A victory for basketball, if not the soul

December, 3, 2010
12/03/10
11:44
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Cleveland
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images
Keeping things squarely in the realm of entertainment.

David Thorpe made the best point: Nobody got hurt. Laws were generally followed. There were no effigies burned. No riots. No batteries thrown. It was no small victory for the security and events people -- those people in the matching jackets at the turnstile as you enter the arena, and the people who stare at you disapprovingly when you start acting like a drunk.

I don't know if there are angrier crowds at basketball games all over the world, but there are certainly more violent ones. So, hats off to everyone for getting through the night without permanent damage.

On top of that, there's a certain victory -- it may sound trivial now, but it is, after all, the heart of sports -- in seeing great professional athletes perform. Dwyane Wade's powerful drive from the left side. LeBron James' eye-popping series of makes to close the third quarter. Even J.J. Hickson's early and enthralling dunk. That's all good.

So, James and the Heat's visit to Ohio, deflating though it must have been for Cavaliers fans, can be declared a victory for sports.

But beyond sports ... outside the realm of entertainment ... did it do anything?

After reading all that Wright Thompson, and Scott Raab, after months of talking and exchanging e-mails with Clevelanders, I had grown utterly convinced that the LeBron James story was not just a shame of a sports divorce, but -- because sports in Cleveland are different, and far deeper -- a tear in the very fabric that holds the people of the city together. Sports was Cleveland's Hail Mary pass, and James was the intended receiver, and he dropped the ball. It is not for non-Clevelanders to even pretend to understand how terrible the results of all that might be.

My understanding was that it was not just a story of Cleveland vs. LeBron James, but also those who understand what is, right down at the bottom of it all, genuine in this world, and a young man who, they say, did not. It was deep soul vs. shallow flash.

Then I heard the fans going crazy for the introductions of the Cleveland players. Here we had shaky camera excitement (from an Emmy winning video production team) of mediocre basketball players, lit by dance club flashing strobes, dunking over nobody at all in empty gyms. Score one, no, score 100 for flash.

Soul was shut out just about the whole night.

Raab could not be more clear that this is not about some little sports dispute that will soon be forgotten:
How pretty it is to think that he and Cleveland will be friends someday. The truth is elsewhere. The time when we all get over it and reminisce about the good old days with young King James will never come. Here -- in the heart and soul of Cleveland -- he will be loathed forevermore.

Thompson spiked the punch with a moving portrait of a grieving family, and talk of really understanding a city:
They pour me a shot of krupnikas. Every family has its own recipe, a carefully guarded mixture of spices, honey and pure grain alcohol. Then they ask if I'd like to come see something. We climb a staircase and go into a kitchen. Along the way, I'm told the story: a local man, Benny Butkus, had dropped dead several weeks before. He made a famous krupnikas, and that year, before he passed, he'd already bought his ingredients. So in this kitchen are his children and his wife, standing over a stove, cooking up his moonshine for the last time. Cleaning bottles, stirring pots, checking spices. They are doing it together, through their pain, a tribute to a man who loved his family and his city, who valued loyalty, hard work and pride.

"This is the widow," I'm told.

It's a beautiful moment, and, for the first time, I really began to understand this difficult city, and understand the things that matter here and the things that don't. They didn't love Ilgauskas only because he was a great player; they loved him because he appreciated where he came from. They loved LeBron James for the same reason. They thought he was part of them. They hung his picture in their club.

They never imagined he'd come to this place, or that they'd ever get to shake his hand. But they did believe -- because, like them, he was from northeast Ohio and grew up poor -- that he understood why making moonshine on a Sunday afternoon is important.

They thought he understood.

Everyone did.

Last night was a sporting event and sports are a subset of entertainment, all of which hinges on amusement. The Cleveland fans lucky enough to get tickets got to do their sports things -- to drink, to boo, to insult one of the 50 best players in NBA history by calling him another one. The security guards in the matching jackets, and the league, owners, tickets sales and sponsorships they serve, won in the end. There was highly rated TV. There was amusement. There were no disgraces, no ambulances, and no black eyes for the brand of the NBA.

But Cleveland has, I understood, far more than a sports crisis, it has an existential one. I don't know what I was hoping for last night -- absolutely not violence -- but I know I wanted whatever it was to serve Cleveland on the level where it was really hurting. Speeches, opera, poetry, songs, rallies ... something powerful, dangerous, unimaginable and vulnerable that would make us all cry like that family stirring the krupnikas. This wasn't supposed to be just a basketball game -- this was the taunting return of a city's false savior.

This was biblical.

That last word -- tweaking the Christianity theme -- is not random. It's born, of course, of the witness campaign, which played on the idea of "bearing witness," and the savior pose James struck in that big ol' banner on the side of that building.

That banner, they'll tell you, was James accepting a broken city's call to be their savior.

But man oh man, that banner did not just say "we are all witnesses." From the moment it went up, it said "we are all witnesses" followed by the only thing that really mattered: A Nike swoosh.

You read that banner as profound? As speaking to soul?

All Nike wants to do is sell shoes, right? And they paid for that banner and everything that came with it. That swoosh on there is like a flashing light telling you: Shallow. Motivated by sales. Not to be confused with religion or salvation or anything else profound. Selling soles, not saving souls.

If posing like a firefighter, skydiver or hot air balloon pilot would have sold more shoes, James likely would have dressed up like a firefighter, skydiver or hot air balloon pilot. But the calculation was a bold one: Jesus. How about a theme of Jesus? In the name of endorsement income, he has dressed up as all kinds of things through the years, like entertainers and athletes throughout history. That's the game.

It was blatantly too much. But it's hard to sell without getting attention, it's hard to get attention without shocking, and everyone from Kanye West to Lady Gaga can tell you it's getting tougher and tougher to shock people these days. So Nike made some shallow ads that posed as deep religion.

Now I'm just a little worried the whole thing may have just been a big misunderstanding. Was this story ever as deep as it felt? Might it have always been just about entertainment? If there ever was a battle between what's right and true and profound in this world, and what's shallow and empty and vacuous, I'm certain the shallow side, with its hypnotism, its millions and its ratings, is winning in a blowout.

Henry Abbott | email

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