us like to do in our off time.

If it were me giving the presentation to James, that's exactly what I'd focus on. James undoubtedly wants to win multiple championships, but for him it's about relationships even more. He wants to be part of the mix and he wants to have a good time. But by all accounts the Nets and the Knicks instead focused on the worldwide branding efforts and all the kinds of things that will come anyway because of James' talent on the court. To me it sounds like a misstep.

When James said Cleveland has the edge to sign him, I believe him, but not because of any obligation he feels toward the city, but because it's home. It's where he rides his bike. It's where he plays softball. It's where he goes to the movies and shops for groceries. And it's where all his friends still are. That's the most powerful tug of all.


Mike D'Antoni claimed he was cautiously optimistic about the Knicks' presentation. Which begs this week's question to ponder: Wouldn't it have been more appropriate for D'Antoni to say he was optimistically cautious?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Getting It Done

The Cleveland Cavaliers hired a new head coach Thursday and it’s only the second biggest story in Cleveland sports. The first, of course, is the simple fact that LeBron James, for the first time in his professional career, is officially no longer a member of the Cavaliers.

It may be that James re-signs with the Cavs but for now he’s not on the team’s roster. It seems strange to actually write that statement because while July 1st has been a day circled on the calendar of Cavs fans for years now it’s hard to believe the day actually arrived.

Yet it has and on that very same day the Cavs found themselves with a new coach, someone well respected around the league and, for the most part, a marquee name. For those who think that the Cavs future is only about James, this runs counter to that narrative. That means that soon we’ll see a whole bunch of analysis by those thrown for this loop and as with almost everything else you’ve heard or read for the last several weeks, it will probably be wrong.

Here’s the most salient points to know at the moment about Byron Scott, the new head coach. He is highly coveted and the best coach available at the moment. He’s got credibility with players borne of experience and a resume, including twice coaching the New Jersey Nets to the NBA Finals and winning a title three times as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers. He also wasn’t exactly begging for the Cavs job. He had other options, including remaining a highly paid NBA analyst.

It was widely reported by supposed league insiders that Scott would not commit to any job until he knew Phil Jackson’s status in Los Angeles. Jackson has hinted at retirement and these league insiders said that Scott not only wanted that job but would be the frontrunner if Jackson indeed did retire. We all know James’ uncertain status at the moment.

To all the ESPN and Sports Illustrated know-it-alls, not to mention anyone with ready access to the internet, this of course meant that the Cavs would find themselves without a head coach during the James sweepstakes, severely handicapping their chances of re-signing him. It also meant to them that should James not re-sign, the Cavs were a dead franchise walking and would have to settle for, at best, another Mike Brown as its head coach.

And yet Scott is signed, sealed and delivered. Hmmm, I wonder what went wrong?

It’s simple, really. These so-called analysts and insiders are mostly navel gazers with no greater insight than Russ who works in the mailroom. As simple as adding 1 + 1 would appear to be, they keep coming up with “3” as the answer mainly because they mostly rely on each other as their sources for the next great rumor.

What they lack in insight and factual information they make up for it with an abundance of confidence. And yet as they now try to explain exactly went wrong in their math this time, they’re not likely to land on the one thing they overlooked, Dan Gilbert.

And if they ever bothered to really think about that for a moment, they’d begin to realize that Gilbert has a way of actually getting things done. Casino gambling in Ohio was turned down by the voters repeatedly. Gilbert entered the fray when everyone else said it couldn’t get done, assembled the right team, played the appropriate amount of hardball and in the end got what he wanted, a casino that he’ll own that will be within spitting distance of his arena.

Now all Gilbert’s done is again get the best coach available. Gilbert landed early on Tom Izzo and he would have been an interesting choice. But he was always a reach anyway, given his current situation at Michigan State. When that didn’t work out, Gilbert didn’t pout. Instead he went about getting Scott and with that settled a front office that some said was a mess. It never was.

The signing of Scott is an object lesson in how the Cavs operate and provides a key lesson for those trying to forecast what James will do.

Scott is extremely familiar with the league. He knows the personalities and the players, on the court, in the front office and in the owner’s suite. The fact that Scott could be convinced to take the Cleveland job without any guarantees about James or Jackson speaks volumes about what he thinks of Gilbert.

Scott is convinced that whatever plays out with any particular player, including James, Gilbert is prepared to spend as necessary to keep this team in contention.

It’s a much different promise than the kind Larry Dolan made when he bought the Indians. In the first place, Gilbert never made any such public proclamation. Instead all he’s done is actually gone about doing it, time and time again. He’s spent huge sums on a state-of-the-art practice facility and in upgrading the Quicken Loans Arena. He’s shown no fear of paying basketball’s luxury tax, which is hefty, in order to maintain a high quality roster.

In short, he’s done everything Dolan has not. Consider, for example, this past season. Sure it had the overarching dynamic of being perhaps James’ last season and thus potentially the last best chance for the Cavs to really compete for the NBA title, but all Gilbert did was empower former general manager to spend and trade and do whatever Ferry felt necessary to get this team over the hump.

The fact that Ferry wasn’t successful doesn’t mean that the effort was lacking. Putting together a team is far more art than science anyway. But if you’re Scott and doing your due diligence, what this tells you is that Gilbert is willing to provide the necessary resources.

It’s really much the same analysis James will use as well and, what’s more, every team that covets James seems to understand that point, despite how many time the writers supposedly covering this story miss it. It may sound impressive, for example, that the Nets’ new owner is flying in from Russia to be part of the meeting with James, but the simple truth is that he had no other choice.

This aspect of James’ career is all about business and that means dealing with and understanding ownership. If James’ were buying a team, it wouldn’t much matter who owned it previously. But the fact that he’ll essentially be in partnership with this owner, it behooves James (or anyone, for that matter) to get to know your potential partner well.

It’s obvious that Scott learned enough about Gilbert during the interview process to become convinced that he wanted to partner with him and vice versa. James is going through much the same process now, trying to learn what he can about the prospective business he’ll be a part of for a long time before making a decision.

And yet all we’ve been fed by too many experts with too much time on their hands is dribble and drabble about World Wide Wes and Chris Bosh and billboards and rallies and real estate agents and the like, none of which alone or in combination much matters when real people come together to make real live decisions.

When all this is over in the next few weeks, go back and read some of the stories that have consumed your recent days to laugh at how foolish it all ended up being. Gilbert has always been the key to the Cavs future, with or without James and that hasn’t changed since the day Gilbert arrived.

And if someone wants to bet you against Gilbert getting James, take that bet. Gilbert just has a knack for making those who bet against him look foolish