Posnanski: LeBron James proves he’s a true Clevelander

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There was something about LeBron-to-South-Beach that is hard, perhaps impossible, to explain to people who are not from Cleveland. I suppose there are things about glitz that cannot be explained to people not from Los Angeles, things about cheesesteaks that cannot be explained to people not from Philadelphia, things about barbecue that will only make sense to Kansas Citians, things about motion and action that do not quite translate to non-New Yorkers.

See, many people thought that Clevelanders were unreasonable after James left for Miami. In a way, we were. The jokes about it — “Who wouldn’t leave Cleveland for Miami?” and “Did they expect LeBron to serve a life sentence?” and the like — were not funny, but I could understand why people made them. Cleveland doesn’t have a beach. Cleveland doesn’t have sun. Cleveland doesn’t have so many stars’ homes that they sell maps. Heck, they call the region the “Rust Belt.” Nobody missed the point. The videos of burning jerseys played on a loop and did not help the Cleveland image. The inane spurned love letter written in Comic Sans by owner Dan Gilbert didn’t help either. 

Many people around the country despised LeBron for the WAY he left Cleveland — with that soulless television infomercial — but the act of leaving Cleveland, well, who could blame him, right? He had a chance to play with two superstars on the beach or stay in Cleveland with a dysfunctional team that had never won a thing. This is a choice? He had played seven years for Cleveland, and now he wanted something new … and many thought Clevelanders were unreasonable for lashing out at him.

Like I say, in a way we were. But there’s that something else, something that’s hard to explain if you are not from Cleveland.

It has been 50 years since Cleveland has won a championship in any sport. You probably know that. The last one was the Cleveland Browns in 1964. The city’s population was close to 900,000, Cleveland was one of the 10 biggest cities in America and Jim Brown, the greatest athlete in America, ran the football for the Browns. 

And then it all went wrong, all of it, the river caught fire, and factories began layoffs, and people began to flee, and the city defaulted, and neighborhoods started dying. More people fled. Jim Brown retired in his prime, the Cleveland Indians threatened to leave every other year, the Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien was so incompetent the NBA itself was forced to veto his bizarre trades. More people fled. Winters seemed to get colder. The snowdrifts seemed to climb higher and they looked like rust. Potholes seemed to get bigger. John Elway drove. Ernest Byner fumbled. Art Modell yanked out the city’s heart. More people fled.

Almost a half million people have left the city of Cleveland over the last 50 years, most of us because we really didn’t have a choice. There were no jobs. There was no future. My dad followed work down Interstate 77 to Charlotte back in the early 1980s. When we got there, it seemed like every other person we met was from Cleveland.

How LeBron’s return will affect the economy in Cleveland

Then we all left a part of ourselves in Cleveland. There is something about the city that gets inside you and never lets go, something about what it feels like the first day you can see grass poking through the snow after a long winter, something about Cleveland blue skies, something about the way the streets intersect and the many accents you cross, something about the way the restaurants and bars are given first names like “Eddie’s” and “Corky and Lenny’s,” something about the sports mix of hope and gloom that swirls like gin and tonic.

When LeBron James came along, we thought he understood that. He grew up in Akron, which is really Cleveland — Akron, Canton, Wooster, Warren, Elyria, even Youngstown, they’re all Cleveland in a sense. Everything about James coming to the Cavaliers was miraculous in the first place. Here was this basketball Mozart from Northeast Ohio, and he came out just when the Cavaliers needed a savior, and the team hit the lottery. It was so, utterly unCleveland. 

He was probably one of the top three players in the NBA by his second year. In his fourth year, James dragged and pulled and yanked a scruffy team with a 7-foot-3 outside shooter and a frenetic Brazilian all the way to the NBA Finals. There, predictably, they were swatted down in four straight by the no-nonsense San Antonio Spurs. The Cavaliers promised to get LeBron some help, and for the most part they did not. They brought in a steady parade of old guys like Shaq and young guys that didn’t take. James was good enough to make the team a championship favorite. Even he, though, was not good enough to take them there.

All along, though, we thought he was one of us. A Clevelander. A Northern Ohio guy. That was our connection. Sure, he offered a few clues that maybe he resented the Cleveland connection. He wore a Yankees hat to an Indians playoff game, said he’d been a Yankees fan all his life. A Yankees fan? Kid from Akron? He lashed out at the fans who he thought expected too much of him. In his last playoff series for the Cavs, he seemed beaten down by those expectations … and he stopped. 

But in the end, underneath it all, we still thought he understood what it is to be a Clevelander, what it is to have watched the city wilt and try to fight back, what it is to endure all the sports heartbreaks and still hope for better days. When he went on his free agency tour, we thought it was all well and good but surely he would come back home. The guy was one of us.

Then he left — no, he didn’t just leave, he left in the most publicly humiliating way. It hit us between the eyes. When outsiders make their lame Cleveland jokes, it doesn’t matter. They know it’s a cliché. They cannot see underneath. But James? Well, it turns out he didn’t understand at all. THAT was at the heart of Cleveland’s pain, I think. He wasn’t one of us.

So … what happened on Friday? Well, four years, can change a man … especially the four years LeBron James had. At first, it was clear, he could not even understand the feelings swirling around him. He resented those feelings. He lashed out. How many titles would they win in Miami? Not five. Not six. He played with an edge. He took the Heat to the championship in Year 1, and he froze up. The taunting cheers renewed his anger. 

The second year he made SURE the Heat won the championship — this included a 45-point, 15-rebound game in Boston with the season on the line that was as extraordinary as anything I’ve ever seen in sports. People wanted him to be a cold-hearted crusher like Jordan or Kobe? Well, OK, he could do that. The third year, the Heat won the championship again. And LeBron, again, was irrefutable and undeniable. 

Gradually, it seemed like James began to see the world a little bit differently. He expressed regret for the way he left Cleveland. He smirked when thinking about the LeBron who had talked about winning all those championships. He talked more openly and clearly about what mattered to him in life. He married his high school sweetheart. He accepted responsibility as a role model.

Friday, he did the most surprising and remarkable thing of all: He announced he was going back to Cleveland. In a beautiful article he wrote with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, he admitted that he was a different man four years ago, when he made the Decision.

“But then you think about the other side,” he wrote, speaking of the Cleveland reaction. “What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?”

I’m guessing, of course, but I don’t think LeBron four years ago would have been able to form that thought. That’s not a knock. He was 25 years old, and he’d lived his whole life in one place, and he’d had overwhelming success. The unalterable truth about perspective is that it only comes after you’ve experienced enough to gain it.

Of course I’m happy he’s coming back to Cleveland. I’m happy because he instantly makes the Cavaliers a serious playoff contender in the weak Eastern Conference and good things can and should build from there. I’m happy because my hometown gets a win, something Cleveland doesn’t get enough of. I’m happy because NBA fans — not just Cleveland fans — are in love with this story; I received countless texts and emails from people saying, essentially: “I love LeBron James now.”

I’m happy because as a sportswriter this is an incredible story, perhaps even unprecedented, a superstar at the height of his game coming back home to try and win a championship for a city that hasn’t had one in a half century. There will probably be movies about it. This says so much about the man LeBron James has become that he could see the opportunity in Cleveland for him to do something singular. This sentence in his essay speaks to how LeBron thinks now:

“My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”

It is almost enough to make a Clevelander cry.

But more than anything, I’m happy because James is happy. “The more time passed,” he wrote, “the more it felt right. This is what makes me happy.” People will talk about hard feelings and who forgave who, they will talk about Miami’s missteps that might have caused this, they will form theories about it all. But maybe, just maybe, it came down to this. LeBron James is from Northeast Ohio. And he is one of us.

Aggrey Sam on significance of LeBron’s return to Cleveland


Adam Silver: It’s on U.S. government whether American companies, like NBA, operate in China

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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Politicians have repeatedly criticized the NBA for its involvement in China.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver is defending his league.

Sopan Deb of The New York Times:

Senators have power to affect the United State’s foreign policy, including where American companies are permitted to operate. The NBA shouldn’t face unique scrutiny for acting like a business, seeking to maximize profit, within legal parameters.

Silver is generally right: There is value in exposing American values to countries with authoritarian regimes. Basketball can be a good vehicle for doing so. Those connections can inspire change for the better.

But the league has repeatedly failed to uphold American values it espouses in its dealings in China. That warrants criticism and leaves Silver’s response quite lacking.

Adam Silver: Next NBA season will likely start in 2021

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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The NBA said next season would begin on Christmas at the earliest.

But get it straight: That’s a best-case scenario.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, via CNN:

My best guess is that – even though, as you said, it will be the 2020-21 season – is that season won’t start until 21. We said a week or so ago that the earliest we’d start is Christmas of this year, but the more I’m learning – even listening to Dr. Fauci this morning – I continue to believe that we’re going to be better off getting into January. The goal for us next season is to play a standard season – the other part of your question – 82-game season and playoffs. And further, the goal would be to play games in home arenas in front of fans. But there’s still a lot that we need to learn in terms of rapid testing, for example. Would that be a means of getting fans into our buildings?

February seems like a reasonable expectation. But so much is changing with our handling of coronavirus. Predictions are weak at this stage.

Of course, the NBA wants to play a full 82-game season with fans at arenas. That’s how to most directly maximize revenue.

But when will it be safe for fans to attend games? How long will owners and players be content to wait while making practically no revenue? At some point, will it be better to play games and draw some revenue?

Assuming next season begins on a date the NBA doesn’t want to use as its start date going forward, how will the league get its annual calendar back on track if not reducing the schedule length? Fewer off days? Shorter offseason?

Like with many things, coronavirus creates many difficult complications.

The time Shaquille O’Neal slapped Kobe Bryant

Lakers stars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
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Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant fighting is stuff of legend in their highly productive (three championships!) and oftentumultuous relationship.

Now, that incident during the 1999 lockout is getting detailed like never before.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty,” via ESPN:

On one particular day, both O’Neal and Bryant arrived at Southwest College, ready to play. It was the first week of January, not long after the Kobe-is-the-next-Jordan piece ran in L.A. Magazine. Some other Lakers were in attendance, as was Olden Polynice, the veteran center who’d spent the preceding four and a half seasons with Sacramento. He was hoping the Lakers would sign him to a free agent contract, and had been told that Mitch Kupchak, the team’s general manager, was planning on showing up. Though they’d battled for years, Polynice and O’Neal enjoyed a friendly relationship. “All I wanted to do was go there and play with Shaq,” Polynice recalled. “The Lakers were my favorite team as a boy. It would have been a dream. I wanted to show Mitch I was serious.”

The players straggled in, loosened up, stretched, shot some jumpers. They proceeded to divide into teams — some guys over here, some guys over there. O’Neal and Polynice — dueling 7-footers — were on different sides. “Kobe was on my squad,” Polynice recalled. “Opposite Shaq.”

It was just another run, until it was no longer just another run. As he was prone to do in pickup, O’Neal called a series of iffy fouls whenever he missed a shot.

Miss.

“Foul!”

Miss.

“Foul!”

“I’m tired of this s—,” Bryant finally said. “Just play.”

“One more comment like that,” O’Neal snapped, “and I slap the s— out of you.”

A few possessions later, Bryant drove toward the rim, leaned into O’Neal’s body, and scooped the ball beneath his raised arm and into the hoop. It was a pretty move, but nothing otherworldly.

“F— you!” he screamed at O’Neal. “This is my team! My motherf—ing team!”

It felt edgy. Everything stopped. “He wasn’t talking about the pickup team,” Polynice recalled. “He was talking about the Lakers.”

O’Neal wasn’t having it. “No, motherf—er!” he screamed. “This is my team!”

“F— you!” Bryant replied. “Seriously — f— you! You’re not a leader. You’re nothing!”

What did he just say?

“I will get your ass traded,” O’Neal said. “Not a problem.”

Several of the participants stepped in to separate the two, and the game eventually continued. But it no longer felt even slightly relaxed or friendly. “We probably went up and down the court two more times,” Polynice said. “Kobe goes to the basket, scores, screams at Shaq, ‘Yeah, motherf—er! That s— ain’t gonna stop me!'”

O’Neal grabbed the ball in order to freeze action.

“Say another motherf—ing word,” he said, staring directly at Bryant.

“Aw, f— you,” Bryant said. “You don’t kn–”

Smack!

O’Neal slapped Bryant across the face. Hard.

“His hands are huge,” said Blount, who was playing in the game. “The noise was loud.”

Here is Polynice’s recollection: “Then Shaq swung again at Kobe, but he missed. S—! I run over and grab Shaq, because I’m big enough to do so. And Shaq keeps swinging, but everything’s missing because I have his arms. I’m grabbing on to Shaq, holding on for dear life, yelling, ‘Somebody grab Kobe! Seriously — somebody grab him!’ Because I’m holding Shaq and Kobe’s taking swings at him. At one point Shaq gets an arm loose and he pops me in the head. Seriously, no good deed goes unpunished. And I’m telling you, if Shaq gets loose he would have killed Kobe Bryant. I am not exaggerating. It was along the lines of an I-want-to-kill-you-right-now punch. He wanted to end Kobe’s life in that moment.”

Bryant was undeterred. “You’re soft!” he barked. “Is that all you’ve got? You’re soft!” Blount begged Bryant to stop talking. “You’re not helping,” he said. “Just shut up.” The altercation was finally broken up when Jerome Crawford, O’Neal’s bodyguard, walked onto the floor and calmed his friend down. O’Neal was furious. “You can’t touch him in practice,” he wrote of Bryant. “He’s acting like Jordan, where some players thought you couldn’t touch Mike. Whenever somebody ripped Kobe, he’d call a foul. After a while, I’m like, ‘Listen, man, you don’t have to start calling that punk s—.'” As he walked from the court, Polynice looked at a shaken Kupchak and said, loudly, “You should sign me just for that.”

This book sounds good. Even the extended excerpt is compelling. What a closing line from Olden Polynice.

Bryant said that fight brought O’Neal’s respect. Of course, they still had their differences. But they won through their squabbling. That commitment to team success and the success itself have endured.

Players see similarities between Brad Stevens, Erik Spoelstra

Brad Stevens Erik Spoelstra
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jae Crowder will tell anybody who asks that the Miami Heat are extremely well-prepared for whatever comes their way in the Eastern Conference finals.

He can say the same about the Boston Celtics, too.

Crowder and fellow Heat teammate Kelly Olynyk are both in the East title series for the second time. Their first time was in 2017 — when they were Boston teammates under coach Brad Stevens. And it isn’t hard for Crowder to see the similarities between Stevens and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

“Oh, the No. 1 thing that sticks out to me is the attention to detail,” Crowder said. “Both coaches have preached that and pushed that with their teams, respectively. You need that at this level. You need that at this time of the year, because both teams really know exactly what they’re trying to get to. It’s just about the level of detail that you’re doing it and how much you’re imposing your will.”

The Celtics lost that 2017 series to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and neither Olynyk nor Crowder ever played for Boston again when that postseason run ended. Crowder was traded in the summer after those 2017 East finals, part of the deal that brought Kyrie Irving from Cleveland to Boston. Olynyk left Boston in the same summer, signing a three-year contract with Miami with a player option for next season tacked on as well.

Stevens remains fond of both players, and even now — with the Celtics trying to beat the Heat — he says he’s happy for Olynyk and Crowder.

“I think they’re both great competitors, great people,” Stevens said. “They impact winning. It’s not a surprise they’re doing it again.”

Spoelstra has a bit of familiarity with a key member of the Celtics, albeit on a different level. The Heat made a big push to sign Gordon Hayward in 2017, even getting him to visit Miami on what became a bit of a whirlwind free-agent tour that summer. Hayward ended up signing with Boston; that was largely why Miami got Olynyk that summer, because the Celtics had to rescind the qualifying offer made to him in order to help clear the space needed to sign Hayward.

“We loved the meeting with Gordon,” Spoelstra said in 2017. “There’s a reason why we recruited him.”

All the moves have worked out for everyone involved. Most of the Celtics who were on that 2017 team aren’t there now, so it’s not like Olynyk and Crowder are facing off with their old team — just their former franchise.

“I mean, there’s definitely similarities … they’re two of the best coaches in the league, and to be successful in this league you’ve got to do some of the same stuff,” Olynyk said. “But they do have their differences as well and that’s what makes them unique and that’s what makes our two teams different.”

Miami leads this year’s East finals 2-1 going into Game 4 on Wednesday night.

“I think the similarity is definitely just the attention to detail that they both coach with, and they push it to their groups tremendously,” Crowder said. “I think that’s a hell of a compliment to both coaches.”