Commentary

Cleveland toasts LeBron losing

Cleveland Cavaliers fans celebrate LeBron James losing to Dallas in the NBA Finals

Updated: June 13, 2011, 7:07 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

CLEVELAND -- There's a little black splotch outside the back door, past the elk mounted on the wall. It looks like an oil stain, but Jimmy Myers stops and points to it as if it's a historical marker. This, Myers says with an air of near certainty, is the infamous spot where LeBron James jerseys were burned. The scorch mark has withstood 11 months of snow, heat, cigarette butts and spit. In Cleveland, nothing ever really fades away.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Myers
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comJimmy Myers, a bartender in suburban Cleveland, shows where a LeBron James jersey was burned last year after James announced he was leaving for Miami.

Myers is a bartender at Harry Buffalo in suburban Lakewood and, in his young life, has witnessed more than 20 years of Cleveland sports futility. He is a hopeless optimist who proudly wears his Indians cap just hours after they've lost their ninth game in 10 tries. He was here the night last summer when James announced The Decision, a night that started out so innocently. Believe it or not, Cleveland really believed James was staying. The place was packed all the way to the basement in anticipation. They downed King James Bombs -- a mix of Crown Royal, cranberry juice, Red Bull and a pinch of sugar that was tossed in the air. Then James took his talents to South Beach, and the patrons took to the parking lot, scorching their frustrations in a cloud of polyester and cotton.

"It was a very intense moment," Myers said. "I actually thought there was a possibility of maybe a riot in downtown Cleveland."

Love fades. Hate can last forever. Eleven months later, fans gathered again Sunday night in this wood-paneled bar to watch another monumental event in James' life. They came to watch him implode. When the clock ran down and the Dallas Mavericks denied James his first NBA championship, the celebration resembled something that belonged in northern Texas.

Champagne flowed out of shot glasses. Everyone at the bar got a swig. The flat screens were muted, and "We Are the Champions" blasted over the speakers. People had to get up early for work in a few hours. They didn't care.

"This is the closest I've felt in my lifetime like we won a championship," said Mallory Blewitt, a 20-something who joined this community resistance against LeBron James' happiness.

"We take what we can get as a city."

Jilted

Sure, it's petty and spiteful, rooting against LeBron. A basket clanked off the rim Sunday night, and a bar erupted in glee. To this day, at least one Cleveland Cavaliers message board refuses, at least in subject headlines, to refer to him by name. People there call him No. 6.

Greg Vlosich does not want the world to think Cleveland is desperate, bitter or pathetic. If James had slipped away under normal circumstances, with a press release or a 2 o'clock news conference like normal well-paid athletes, the city would've let it go by now. Vlosich just hated the way LeBron jilted the city, on national TV, with a one-hour prime-time special.

[+] EnlargeCavs fans
Courtesy Greg VlosichCleveland fans celebrate the Mavs' NBA championship with special anti-LeBron T-shirts.

He said it was embarrassing, stringing Cleveland fans along, breaking their hearts in front of millions. Vlosich wanted to do something about it. The graphic artist went home and took his frustrations out on a T-shirt last summer. He came up with a catchy slogan. The Lyin' King. At least one woman was wearing the shirt Sunday night, when the crowd was interspersed with some of Vlosich's other creations. His family runs a graphic T-shirt business, and it's quite a town talker. A few weeks ago, Greg says, he was sitting at home watching James and the Heat advance to the NBA Finals, becoming more and more annoyed. So he went to his room and designed a gray T-shirt that prompted the Cavs For Mavs campaign, and order requests flowed in from all over the United States and from four other countries.

He declined to say how many T-shirts have been sold, adding only that the company received so many requests that it couldn't fill them all. It might sound strange, a city a time zone and at least two accents away passionately rooting for a basketball team with no real ties to the community. Vlosich doesn't want people to think that Cleveland has given up on its own team, that its fans think the product is so bad that they have to resort to sharing allegiances.

It's just that the Cavs haven't had much to cheer about in the post-LeBron era. They lost 26 straight games in 2010-11, tying the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the longest skid in any professional sport. They finished 19-63, and, oftentimes, more crowds in Cleveland gathered around to watch the James drama than to watch their own team flailing through the growing pains of the season.

"Here's the main thing," Vlosich said. "It was something for people to rally around."

And rally they did, with Coronas and Mavericks-blue shots and fist bumps after big baskets. There was a joke around town last week that Cleveland had become a northern suburb of Dallas. But really, fans just wanted to dwell in any area code besides the 305.

Twenty-seven years, and Vlosich has been an unwavering Cleveland fan. He has lived in the same 10-mile radius his entire life. He dreamed of playing basketball for Cleveland State, then wound up playing guard at the school in the mid-2000s. He loved it when his dad used to regale the boys with fond memories of the last championship the city won. Greg's dad, George, was maybe 10 when it happened in 1964.

When Art Modell moved the Browns out of Cleveland, George and his boys held up protest signs in the stands. Greg still has a picture of that day on his refrigerator.

That's why he wants people to know how big of a deal this is in Cleveland, how much it hurt. He was playing softball down the street from Harry Buffalo when The Decision was announced last summer, but watched it on a laptop in the dugout. They are roughly the same age, the King and the graphic designer. He followed James in high school when LeBron was a nationally known kid sensation in Akron and Vlosich was anonymously slogging away at Lakewood High.

"People kind of felt betrayed by the way he did it, you know?" Vlosich said. "You don't do that to a city that embraced you that long. I think if he could do it over, he would. If not, he's crazy."

Late Sunday, Vlosich was at home, trying to figure out a latest design to celebrate a possible Mavs victory but, more important, a James defeat. He decided on a blue-and-yellow T-shirt.

"All for One, Won for All."

The promise

The Broadway Avenue Boys & Girls Club is a rim-rattling drive down two lanes of potholes that are called America's Byway. Old factories sigh puffs of smoke into the air. There, on 61st Street, is a tiny pocket of LeBron's last die-hard fans. They're 14 years old. They wear striped shirts and worn-out shorts and play pingpong and basketball.

[+] EnlargeLeBron Sanford
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comLaBron Sanford is a fan of LeBron James and was pulling for him to win.

The Decision might have blown up a team and rankled a country. But it did something else, too. It paid for a new basketball floor and a couple of other upgrades at the recreation center. Last summer, James promised he would donate ad money from the broadcast to the charity. He delivered.

And, on Monday afternoon, LaBron Sanford was playing on the new floor with his buddies. The smiling, shy 14-year-old wasn't in the best of moods. Like so many other kids here, he wanted LeBron to win.

"I felt like he gave Cleveland all he had," Sanford said. "He wanted to go somewhere else to win a ring. I still think he's going to win a couple."

It's kind of funny. Kids worship LeBron while their parents curse him. On Monday, even Ohio Gov. John Kasich got into the act. He took a few pokes at James and declared the Mavericks honorary Ohioans.

Ron Soeder, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Cleveland, is stuck sometimes on the whole issue. He figures it's better for Cleveland if the Heat lose.

"[But] 86 percent of our kids are at or near poverty," Soeder said. "Who wins a basketball championship is not a relevant issue with the poverty in our neighborhoods."

So, why do they root against him so passionately? The answers, perhaps, come from some of the younger folk at Harry Buffalo. They couldn't bear to watch LeBron win. Not this year. It's too soon. It would've made the decision seem right.

The final game of the NBA season closed a chapter Sunday to a sad and bitter year. But there's hope that luck will change. Later this month, the Cavs will pick the No. 1 and No. 4 selections in the NBA draft. As LaBron Sanford walked out of the gym on Monday, he asked about a rumor he'd heard that the Cavs were going to get the No. 2 pick, too. Maybe there's another LeBron James in this draft. At least there's hope.

"I hated to see him go," Soeder said. "In the seven years he was here, he gave the fans in Cleveland one of the best periods in their entire franchise history. We're very thirsty for a championship. That's why I think fan reaction was so negative and violent. We knew we were pretty close."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.