Cleveland asking LeBron to stay

Updated: May 18, 2010, 6:51 PM ET
Associated Press

CLEVELAND -- They're saying it on billboards, in song, in letters, in petitions and more.

Whatever the format, the message from Clevelanders is the same: Dear LeBron James, please don't go. Please please please don't go.

This hard-luck city on the shores of Lake Erie is desperately trying to show its NBA superstar that, with free agency looming July 1, the best spot for him is right up the road from his hometown of Akron, Ohio, the place where he's played for seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers and won two MVP awards.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
AP Photo/Tony DejakCavs fans like Austin Briggs of Cleveland Heights are taking their message to the streets -- they want LeBron James to stay.

And in the wake of a baffling early exit from the playoffs -- a six-game series loss to the Boston Celtics -- the grass roots campaign has taken on not just a new urgency but the sense of a last chance. Without James, after all, the chances of Cleveland breaking its 46-year titleless streak in major pro sports don't seem too good.

"He's a hometown guy. We definitely want to put that on his conscience," said 23-year-old Austin Briggs, of Cleveland Heights, co-founder of the Web site pleasedontleave23.com.

Want to join the band wagon? You can sign a "Stay LeBron" petition right on the hood of Brigg's souped-up 1987 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, dubbed the "Witness Mobile."

Even before the playoffs, fans had helped fund a banner near the home of the Cavs, showing James through his life with the words "Born Here. Raised Here. Plays Here. Stays Here."

But if Clevelanders think showing a little civic pride will be enough to romance LeBron, they better think again.

Other cities are trying to woo him, too.

In New York City, The Daily News has launched www.getlebron.com and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made a case for James to move -- to the Knicks or the Nets.

"I love living in New York, my kids love living in New York," Bloomberg said last week. "I think LeBron James would love living in New York and it is the world's greatest stage."

Bulls fans, meanwhile, have www.sendlebrontochicago.com while long-suffering Los Angeles Clippers fans are planning a parade aimed at showing the MVP some love.

So far, James hasn't tipped his hand.

"It's all about winning for me and I think the Cavs are committed to doing that, but at the same time I've given myself options to this point," he said.

The Cavaliers can offer him around $30 million more than any team, but several other clubs can make pitches beginning July 1.

The Cleveland campaign to keep James comes with the backdrop of a shrinking city that hasn't won a major sports championship since the NFL Browns in 1964.

A witness to the title drought, 74-year-old Ruth Wine, part of the 212-member LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club, wrote to him after Thursday night's deciding playoff loss to make a pitch for his hometown.

"That little town truly and deeply loves you, win or lose, for the fine person you are and the kindness you have shown to Akron," wrote Wine, who herself is from Akron.

She has a clue that he might stay: he returned last year to his alma mater, Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, to accept his MVP award and accepted his second this year at the University of Akron.

"We think he's not leaving because why would he come back to his high school and then come to the university for his second MVP," she asked.

Browns Pro Bowl return specialist Josh Cribbs appreciates the undying passion of Cleveland fans. When Cribbs was seeking a new contract last season, fans spoke up and demanded the team pay him for his performance. Their "Pay the Man" movement helped Cribbs get a new deal.

Cribbs knows Cleveland won't let James leave without a fight.

"The fans are already speaking up," he said. "This is a motivated city for sports and there are no fans like this anywhere. They are doing whatever they can to keep him."

Even the highbrow Cleveland Orchestra has pitched in with a keep-LeBron video posted on YouTube.

Another music video, this one to the tune of "We Are the World" and posted on Break.com features local celebrities and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland -- he's running for re-election -- in a sing-along. The pitch: "Please stay, LeBron. We really need you. No bigger market's gonna love you half as much as we do."

The hometown affection for James might help persuade him to stay, Mike Altomare said between customers at his barber shop down the road from St. Vincent-St. Mary.

"It would make him feel he's home. You get into these bigger metropolis areas and I don't think that warmth is going to be there. It's just going to be basketball and the other stuff is going to go by the wayside," he said.

At a cubbyhole T-shirt shop next door, the James gear -- and increasingly the "Stay LeBron" items -- are the retail superstars.

"People just love him. They admire him," said Sarah Gorring, a manager at Rubber City Clothing.

The T-shirts include a tearful Ohio map with the appeal to "Please Don't Leave 23," "Just Stay," and "Akron Witnessed First," playing off the trademark theme of fans who are "Witnesses" to James' stardom.

"They think it's a really great story of a kid who started out with absolutely nothing," Gorring said.

The question is whether a town where people, James included, can recite the sports failings like a sacred text -- The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Move, Jose Mesa's blown save in the 1997 World Series, etc. -- can take another disappointment.

Losing James, one of their own, may trump them all.

"I don't know if the song is going to do it," Cribbs said. "We've got to all keep signing to get him to stay."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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