Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On winter's doorstep

Last Wednesday, Bob Feller died. Last Thursday, the Sun came up -- as much as it can in Ohio, on one of the shortest days of the year.

Last Thursday, life went on. Just as it went on when Art Modell gave Baltimore a new lease on NFL life at our expense. Just like when we had to suffer the final-straw indignity of watching him win a Super Bowl five years later. Just like when LeBron told us we weren't good enough for him anymore, mere months ago.

There was something of a numb feeling about last Thursday. Like waking up the morning after Game 7 of the ALCS three years ago, Game 7 of the World Series 13 years ago, after the AFC title games in '86 and '87. It's over. It's really over.

Yeah, those were games. This was a life. But Feller represented so much about Cleveland that we want to remember. With his passing, we lost one of our most important links to that past, when Cleveland was the stately lady of the lakeshore, the manufacturing mecca that helped build America into a 20th Century world power on the sweaty brows and strained muscles of the men and women who went to work at the factories and mills each day.

A time when billowing smokestacks were a sign of profit and riches, not an environmental taboo. A time when the Indians were winners, a World Series parade was fresh in everyone's memory, and Cleveland was the polar opposite of the national punchline it would become in the ensuing decades.

Paul Simon wondered where Joe DiMaggio had gone. But even when times became less simple and supposed American innocence withered in the face of social change and war in Southeast Asia, the Yankees still had Mantle. A decade later, they had Jackson and a pair of World Series titles. Then Donnie Baseball, then Derek Jeter and more titles. Now their roster is a monument to excess, even by their own standards. The cupboard was either stocked, or on its way to being stocked.

DiMaggio has been gone for 11 years. But DiMaggio's Yankees never really died. The names just change.

In Cleveland, the days of Feller are truly never coming back.

So it's fitting that Feller left us in December. A moment of silence at 7:05 p.m. before the first pitch of a midsummer home game wouldn't have yanked us out of our charmed summer existence nearly enough. We need the winter to meditate on the loss of Feller and everything he means to us and our history. We need him to not be there to throw out the first pitch of spring training, as he has been for years. We need March to become April, May, June and July, and all of the routines of what promises to be another mundane, non-contending Tribe season have a gaping hole where Feller used to be.

Then, we'll know what we've lost.

Last Thursday, the Sun came up cold and distant, offering little more than filtered light-droplets from behind hazy clouds. Downtown, street grates belched steam that covered salt-encrusted roads and sidewalks. The cold air sliced against open skin at the slightest movement.

If you wanted to pay tribute to Feller at his statue on the plaza by Gate C at Progressive Field, you had to want it. And people did come. At 10:30 in the morning, a few items lay on the base of the statue, which was splattered with salt residue like every outdoor surface in Cleveland.

A bouquet of yellow flowers. A small American flag, draped over itself. A package of sunflower seeds. A red capital A cut from a wooden block, to honor Feller's service on the U.S.S. Alabama during World War II. On the back, a note scribbled in pen:

"Mr Feller, thanks for fighting for our freedom!! Rest in peace & here's your lucky 'A!!'"

Cleveland's only sporting king is gone. Jim Brown wanted to make movies. LeBron wanted to go to school with the cool kids. That leaves Feller. A proud man with a lion's heart and an ego to match. The perfect combination of dominance and cockiness that exemplified our town, our region, in a different time, when you put a baseball career on hold indefinitely to go fight for your country because it was the right thing to do, then came back and helped your team win a World Series a few years later.

Anything was possible, and it wasn't just the hollow bloviations of a local political candidate stumping for votes.

Above the trinkets left at the Feller statue on Thursday morning, a yellow bow hung from Feller's bronze pitching hand. It's frozen in the split-second in which Feller is at the apex of his delivery, left leg airborne, ready to shove a 98-mile per hour heater down the throat of Ted Williams, or buckle DiMaggio's knees with a table-drop curve.

This was Feller at his zenith. Cleveland at its zenith. Something to admire. Something to fear. Something to reckon with. Something that now exists only in black and white and bronze.

Friday, December 03, 2010

You're the man now, Dan

The king is dead. But he can still play like one when he's motivated enough.

Maybe LeBron will wilt against the Celtics or Magic in the playoffs again next spring. Maybe his time in Miami will yield no rings. Maybe he'll retire closer to verbal sparring partner Charles Barkley than personal idol Michael Jordan on the spectrum of NBA superstars.

We can watch that play out over the next five months. But what is certain is LeBron's superlative talent, which by itself is more than enough to polish off one of the league's dregs in an early December regular season game.

National media scribes are hailing LeBron's 38-point effort in a 118-90 obliteration of the Cavs on Thursday night as a triumphant return to his old stomping grounds. LeBron gets the laurel wreath and we get painted as petty scoundrels who would dare boo such a majestic talent for having the audacity to leave our smelly burg for bigger and better things.

But LeBron's performance could have been predicted. Maybe he fed off the jeers. Maybe he was back in his comfort zone playing on the court he called home for seven years. But more likely, he was facing a team that simply didn't have the personnel to stop him.

That's the real story to come out of Thursday's game. The Heat can measure success based on the rings they win or don't win. The Cavs' forthcoming challenge is based on survival. This team is in a world of hurt, and the responsibility of yanking this franchise out of the muck will fall squarely on the shoulders of a very rich man from Livonia, Mich. who sat courtside and simmered as the Heat toyed with the Cavs.

The man is Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, now the central figure of the franchise with LeBron drinking in the vices of Miami.

Gilbert has a history of making smart business moves. He's shown an ability to get creative with developing revenue sources. But he's also a very emotional person, and he took LeBron's departure quite personally.

Gilbert did have reasons to be angry. LeBron cut off all contact with Gilbert in the weeks leading up to his decision. There were strong indications that LeBron had inappropriate contact with members of the Heat, including Dwyane Wade, while he was still under contract with the Cavs.

Then LeBron turned his departure into an hourlong TV spectacle, rejecting us in front of an international audience.

Gilbert flew off the handle with an open letter roasting LeBron in the hours following "The Decision." And you could make a case that he hasn't flown anywhere near the handle since.

Now, Gilbert's obsession is showing the world how LeBron, his cronies and the Heat conspired to wrong him and his franchise. He's retained a legal team, which is reportedly going through records as far back as 2008, trying to find evidence of collusion and premeditation that Gilbert can drop on the desk of David Stern.

In Cleveland, we think it's cool to have a justice-minded owner willing to go the Woodward and Bernstein route to try and take down LeBron. But at what price?

What is obsessing over how LeBron wronged the Cavs and Cleveland really going to accomplish? LeBron is still going to make his one or two trips to Cleveland over the next six years, he's probably going to administer beatdowns more often than not, and his teams will be far more successful than the Cavs, regardless of whether he's now a member of the Heat for life, or has yet another team in his future.

LeBron's not going to jail for this. He didn't commit a statutory crime, no matter how much damning evidence Gilbert can dredge up. He's not going to be kicked out of the league. He won't get suspended. He probably would, at most, incur a fine.

As for the Heat? The most severe punishment the league could levy against the Heat for improper contact with LeBron would be revoked draft picks. The Cavs currently own two future Miami first-rounders as part of the sign-and-trade the two teams orchestrated to complete LeBron's defection.

Is using those picks in 2017 and 2019 a fair price to pay for having a conspiracy theory proved right?

To step back and look at Gilbert's behavior since LeBron's departure, it seems as if he's more focused on getting even with LeBron than tending to the sorry state of his team. It's still early, there hasn't been enough time for events to unfold, but it's a disturbing trend to keep an eye on.

At some point, the obsession with LeBron-hate will subside for even the most passionate of fans. And all that will be left is the reality that the Cavs are a league bottom-feeder facing a lengthy rebuild. Gilbert needs to admit that reality. There is a time for stubborn defiance, and a time to cool off and get rational.

Now that LeBron has come back to Cleveland and made his emphatic statement of dominance over his haters, now might be the time to let LeBron go and let nature run its course in South Beach, where it is far from guaranteed that three massive egos are going to be able to adapt enough to win a single title, let alone form the dynasty expected of them.

Now is definitely the time for Gilbert to assess where his team is, and where he is as an owner. Along with Rock Financial and Quicken Loans, the Cavs are another of Gilbert's ventures poised to hit the skids in a down economy. Gilbert needs to tend to the Cavs like he would any of his other businesses when they're hurting.

When Gilbert took over the Cavs, many in Cleveland worried that he'd become a meddlesome owner who would make ill-informed decisions on personnel and treat the Cavs like a personal toy. Instead, he proved himself as one of the best owners a Cleveland team has ever had, pumping money into the franchise infrastructure, building a new practice facility, making improvements to his team's arena, and signing off on extra payroll burden to try and win a title.

With LeBron gone, the Cavs need that smart-yet-aggressive owner to remain in the building more than ever.

If Gilbert keeps stalking LeBron while the Cavs continue to crumble, he's back to being the owner we feared we were getting when he bought the team in 2005.

LeBron's defection was motivated primarily by greed, and it set the Cavs back at least three to five years. That's LeBron's fault. If it leads to long-term losing or the ruination of Gilbert as an NBA owner, that's Gilbert's fault.

Hopefully Gilbert can stop throwing darts at his LeBron pictures long enough to realize that.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sea change

This is The Rivalry. This is The Game.

It's the State Up North. It's Woody and Bo. It's more than football. It's 200 years of antipathy built up between two neighboring states that once fought over the squatting rights to Toledo.

To suggest that it's anything less would be to reject your roots. Blasphemy in its most brazen form. The records aren't supposed to matter. The recent history of the series isn't supposed to matter. What matters is this November, this Saturday, somebody is going to win The Game. And you hope its your side.

That's how it's supposed to be. That's how it was. But even those who believe in the sanctity of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry with the fervor of a faith-healed tent revivalist have to start wondering where the spice went.

The Buckeyes' 37-7 pummeling of Michigan on Saturday was anticipated. It wasn't supposed to be a game. Ohio State is a top 10 football program one loss in Wisconsin removed from national title contention. Michigan's program has devolved into a one-trick pony, reliant almost solely on whatever magic carpet sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson is capable of weaving.

The win was Ohio State's seventh straight against Michigan, their longest streak in the series, which dates to 1897. Buckeye supporters are quick to point out that it's a lopsided stretch of payback for all the years that the Wolverines swung John Cooper from a noose on the town square.

In Jim Tressel's first six years on the job, when he was matching wits with Lloyd Carr and coming out on top all but one year, it was indeed a reversal of fortune, with Carr playing the role that Cooper had played prior to 2000.

But after Ohio State bested Michigan in a 42-39, No. 1 vs. No. 2 thriller that sent the Buckeyes to the national title game, things started to change. Carr retired a year later and Michigan wooed West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez to Ann Arbor. Rodriguez promptly began an attempt to revitalize the Michigan football program in a way that you could argue is far more suited for Conference USA than the Big Ten.

Rodriguez is trying to pound the square peg of a gimmicky spread offense into the round hole of what has traditionally succeeded in the cold-climate Big Ten: defense, ball control and a good kicking game. Michigan has none of the above.

No coincidence, since Rodriguez took over in Ann Arbor, Ohio State -- along with much of the rest of college football -- has been beating up on the Wolverines. The Buckeyes have torched Michigan by a combined score of 100-24 in the past three matchups.

Even when Michigan was whipping Cooper's Buckeyes around like a rag doll for most of the 1990s, the games were still contests. The largest margin of victory for Michigan over Ohio State during Cooper's tenure was 28 points in 1991. The teams frequently met with bowl implications for both sides.

Now, a 7-5 2010 campaign is an improvement for Michigan, which went 5-7 a year ago. There is nothing for the Wolverines to play for by late November, except the role of spoiler. And against Ohio State's deep, talented squad, that's not enough to force an upset.

Which is why, from the south side of the border, Saturday's game had a very "playing Indiana in mid-October" vibe to it. You show up, you take care of business, you go home. As long as you don't have a colossal brain cramp, you're winning the game. It's just a matter of by how much, and how sharp you look while you're winning.

At some point in the future, if Rodriguez can't make the Wolverines any more competitive than what he's shown in his first three seasons, he'll be fired. And the replacement will assuredly have a background in more traditional Big Ten football. And the Wolverines will rise again.

But even if that happens, it's beginning to look like the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry might be undergoing a permanent redefining. Next year, Ohio State and Michigan will, barring a last-muinute change of heart from the Big Ten front office, be headed to separate divisions.

The game will remain on the calendar as the regular season finale for both teams. But its place on the schedule will be more ceremonial than anything else in the championship-game, Cornhusker-infused Big Ten of 2011 and after.

Gone forever will be the days when the Buckeyes and Wolverines will meet with the conference title on the line. They won't even be able to meet for a division title. Even if they're battling for their respective division titles, The Game might be The Prelude to a Rematch in the Big Ten Championship Game the following week.

The weight of the game will be laregly circumstantial in the coming years. Ohio State's games against division rivals such as Penn State and Wisconsin will have more weight in terms of getting the Buckeyes to the conference title game. Ohio State won't have to worry about a tiebreaker with Michigan.

And this all assumes that Michigan will reclaim its position as a national powerhouse at some point soon, and isn't looking at an extended stay with Purdue and Illinois in the middle of the Big Ten pack.

It will always be The Game. It will always be a border war. But it's not a marquee matchup anymore. And it might never be again -- at least as we've come to know it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Value proposition

For the past year as fans, we've operated under one unwavering assumption when it comes to the Browns:

Mike Holmgren is the key to success, in the short term and long term. Therefore, the Browns must do whatever is necessary to keep Holmgren in the fold. If that means allowing Holmgren to scratch his still-existent coaching itch on the Browns' sideline, so be it. No matter how much improvement Eric Mangini shows, losing Holmgren to another organization would cancel it out a hundred times over.

So even if Mangini can demonstrate marked, steady on-field improvement as evidence of his staff's effectiveness, if Holmgren wants the headset, Mangini gets the boot. Is it fair? No. Is it worth it to keep the man who helped mold Brett Favre into a Hall of Famer? Yes.

Up until the Browns delivered the Saints a trick-play induced haymaker in New Orleans, that line of thinking wasn't even questioned. Over the bye week and heading toward the showdown with New England this past Sunday, there was some cause for debate, but most fans still couldn't stomach a Browns team with Mangini but no Holmgren.

But then at a press conference last week, Holmgren reiterated, in a roundabout way, his desire to return to the coaching ranks. Then Mangini took his old mentor Bill Belichick out behind the woodshed in a 34-14 roasting of the Patriots over the weekend. Mangini outclassed Belichick in the battle of coaching wits, which is kind of like out-thinking Stephen Hawking on the subject of theoretical physics.

Now, it's fair to open the floor to debate: if the time comes when Randy Lerner must decide whether to allow Holmgren to take over his team's coaching job, or risk losing him to another team's open coaching position, what decision should he make? If Mangini's team continues to trend upward, is it really in the best interest of the organization to pull the plug on his tenure just to make sure the more-accomplished Holmgren stays put?

What exactly do the Browns need from Holmgren, and is it possible that he has already put all the thumbprint he's ever going to put on the Browns?
When Holmgren agreed to take over as president of the Browns last December, he was taking over a team with no general manager and a severely-frayed coach who had been worn down by endless media criticism, the stress of turning over a roster that included human hand grenades like Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards, and the fracturing of his relationship with former GM George Kokinis.

The Browns of last year were in desperate need of a strong guiding hand, and Holmgren provided that almost immediately. He oversaw the hiring of Tom Heckert as GM. He dusted Mangini off and determined that the young coach was a fixer-upper, not recycle-bin wreckage.

As pointed out in a New York Times article from earlier this week, Mangini reached a moment of self-realization in January of this year. From that point forward, he became more committed to his coaching and more committed to his health, dropping weight, attempting to kick a chewing tobacco habit and -- above all -- listening to the three Super Bowls' worth of experience Holmgren was willing to impart on his quasi-pupil.

The result has been a renewed Mangini, fitter, happier, and finally past his Belichick-wannabe phase. The new Mangini is more open, self-effacing, even funny at times. Above all, he's a more confident coach who now has developing people skills to pair with a Belichick-bred football acumen.

If this really is a complete new beginning for Mangini, he's reaching a rebirth at the green age of 39. He could be the Browns' coach for a decade or longer, which would be a refreshing change from the organizational carousel we've had to endure, while the likes of Belichick and Bill Cowher stay nestled in their coaching jobs for 10 to 15 years or longer.

Holmgren, by contrast, is 62. Chances are, he wouldn't last more than five to seven years in any coaching job. That could certainly be enough time to win the Browns a Super Bowl, but once Holmgren leaves, the regime shifts again, and the Browns are right back in a state of upheaval.

At his advancing age and vast experience level, Holmgren's best possible impact on any organization is the impact felt after he leaves. Did he hire the right successors? Did he teach them the right things? Can the organization still move forward and win once Holmgren has moved to his retirement villa?

With that in mind, the best possible outcome for the Holmgren Era is one where Mangini turns into one of the most successful coaches in Browns history, Heckert reaches the Bill Polian class of roster architects, and ultimately, Holmgren becomes an unncessary layer of management.

Ultimately, the Browns don't want an organization where Holmgren has to stick around and ensure that everyone is doing their jobs right. The Browns want an organization where Heckert and Mangini are so good at their jobs, it would be an insult to keep Holmgren on the payroll as a babysitter.

Whether we realize it or not, Holmgren not only got the ball rolling in that direction, the ball might already be most of the way there. Not to a Super Bowl berth, but to an organization capable of building and sustaining that type of team.

There is still drafting to do, still coaching to be done, still decisions to be made at all levels of the Browns organization. But this franchise is already miles ahead of where they were 11 months ago. Holmgren could still stick around for another year or two and help some more -- and there is a good chance he will -- but if the Cowboys or Vikings come calling and it becomes apparent that Holmgren is going to be pacing the sideline somewhere in 2011, the Browns and Holmgren can still part ways with a clear conscience on both ends.

Holmgren still has some gas left in the coaching tank, and he might be the right coaching hire for a veteran team trying to make a Super Bowl push. But for the Browns, he's probably not the right coach. He's the right president. And in the U.S., presidents have term limits. It keeps the balance of power in check and ensures progress.

In leveland, progress needs to come in the form of Heckert and Mangini leading the Browns to better days ahead, and continuing it after Holmgren has hung up his whistle for good.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

An undeserved reputation

Byron Scott's Cavaliers are burdened with a prefabricated identity this season. No matter how good or bad they are, whether they wallow among the league's dregs or compete for a playoff spot, they will be The Team That Lost LeBron.

It's branded on them, a scarlet letter, a garish tattoo.

The lack of LeBron will be the prism through which the Cavs are entirely viewed by fans and media alike. It will devalue them, it will make them the subject of ridicule whenever they visit a city. Fans will chant, columnists will take jabs at them in the local paper, the opposing team might even give the Cavs some LeBron love during the road team introductions.

(If the Cavs could have a nickel for every time the opposing team will play Will Smith's "Miami" during visiting introductions, they'd be $2.05 richer by the end of 41 road games.)

Even in the safe haven of Cleveland, where (some) fans still dare to wear wine and gold, LeBron's shadow still blocks out the Sun. We look at the current Cavs roster, and all we see is no LeBron, and ergo, no shot at a title.

When we look at the current Cavs roster, we see some iffy building blocks in J.J. Hickson and Ramon Sessions, and a cast of veterans that are of no use to a team that just had its its soul sucked out several months ago.

So, what's the use? You need a superstar -- or multiple superstars -- to win titles in the NBA. History has proven that. The Cavs have no superstar. So it's time to start pitching deck chairs off the Titanic. Liquidate the inventory. Everything must go. We're slashing prices.

Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon -- anything and everything older than 26 that's not nailed down. This team need to be a 15-67 club within two years. It's the only way to draft high enough to get the superstar you need to win championships. Because if you don't, you're stuck in the purgatory of mediocrity, somwhere between the last lottery picks and the lowest playoff seeds.

It's the worst place to be in the NBA. Not a contender, and not bad enough to get the draft picks to get the star power to become a contender.

That is true. The middle of the pack is NBA purgatory. But let's back up for a second before we convince ourselves that you're either a 60-win team, a 60-loss team or on a treadmill to nowhere.

Finding yourself in the middle of the NBA pack isn't purgatory in and of itself. Teams get long-term sentences at Mediocre Alcatraz when they pay players more than they're worth.

If your team doles out max contracts like Halloween candy, your team is probably playing role players like stars, which is the definition of "bad contract" in the NBA. If a team has multiple 5-year, $60 million contracts on the books, it will likely be stuck treading water until those contracts becoming tradeable.

The Cavs do have some long-term contracts on the books. The contract with the most potential to be cumbersome is Anderson Varejao, who is signed through 2014 and will make $9.1 million in the final guaranteed year.

Beyond that, only Mo Williams and Ramon Sessions have contracts that the Cavs will, in all likelihood, be obligated to honor past the 2011-12 season. Mo has an $8.5 million player option for the 2012-13 season.

Daniel Gibson and Chirstian Eyenga have team options for 2012-13. The Cavs can give J.J. Hickson a qualifying offer after that season.

Other than that, Antawn Jamison's contract expires after the 2011-12 season, and there is nothing else that would make you believe the Cavs are stuck in a long-term trajectory of mediocrity. If they need to get worse to get better, the opportunity will definitely be there in a couple of years.

For the short term, we'd all have more clarity about the current Cavs if we could view them apart from the LeBron elephant that is no longer in the room. If LeBron never played for the Cavs and everything else was the same, what would we see?

The Cavs now employ their most accomplished coach since Lenny Wilkens. Byron Scott was a member of the Showtime Lakers as a player. He was hired into the coaching ranks by Rick Adelman. On Adelman's staff in Sacramento, Scott learned the Princeton offense from fellow Kings assistant Pete Carril -- the former Princeton coach who brought the offense to the mainstream. As a head coach, Scott took the offense to the Nets and Hornets, and used it to help expedite success at both stops.

The Princeton offense relies on passing, screens and ball movement. It is designed for a team like the Cavs with no true go-to scorer. The NBA version of the Princeton is modified because of the way teams play defense, and the fact that plays have to develop quicker due to a shortened shot clock. But the principles of passing, cutting and screening to create open looks for teammates is still true.

Based on media reports, Scott believes he has some pieces in place to successfully run his system. Scott thinks Andy Varejao is an ideal Princeton center due to his active feet and screening ability. The Princeton also requires multiple guards who can initiate the offense, which the Cavs now have in Mo Williams and Ramon Sessions.

Put it this way: if you could completely erase LeBron from your mind, look at this team in the vacuum of the here and now, and make a judgment, we'd be intrigued by what Scott is implementing. We'd want to see Chris Grant get on the phone to other GMs and add more pieces to this team, not scuttle the ship.

Yes, history says you do need a cast of stars to win a title. But getting and keeping those stars will be exceedingly difficult in the NBA, particularly if a lockout this coming summer yields a starkly different financial structure for the league, such as a hard salary cap.

As it is, LeBron has set the precedent: superstars do not want to play in a town like Cleveland. If the current rules stay in place regarding free agency, the next time the Cavs get their hands on a superstar, they might as well turn right around and offer him to the highest bidder.

Putting it bluntly, it's nice to think of an NBA dynasty taking shape in Cleveland. But the chances of it happening are virtually nil. In a league in which six teams have won 29 of the last 31 titles, the Cavs would be extremely fortunate to win even one fluky title at any point in the future.

With that in mind, it's probably better to build the Cavs around a coach's system instead of a superstar's talent. It presents the best possible chance for a team like the Cavs to win consistently in the future. To that end, we should be willing to give Scott and this team a chance to prove that they're worthy of being the rebuild, as opposed to the prelude to the rebuild.

But to have that mindset, you, as a fan, need to stop viewing the Cavs as a band of non-LeBrons.

The Cavs are already going to encounter enough of that sentiment every time they make a road trip this season.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Game Seven: A love letter from next May

May 4, 2011: Miami, Fla.

Cavs 115, Heat 112 (OT)

Cleveland wins series, 4-3.

Admit it, you saw this coming. Yes, it was a 1-seed with a 69-13 record playing an 8-seed with a 43-39 record that required an 8-2 finish to even get that high. But as much as your inner Clevelander didn't want to admit that you saw this coming, you did.

It was probably during Game 3 when LeBron James tried to dunk on Ryan Hollins yet again.

Hollins filled in admirably when Anderson Varejao re-injured his already-ailing ankle in Game 1, effectively ending his involvement in the series. But LeBron tried repeatedly to make sure Hollins knew his journeyman place in the league's pecking order, by repeatedly driving at Hollins and scoring on him. LeBron threw down a series of particularly vicious dunks on Hollins in Miami's victories in in Games 1 and 2.

By Game 3, Hollins had enough, and when LeBron soared in Hollins' face for yet another poster dunk, Hollins threw every ounce of his 7-foot, 240-pound frame into LeBron's 265-pound wall of momentum, upending LeBron, drawing a flagrant foul and starting a scuffle under the basket that drew a technical foul on LeBron.
The skirmish was a dose of savory bloodlust for 20,562 packed into The Q, many in the crowd -- it seemed, anyway -- on hand solely for the purpose of rooting against LeBron, who was making his first Cleveland appearance as a member of the Heat after missing both regular season games in Cleveland -- one with elbow tendinitis and one with back spasms. They were the only two games LeBron missed all season.

With Hollins asserting himself and a waterfall of vitriol cascading on LeBron from 360 degrees, the Heat started to buckle. The Cavs, who were down 11 at the time, stormed past, led by 27 from J.J. Hickson and 22 from Mo Williams, to gut-check the Heat 111-92.

The Heat, who had seldom been challenged en route to cruising to the NBA's best record, were offered their first real test of the season. The test of courage, fortitude and stamina that all great NBA teams must pass in order to become champions.

The Heat didn't fully collapse, but they were visibly jolted for the remainder of the series. Their air of invicibility, the inevitability of their coronation as not just champions for a year, but a decade's ruling dynasty, was wiped away with a well-timed squirt of wine and gold Windex.
LeBron probably remembered it well from the regular season success and playoff collapses of his last two years in Cleveland: when you're really, really good and rolling teams with ease, the regular season can become an endless parade of rose petals at your feet, as people with cameras and microphones are falling over themselves to sing your praises.

But the playoffs are a bitch. And they get more icy, frigid and unconcered with your ego as the rounds progress.

In this case, LeBron didn't have to wait until the conference finals for his slice of humble pie. He didn't even have to wait until the semifinals. Unlike in past years, when powerhouses like Orlando and Boston bested LeBron, this year, with two superstar wingmen, LeBron felt the bile well in his gut against his old, declawed former employer.

But we didn't totally realize it at that point. There was still basketball to be played.

With Mo Williams exhibiting a proficiency for playoff basketball that was beyond anyone's wildest dreams in years past, the Cavs rode his 30 points to a Game 4 win that knotted the series heading back to South Beach. Late in the first half, Dwyane Wade's drama queen of a hamstring tightened up for approximately the 458th time this season, negating his effectiveness for the remainder of the game. As it was, Wade was averaging a paltry 14 points per game in the series and looked like a glazed ham at times, content to camp out on the wing and wait for LeBron to do something with the ball.

But, as vulnerable as Miami looked in the first two games in Cleveland, they were still perfectly capable of defending their home court, where they lost just three times during the regular season.

The Heat looked like they righted the ship in Game 5, throat-stomping the Cavs with a 30-8 run to start the game, and never letting the Cavs creep closer than nine points the rest of the way, winning 108-89 for a 3-2 series lead.

Surely, this was the backbreaker for the undermanned, undersized, undertalented Cavs. Like a small college coach trying to get his team out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Byron Scott was coaching from the book of Norman Dale, Gene Hackman's coach with the checkered past from "Hoosiers." Scott was going just six deep on his roster at times, relying on a season's worth of conditioning, pinpoint shooting and play execution to compensate for the raw size and skill of the opposition.

If Scott brought his team to American Airlines Arena in Miami ahead of Game 1 with a tape measure to prove that the rims are 10 feet off the ground just like in Cleveland, you really couldn't blame him. It was that kind of disparity.

But somehow, the Cavs weathered three losses in Miami with their season still alive.

Game 6 dawned with LeBron making a conscious effort to get Wade and Chris Bosh involved in the offense early. It had been so tempting for LeBron to drive right into the core of the Cavs' weakened defense that he had spent much of the previous five games looking for his own shot.

The strategy seemed to work, as a rejuvenated Wade had 12 first quarter points and Bosh had 10 several minutes into the second quarter. Miami prodded the lead out to seven, then 10, then 12, 15 and 17, and by the half, 19.

Crisis averted, it seemed. Games 3 and 4 were an aberration, and the Heat could relax and start getting mentally prepared for Round 2. But all upset bids have one thing in common: the right people stepping up and seizing the moment at the right time.

Ryan Hollins did it in Game 3. Daniel "Boobie" Gibson would do it in Game 6.

Gibson knows all about Game 6. It was his 31-point outburst in Game 6 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals that sent the Cavs to their only NBA Finals appearance to date. Except Gibson was in the middle of the rotation for that series. For this series four years later, he was coming off five games in which he logged a grand total of six garbage time minutes.

But Scott had an inkling. Gibson's shot looked sweet in shootaround that morning, so he decided to put Gibson on the floor in the second half.

It started harmelssely enough. A three from the wing to cut Miami's lead to 16. Miami got the bucket back with a Wade three at the other end. But then Gibson hit another. And another.

And another.

And another.

And a floater in the lane.

And another.

With each bomb, the Cleveland crowd became a deafening typhoon of decibel power. First a jet at takeoff, then the space shuttle. The Heat felt that feeling welling into their collective esophagus again.

Miami's lead died a death at the hands of small, gnawing rodents: 14, 11, 13, 10, 12, 10, 8....

Another Gibson three-ball inside of 50 second put the Cavs up by three, and they never relinquished the lead. The 105-100 win sent the series back to Miami for a deciding seventh game.

Which brings us back to the here and now. The Heat, with the weight of a foretold legacy on their shoulders. The Cavs, who hadn't fought this hard and long to have it all end on a warm weeknight in Miami. The fans of Cleveland, who still feel their jaw muscles tighten whenever LeBron appears in that No. 6 Heat uniform.

But Game 7 wasn't about any of that. It was about survival. About best-laid plans thrown to the roadside in favor of doing whatever it took to survive.

Neither team led by more than six. Neither team did the sport of basketball any favors. There were rocks off the glass and rim-chipping bricks. LeBron airballed a three, Ramon Sessions countered with an airball of his own. There were unforced turnovers, botched rebounds and blown defensive assignments as both teams fought their own physical and mental exhaustion in a series that was far longer and more emotionally-charged than anyone on either side anticipated.

In that spirit, both teams missed a chance to win the game with less than 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. In overtime, even the Miami crowd struggled to keep up its intensity, the scoreboard inciting the fans to make noise, and receiving diminishing returns each time.

In Cleveland, you were waiting for LeBron to make a bucket, Bosh, Wade, someone. A kickout to Mike Miller for a three. Someone had to insert the dagger. But the Heat kept forcing up bad shots, and the Cavs did just enough right to arrive inside of 24 seconds with a 112-112 tie and the ball.

Gibson's perplexing three-point attempt sailed off the mark and carmoed off several players before ending up in the hands of Hickson. For the first time since his rookie year, the pump-fake move that had been his crutch for much of his first couple of seasons actually worked. He drew Bosh's sixth foul and managed to chuck the ball high enough that it bounced off the rim and fell in with 10.7 seconds to play. The subsequent made free-throw put the Cavs up by three.

Miami spent what seemed like half an hour trying to diagram a play for the final seconds, and all it netted was LeBron James, above the key, dribbing the clock down to three seconds before jab-stepping and hoisting a 35-foot three-ball that missed wide left.

The Cavs bench raced toward their teammates on the floor, interlocking in a mass-embrace by the scorer's table, jumping in unison. Impossible achieved. World shocked.

Scott raced toward his team and was eventually mobbed by a hobbled Varejao in street clothes, assaulting his coach in much the same way a St. Bernard assaults his owner after a long day at work.

"I have no words right now," Scott later told reporters. "Thirty years in this game, multiple NBA titles, two Finals as a coach. And I've never been a part of anything like this. It's just incredible."

On the other side, Wade sat on the Miami bench and maintained a glassy-eyed stare at the floor for about 20 minutes after the final buzzer. LeBron stormed off the court for the fourth straight year, offered the Cavs no handshake, and only made a 90-second appearance for the media about an hour after the game ended. But he did keep his jersey on, in breaking with his Cleveland tradition of yanking his jersey off immediately following an elimination loss.

"We lost. I got nothing else to break it down for you," he explained in a curt tone during his brief media session. "Maybe we're supposed to learn a lesson that we haven't learned yet. I don't know."

LeBron is starting another long summer, kicked off by his most humiliating playoff loss to date, to digest and meditate on what just happened.

The Cavs? They have no such time. An hour after the game ended, as LeBron was delivering his comments to the rolling cameras, the Cavs were already packed up and preparing to leave for the airport. No time to party on South Beach for Scott's gang. They have a second-round series with the winner of the Atlanta-Chicago series to prepare for.

Tomorrow is another day of practice for the Cavs at Cleveland Clinic Courts. In the NBA playoffs, normalcy is the reward for winning.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Chasing the story

Whether Brian Windhorst wants to be or not, he's a celebrity by association.

If Paul Hoynes left The Plain Dealer's Indians beat to cover the Florida Marlins or Tony Grossi traded in his Browns credentials for a Dolphins press badge, it would be nary more than fodder for blogs and message boards -- and short-lived fodder at that.

You may love their work, hate their work or be completely apathetic toward their work, but the point is, a good beat writer is supposed to be like a good waiter. As a reader, you're only supposed to notice them when they mess up. When they're on, the team is the story and the writer is just a byline.

I write that from personal experience. I covered sports for newspapers all throughout my college years, and I worked a city beat as a young reporter. Nobody is supposed to care who you are as a reporter. You're the conduit between the news makers and the news readers, nothing more.

But Windhorst is something more. His newshound mentality and reporting talents landed him the Cavaliers beat reporter job as a young reporter at the Akron Beacon Journal in 2003. That also happened to be the year that ping-pong balls dropped LeBron James into the Cavs' lap.

Windhorst is an Akronite like LeBron. He graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School six years before LeBron. He honed his journalism skills at nearby Kent State. Like any basketball-following Akronite, he knew about LeBron before the rest of the state and country took notice.

But when LeBron and Windhorst ended up on different sides of the microphone in the same locker room, their stories became intertwined. And it will stay that way, with Windhorst following the news trail of LeBron and his handlers, probably until LeBron retires from basketball.

That is why Windhorst is leaving The Plain Dealer, his employer since 2008, and Ohio in his rear view mirror to cover LeBron and the Miami Heat for ESPN.com. And that is why Windhorst is experiencing his own form of local backlash -- a mere fraction of the venom spewed in the direction of LeBron in July, but a startling level of fan anger aimed at a departing beat reporter.

This week, message boards and other internet outlets have been ablaze with fan opinion on Windhorst's departure for Miami. Some accused him of being an unabashed LeBron shill. Some accused him of being a willing participant in the ESPN pro athlete public relations machine. Some have accused him of sacrificing his journalistic integrity, assuming that he will head to Miami to write fluff pieces on LeBron in exchange for an ESPN-financed pay bump.

Admittedly, the last point did enter my mind. If ESPN was offering Windhorst a large sum of money to head south and pen articles lionizing the Heat's collection of star talent, it could still be difficult to say "no." Being totally honest, I know I'd find it difficult to turn my back on more money and winters in Miami in exchange for writing pieces that are less than completely objective. It's human nature.

But that's pure speculation. For Windhorst's part, he made the media rounds this week, talking to WTAM, WKNR and Scene Magazine about his impending departure.

He called it "a difficult decision." He admitted that this might not end well for him, but he wanted to get out of his comfort zone as a reporter. He told Tony Rizzo on WKNR that he's walking into "a buzz saw" in Miami, carrying the double-edged burden of having covered LeBron in Cleveland -- where he wasn't a favorite of LBJ's handlers due to his objectivity -- and working for ESPN.com, at which LeBron's is reportedly spitting mad over a tell-all story on an allegedly wild party LeBron threw in Las Vegas over the summer. A story that was pulled by ESPN soon after it was published.

Windhorst told Rizzo he could have been perfectly happy staying in Cleveland and covering the Cavs' rebuilding process, but he is taking the route that allows him to cover the bigger stories.

From that standpoint, I can understand Windhorst's departure. Windhorst covered the Cavs for seven years, but he is really in the business of covering LeBron. He cultivated sources around LeBron and was at the center of the throng analyzing LeBron's every word, gesture and action for his entire Cavs career. Leaving the LeBron sphere to remain in Cleveland and cover Ramon Sessions is a waste of the sources that Windhorst has worked hard to develop and keep.

Obviously, it's a perspective that ESPN was willing to pay for. But the logic of the situation still doesn't do a lot to smooth over an often-rejected fan base that is watching yet another sports scene pillar leave for greener pastures.

We don't handle rejection well in Cleveland. And Windhorst's departure feels like rejection. He might be ESPN's go-to guy on LeBron, but for us, he was the voice of reason, perspective and inside information for seven years when we were hanging on every morsel of Cavs news. Windhorst's blog, first at the ABJ and later at the PD, became required morning reading from October through May, and anytime in the offseason when trade rumors became thick.

His Twitter page was refreshed thousands of times each day by office workers around Northeast Ohio, looking for trade deadline news or reassurance that Delonte West was emotionally right and ready to play that night.

I'd like to say Windhorst was a print version of Ernie Harwell or Vin Scully, painting a picture of the action for his audience. But he was more like FDR giving a fireside chat over a crackling speaker of a World War II-era radio. He was Winston Churchill giving reassurance to glass-nerved Britons bogged down in the London Underground tunnels during The Blitz.

In the trying times of sports contention for a city that hasn't seen a title trophy in 46 years, when the national scribes and talking heads had LeBron signed, sealed and delivered to destinations from the Hudson River to Hollywood, Windhorst was the voice that pulled us back from the ledge and gave us logical reasons to keep the faith. And maybe teach us a thing or two about the ultra-complex NBA salary cap while he's at it.

That's why we feel like we're losing someone this week. That's why we feel, in some form, a degree of the hurt we felt when LeBron left.

It's not enough that LeBron had to leave. Now his gravitational pull is causing us to lose the one person who could, more than anyone else, help us make sense of it all.

And the worst part (or best, depending on how you look at it) is that we can't fault him for doing it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Code of honor

We're better in Cleveland. At least we think we are.

No, not the city itself. We're firmly second-rate in our own minds. But when it comes to rooting for our sports teams, nobody can tell us that we're anything but number one.

No fan base has had so little to show for so much loyalty and passion over the years. We stick with our teams like glue, we develop static-cling emotional attachment, we debate on message boards, we read volumes of fact, opinion and stats, we allow anyone who is willing and able-bodied to take a crack at being our Moses, whether it be LeBron James or Charlie Frye.

We defended Albert Belle when the rest of the country hated his thermostat-bashing, trick-or-treater chasing butt. Through voice and volume, we intimidated the NFL into making a replacement franchise for Cleveland a priority.

And despite it all, we've received no championships for our trouble. No lasting moment in the Sun. Just a lot of betrayal and cruel jokes at our expense. And if the outlook for this town's sports teams is as universally bleak as it appears to be, we aren't going to have that itch scratched anytime soon.

At this point, you kind of have to assume that the next legitimate contender in this town might be five years away or more. The Browns, because of the NFL's built-in parity rules, stand the greatest chance of reaching contention first, but regardless of who is running the show, that franchise always seems to make five bad moves for every good move.

The Indians are financially overmatched, with an alienated fan base that might not fill Progressive Field even if the team gets off to a hot start one of these years. Look to the case study of the 2007 season for proof.

The Cavs aren't winning anything until they find another LeBron. Enough said.

Three teams, and nothing but flat prarie (or scorched desert, depending on your outlook) as far as the eye can see. And absolutely no promise that what is over the horizon will be any better.

At some point, even the most steadfast Cleveland fans -- the ones who will proudly wear a 2003 Kelly Holcomb jersey through downtown Pittsburgh as an act of pure defiance -- might start to ask their inner selves if there is a point to it all.

You'd be excused if you did want to ask that question. Going to bed on Sunday with a rope of pain looping your scalp from temple to temple, the result of an evening of quiet seething over another Browns loss -- and the alcohol that probably accompanied it. The mind-numbing college lecture that every Indians season seems to become. The knowledge that LeBron almost certainly quit on the Cavs last spring, knowing full well that he was paving his way out of Cleveland.

And yet, we come back for more, year after year. We fall madly in love with any Cleveland team that shows even a glimmer of potential as a title winner. We're that desperate. We'll suffer to no end, hoping for that final championship-parade payoff.

Not only that, we wrap ourselves in a cloak of righteuosness as we suffer. We're dedicated. We're not like those fair-weather fans in Miami. We're not a city of transplants like Atlanta, Phoenix or Tampa. We were born and raised here. Our fandom was passed down from our fathers and grandfathers. We live and breathe the very essence of our teams. We sacrifice and bleed for them. We identify with them on a DNA-structural level. They are us. We are them.

To which Miami fans answer: "That's nice. You do that. We're going to go watch LeBron and the Heat win by 30, then we're going to the beach."

Those so-called fair weather fans in the Sun Belt? They pick sports up and put it down whenever it suits them. We look down our noses at a fan base that doesn't even think about the Marlins until they're in the NLCS. We're appalled that such lax fan support is rewarded with two World Series titles in the span of six years. Then, Miami was rewarded with an NBA title in 2006, and chances are very good they have more Heat parades coming.

All for a fan base that, save for the Dolphins and maybe the University of Miami football program, really doesn't cling to sports in any meaningful way.

But maybe Miami has it right. Maybe they do deserve the titles they've won because they approach sports in the right frame of mind. They put sports in its frivolous place. They don't look to local sports teams for regional or personal vindication, or to provide a metaphorical sword of justice to wield when assailed by fans of a rival team.

Yes, Miami has beaches, warm weather and points of civic pride that Cleveland quite obviously doesn't have. But it's a state of mind more than anything else.

The fans in Miami and across the Sun Belt know what we in Cleveland refuse to admit: there is no honor in suffering for a sports team. To emotionally martyr yourself, week after week, month after month, coming back for more time and time again, it's about as futile as trying to get anywhere by running on a hamster wheel.

Cleveland has, quite possibly, the most unhealthy fan/team relationship of any major U.S. city. It's a clingy, needy, desperate, one-sided relationship in which the fans keep giving and giving of themselves, in the hope that the love will be requited in the form of that long-sought championship parade that seemingly every U.S. city has experienced in the past half-century except for Cleveland. But the teams always let us down, without fail, and it creates even more emotional baggage.

I've seen the cycle of abuse play out since the days of The Drive and The Fumble, and those older than me have even earlier examples.

Instead of mocking Miami, Tampa and Atlanta, maybe we should strive to be more like them. We should care less about sports in Cleveland. That doesn't mean we stop supporting the local teams, but as a source of joy and misery, the grown men who play games for millions of dollars a year should be far down the list of what moves us.

If for no other reason, change your outlook to achieve this: when a Steelers fan tries to give you the business about the Browns' latest calamity, you can say something like, "Oh, really? I didn't see it. I was at the park with my family on a beautiful fall day."

That is a liberating feeling.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The past is history

As a football player, Jim Brown deserves all the respect in the world. Even today, 45 years after he abrputly walked away from football at age 29, he is still one of the defining players in the history of the NFL.

His career rushing record of 12,312 was an all time record that stood until Walter Payton surpassed it in 1984. Since then, seven other rushers have passed Brown's mark, set in the days of 12 and 14-game schedules, and yet Brown is still regarded by many knowledgeable students of football history as the greatest running back -- and perhaps the greatest player -- to ever set foot on an NFL field.

He is certainly the greatest player in Browns history. If anyone were to take that title from Brown, he would have to be a truly special player. Brown's combination of size, speed, coordination and power made him the perfect physical specimen for the gridiron. His intense competitive spirit made him a winner -- something that LeBron James, who was briefly considered the co-greatest athlete in Cleveland history with Brown, might have benefited from this past spring as the Celtics were mopping the floor with Cavs in the playoffs.

Brown deserves to be remembered and revered for his contributions to the Browns organization in his playing days. No other Browns player will ever wear No. 32, and when the Browns introduce their ring of honor next month, Brown's name should be the first revealed, even before Otto Graham, Paul Brown or Lou Groza, who all won more championships than Brown. It is because Brown was that great as a player, and he is that important to the history of the organization.

....To the history of the organization.

Brown has still hung around the Browns organization, on and off, since retiring. But football was never really a priority of his once he pulled off the shoulder pads for good. He sowed his wild oats as an actor in Hollywood, he threatened to return to action with the Raiders in 1983 when Franco Harris was within striking distance of his all-time rushing record. He became a community activist by founding the Amer-I-Can program, helping to steer inner-city youths in Los Angeles away from gangs and drugs.

But he was still Jim Brown. And when Randy Lerner assumed control of the Browns after his father's death in 2002, he needed an advisor. Someone with a football background who could give him an insider's perspective on what to look for in front office personnel, coaches and maybe even scouting players.

Brown had his hand up, and Lerner couldn't say no to an all-time great. Brown was hired on as an executive advisor to Lerner, reportedly making a six-figure salary in the role.

If Brown was a figurehead, a community ambassador in charge of making public appearances on behalf of the team, there would have been no harm in giving a revered alumnus a cushy front-office job. But, based on what has happened since Mike Holmgren took the reins of the team last December, it appears Brown held real sway within the organization.

Earlier this year, Holmgren told Brown that his services as an advisor were no longer needed, essentially firing Brown on the spot. According to media reports, the Browns have also curtailed their monetary contributions to the Amer-I-Can program.

Brown was understandably upset, and now a rift exists between the rushing great and the team with which he has been virtually synonymous for almost half a century. There is reportedly a significant chance that Brown will not show up to the team's ring of honor introduction ceremony during the Browns home opener on Sept. 19. Even if he does show up, it might be with a coating of ice.

Perhaps at some point in the future, the relationship can be repaired. But at this point, how Jim Brown feels about the Browns, and his dismissal from the organization, just isn't important.

Right now, keeping Brown happy should be pretty far down the list of priorities for a team that has been one of the league's laughing stocks since returning to action in 1999.

Jim Brown, at 74 and with little pro football experience over the past 45 years, would appear to not know very much about how to run a modern NFL team. If he has been the man advising Lerner on the Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel hires, on giving Eric Mangini total control of the football operations, the evidence would seem to bear that out. And if Lerner took Brown's advice to heart, it simply underscores how unqualified he was as the decision-making head of an NFL franchise, and how relieved we should all be that Holmgren agreed to take over the top decision maker's role.

Really, Lerner tabbing Brown as an advisor on football matters makes about as much sense as Larry Dolan hiring 91-year-old Bob Feller as an advisor on baseball matters. Feller has the same advisor qualifications as Brown. He was an all-time great on the field, and he's opinionated. That's about it.

If Brown did have Lerner's ear to the point that Holmgren felt he needed to dismiss him in order to achieve the rank and file he desired, then showing Brown the door was unquestionably the right move, no matter how hurt Brown might be. Knowing that Brown is fiercely proud and rather temperamental, chances are he wasn't going to take his dismissal laying down. There was going to be some kind of public backlash from Brown. It's just the way he is.

Holmgren should simply continue to remain positive about the matter, demand that everyone else in the organization do the same, and go about his business secure in knowing he made the right move.

Holmgren is in the business of this team's present and future. Of trying to rescue the wayward expansion Browns, give them an organizational rudder and pilot them back to contention. If any visitors from the team's past are trying to pass Holmgren notes, coaching from the sidelines like overzealous soccer dads, telling him what they think he should do, it's needless clutter at best and an outright insult to Holmgren at worst. Holmgren shouldn't, and won't, put up with the possibility of that.

The Browns owe a lot to Jim Brown: gratitude, respect, his name engraved on any team plaque or monument that is worth anything. But they don't owe him a job. And they certainly don't owe him the chance to put his rubber stamp on personnel moves.

Jim Brown is an integral part of the Cleveland Browns' past. But only the past. It took Randy Lerner about eight years to finally hire someone who could stand up and tell him that.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Browns, boiled down

In this town, we love to analyze football. And we really love to analyze the Browns.

Sometimes I wonder if we, as a fan base, out-think ourselves. We're so thoroughly schooled in the nuances of the sport, in the theory of roster-building, from an early age that we sometimes forget to answer the simple questions first.

We look at the construction of the rebuilt linebacker corps, the lack of depth at wide receiver, the mostly-young secondary, the committee situation developing at running back, the Swiss Army knife that is Josh Cribbs, and we try to mash it all together into some kind of blackboard-filling calculus equation that will determine, beyond a reasonable doubt, the trajectory of the upcoming season.

But sometimes, the most basic questions are the most important. And in the case of this year's Browns, I keep coming back to two main questions that will likely determine the course of the season:

Can the roster stay mostly healthy? Can the Browns get good quarterback play?

Injuries and poor QB play have dogged the Browns since returning to the league 11 years ago. The two most successful seasons since the relaunch, 2002 and 2007, featured a relatively healthy squad and spikes in the performances of Tim Couch, Kelly Holcomb and Derek Anderson.

The seasons in which the team was on its fourth center by opening day? When Charlie Frye looked like he might not even make an Arena Football League roster? The Browns were a league doormat.

You don't need to be scientific about it. Quarterback is the most important position on the field. It's not left tackle. It's not tailback. The quarterback is the field general. Think beyond the passing game to the sum total of what is expected of a quarterback, and you'll realize that if he is bad, the offense is bad, the team doesn't score points and wins are hard to come by. End of story.

There is a great burden on Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace to be not just capable passers, but the veteran offensive backbone that the Browns have lacked for most of the past decade.

Injuries are a fact of life in sports, and football and particular. On the pro level, the sport features extremely large and fast men slamming into each other at high speeds. Knees buckle, ligaments rupture, bones break. Every team has a busy medical and training staff.

You simply hope that your team's best players don't suffer serious, season-ending and career-jeopardizing injuries. The Browns haven't had a lot of luck in dodging those types of injuries.

On both fronts, there are reasons to be encouraged, however.

Delhomme is under the microscope for a woeful stretch of football that began with a playoff game in January 2009 and continued throughout the following season, when he threw eight touchdowns and 18 interceptions, paving the way for his release by the Panthers. At the very least, 35-year-old Delhomme has a great deal of incentive to prove that he's not washed up.

Behind him, Wallace's combination of arm strength and leg speed make him useful as a change-of-pace option under center, and if necessary, step in as the starting QB.

During training camp, the Browns had some fairly typical injury problems to deal with. Dave Zastudil is done for the year with a recurring knee injury. D'Qwell Jackson has his second chest muscle injury in as many years. Rookie Montario Hardesty is having knee problems, much like he did for three years in college. But so far, it's nothing that most other NFL teams aren't going through.

The Browns roster is built up to the point that there shouldn't be large-scale questions about the talent level of the team. National scribes are quick to assess the Browns roster as thin on talent. They are thin on elite talent. They don't have a lot of star power. But they do have talent in the form of young prospects and role players. A roster like this could become a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.

To succeed, this Browns team has to assume the role that so many Cleveland teams have to play -- that of the gritty, overachieving underdog. Nobody expects Cleveland to make much of a splash this year. The AFC North is a beast, with three other teams that all, rightfully, have Super Bowl aspirations. The Browns could show a great deal of improvement this year and still end up in last place with little more than a one or two-game improvement over last year's 5-11 mark. The schedule, which also includes dates with the Saints, Patriots and Jets, could simply be that difficult.

But it's also not unrealistic -- fanciful, maybe, but not unrealistic -- to envision a scenario in which the Browns show the backbone and fortitude that they so often haven't exhibited in years past, snag a few surprise wins and end up at 10-6 or 9-7.

It does start with the tone set by Mike Holmgren in the president's chair. It has a lot to do with the personnel decisions made by Tom Heckert, and how Eric Mangini and his staff cultivate the roster handed to them by the front office. It all matters.

But if you can assume the experience of Holmgren and Heckert is bound to make the team better on a foundational level, if you can assume that Jerome Harrison will continue to be fast, Shaun Rogers will continue to be big and Josh Cribbs will continue to be a great playmaker, then there are only a few hinges upon which this season will pivot. There actually isn't a lot standing between 5-11 and typical Cleveland pessimism, and 10-6 with rampant optimism.

Can Delhomme have a bounce-back year in a new setting, and can the starters around him stay off the injured reserve list?

It could be that simple, or it could be that complicated.

New design

After five and a half years, it was time for something different, which is why you're now looking at a Blogger customized template. The background photo is a Blogger stock photo. The huge bright blue photo under the title is mine. It's a little too big, but an attention-grabber none the less.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Summing it up

This is what it’s like to sit down and write a column about LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers and Northeast Ohio behind:

I’m sitting on the balcony of my new apartment in Willowick on a summer morning. It’s the first time in a week that the heat and humidity have relented to the point that sitting on the balcony is reasonably comfortable.

Off to my right, Lake Erie. Directly in front of me, the complex’s other building. Off to my left, the shopping center across the street, framed by green trees to the horizon.

Right, center, left. Left, center, right. No words coming to mind. No entry point emerging. I keep looking up from my laptop screen in an endless oscillation from vista to vista, side to side.

LeBron James is too big of a character. He meant too much to the region. There were so many other players involved in this production. It’s stunningly complex, will be a painful subject for years to come, and can’t possibly all be understood by viewing the saga through a single prism.
I truly have no idea where to begin.

After some time has passed and the longer morning shadows begin to slip under the balcony railings on the other building, a breakthrough – sort of. Art gives way to science. The only way to understand this is to chew, swallow and digest. Break everything down into its constituent parts.

I scan across my panorama one more time, then look back down at my screen with a little bit more purpose.

We gave LeBron too much credit for being one of us.

Something about Clevelanders – we really want and need to believe that our heroes identify with us. That they sympathize with our pain as fans and want to make it right. We projected that onto LeBron more than anyone because of where he was born.

LeBron makes mention of The Drive and The Fumble, and it tugs at our heartstrings. He gets on stage at a Rock the Vote concert and tells us he loves us and he’s not going anywhere, and it makes us fall in love all over again.

To LeBron, however, it was likely forgotten as soon as he said it. He didn’t remember until some guy with a microphone asked him about it.

It’s not slick marketing or self-promotion. It’s the in-the-moment utterances of a kid who is fascinated by his ability to manipulate the masses.

Truth is, LeBron isn’t one of us. He stopped being one of us as soon as Nike made him a millionaire before he was drafted in 2003. He never espoused the same values, he was never “in touch” with what we were feeling, he never had a special connection to the area he called home. Not any more so than you or me. And plenty among us would prefer to live among palm trees if given the chance. It’s only being honest.

LeBron is Hollywood. He is Manhattan. He is South Beach. He is a jet setter, one of the beautiful people, rich beyond the wildest dreams of 99.5 percent of the American population. The only thing that attaches him to Ohio is his birth certificate. His lifestyle, his values, his acquaintances, none of it was at home in our unglamorous, unremarkable region.

In Miami, he’ll be able to indulge in every trapping of celebrity 101 for young males: fast cars, beautiful women, exclusive dance clubs, VIP parties. And he’ll be able to do it after every home game. At age 25, the spoils of a town like Miami are a major benefit for someone like LeBron, who is known for hosting his share of jet-set shindigs.

David Justice had much the same attitude when he played for the Indians. Cleveland, he thought, had nice enough people, but the town just wasn’t his scene. His teammates nicknamed him “GQ” for a reason. Of course, when Justice departed via trade in 2000, he did so much more gracefully and graciously than LeBron just did.

Maybe it wasn’t the deciding factor in why LeBron left for the Miami Heat, but there wasn’t a lot beyond basketball keeping LeBron here. Which is 180 degrees from what we believed (or wanted to believe) prior to the past week.

Can you make LBJ the centerpiece of a championship team? Maybe not.

Prior to LeBron’s defection, common wisdom stated that all great players wanted to have their own team, so obviously LeBron would never want to join forces with another alpha dog. You would never have seen Michael Jordan team with Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas or Larry Bird. Not on the NBA stage, anyway.

There was the dynamic between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on the Lakers teams of early last decade, but those two thrived on being adversaries, constantly one-upping each other. And neither could lay claim to having been a Laker first. Both arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1996.

LeBron has shown now that he does not think like that, possibly because he’s simply not an alpha dog. That’s not his personality, no matter how much he is marketed to the contrary.

He is, plainly put, going to Dwyane Wade’s team. When Wade, LeBron and Chris Bosh were unveiled in their Heat uniforms on Friday, LeBron and Bosh flanked Wade. That is the team dynamic in Miami moving forward. No matter how far Wade scoots over on the pedestal, the highest perch can only hold one pair of shoes. And those belong to Wade.

Second-in-command might be the ranking for which LeBron is the most suited. This is a guy who has never looked totally at ease taking the last shot. A guy who has never totally grasped the concept of what it means to make your teammates better. A guy who has shown through his actions that his competitive fire doesn’t burn as brightly as it does with some other great players. That he is not above shutting down mentally when a nagging injury means he might look less than dominant on the court.

In other words, LeBron might be totally cool with letting someone else take the last shot. Whether it’s a fear of failure and/or being the goat, or that he simply isn’t the assassin that Kobe is and Jordan was, he might be more comfortable inbounding the ball to Wade and getting out of the way when the clock is about to reach “0.0.”

So if LeBron is fine with never being held in the same esteem as Kobe, Jordan, Magic or Bird – and, judging by the fact that he has agreed to join another superstar’s team, he is – the move to Miami might be a stroke of brilliance for LeBron. It means winning with a vastly reduced pressure factor. Perfect for a guy who might have been miscast as a king all along.

There is no “LBJ” in “team.”

With all of that in mind, it was quite possibly a futile pursuit to try and build a championship team around LeBron. And if that is the case, it was definitely misguided for Dan Gilbert and Danny Ferry to make LeBron the foundation of the entire organization.

LeBron couldn’t help but overshadow every player the Cavs put alongside him. It led to the widely-held belief around the country that, year in and year out, the Cavs roster consisted of LeBron and a band of scrubs – an assertion that might have been closer to fact five years ago, but certainly not over the past two seasons.

If we can assume that LeBron will function better as part of an ensemble of superstars, that surely wasn’t going to happen in Cleveland. As a result, no matter who the Cavs put around LBJ, he would always block out the Sun for his teammates with his massive presence.

It’s not healthy for one player to carry so much weight on a team. And with the Cavs, LBJ’s influence extended to all parts of the organization – from the locker room all the way up to the owner’s office. If you put every last egg in the basket of one player, it’s almost certainly a recipe for disaster. This past Thursday evening, the earthquake hit.

Is it possible to sell out for winning?

I used to think that giving up money for the sake of winning was noble. Then I saw LeBron give up everything he had supposedly stood for to this point in his life in the name of chasing rings. And I now realize that obsessively coveting anything – be it money, fame, championships or anything else – can corrupt a person.

This is the topic that cuts right to the heart of our hurt as a city and region.

We wanted LeBron to stick with us until he delivered a championship to the city. To recognize that it will be a hard road to the top, riddled with disappointment and setbacks, but the tougher the journey, the sweeter the victory. We wanted him to embrace the burden of being Cleveland’s sports savior, recognizing that some of the greatest players in NBA history had to wait for the balance of their careers – sometimes until quite late in their careers – before they tasted a drop of championship champagne.

We wanted him to acknowledge that championships are extremely hard to capture, aren’t a birthright, and to continue to fight the good fight, figuring out new ways to exercise his vast talents, until the last pieces fell into place and the long-sought title was achieved.

That would have been the harder route to take, but the route with more honor.

But that’s not the route LeBron took. Haunted by visions of being, as he put it, “31 with bad knees and no titles,” LeBron abandoned his home region, sold out any chance of being perceived as loyal ever again, and any hope of becoming a self-made champion, in favor of trying to stamp out championships assembly-line style on a ready-made contender in Miami.

In a quarter-century, 50-year-old LeBron might look back and think 25-year-old LeBron was pretty stupid. But right now, 25-year-old LeBron thinks this is a good idea.

Perhaps the greatest error in LBJ’s line of thinking is the concept of “his time.” Jordan had his time. Kobe is having his time. The assumption with LeBron has always been that, at some point, every great player has his dynasty. And if you don’t have a dynasty, you aren’t a great player.

So after being turned back in the playoffs the past two years, LeBron panicked. Now he’s trying to force-feed a dynasty into existence with Wade and Bosh. It might happen. But when LeBron looks back after his career at how it was all achieved, he might realize that the rings aren’t as shiny as he thought they would be, considering what he had to give up to win them.

LeBron was a monster created.

It takes a lot of work from a lot of people to turn a kid from a green 18-year-old rookie into someone narcissistic enough to have his free agency decision broadcast on an hour-long nationally televised special. Vain enough to demand that pursuing teams visit him, not the other way around. Callous enough to completely cut off communication with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert in the days leading up to his decision.

When you seldom hear “no,” when everyone around you is mostly interested in pleasing you, lest they get booted out of your circle of trust, chances are your ego will overinflate and your sensitivity toward other people will begin to erode. If everyone around you is figuratively casting rose petals at your feet, sooner or later you’ll really believe that you are better than everyone else, and that no spectacle is too great a display for you.

You will also begin to believe that you owe nothing to anyone, that you can toy with the people swirling around your personal vortex, and if you cause damage to them or their endeavors, that’s their problem.

LeBron has been doing this for a few years now. He damaged the Cavs’ ability to sign free agents by not committing to the team long term. Last summer, Trevor Ariza balked at taking the Cavs’ midlevel exception offer because of the uncertainty surrounding LeBron. The uncertainty of LeBron’s future ramrodded the Cavs into an “all or nothing” mindset, making trades with only the present in mind, and in the case of the Antawn Jamison deal this past February, saddling the team with an aging player signed to an expensive long-term contract. It’s a move the Cavs might not have made if not under the threat of losing LeBron to free agency.

Of course, it does take two to tango, and former GM Danny Ferry wasn’t forced to add Jamison, or Shaq, or anyone else. But the common – and correct – assumption is if the Cavs didn’t show LBJ they were doing everything in their power to win a championship, it would significantly damage their leverage at the bargaining table this summer.

LeBron might have had a Miami rendezvous with Bosh and Wade in the works since the Olympics in 2008. It might have been his first choice all along. But whether it was or it wasn’t, he strung the Cavs along since then, damaged their ability to improve the team, possibly damaged their cap flexibility in the short-to-medium term, all in the name of stoking the fire of intrigue this summer.

Then, when the summer finally arrived, he messed around some more, waited until most of the other major free agents committed somewhere, then left the Cavs, and to a lesser extent the Bulls and Knicks, holding the bag.

Even in the cutthroat world of professional sports, you don’t work other people over like that unless you have a massive superiority complex.

But for a guy who has spent his adult life ruling over everything he surveys, the results are predictable.

So, where to go from here?

I’d like to tell you that the Cavs are better off without LeBron. That they can just as easily do without the manipulation of a destructively narcissistic and egotistical 25 year old.

But the Cavs aren’t better off. They’re worse off, and will be for quite some time. Even if LBJ will never ascend to the levels of Kobe or Jordan in the spectrum of NBA all-time greatness, he is still a superstar who made playoff 1-seeds and later-round postseason appearances possible.
Now, that’s not possible for the Cavs anymore.

Dan Gilbert and new GM Chris Grant have said, at varying decibel levels, that the Cavs will remain committed to winning, both in the short and long term. Perhaps words meant to cushion the blow to their season ticket renewals. But I wonder if that is the right path.

Unless the Cavs can get another superstar in a trade, or at least several star-caliber players, it will be extremely difficult to rise above the low playoff seeds in the coming years. And that is the worst place to be for an NBA team – not good enough to contend for a title, not bad enough to draft high enough for star-level talent.

There is absolutely no reason to stay on a treadmill of 35 to 45-win seasons, year after year. But that is where I fear the Cavs will land if Gilbert refuses to sign off on a rebuild.

The windfall trade that replenishes the team with star power may be out there. The Cavs have negotiated a sign-and-trade to complete LeBron’s acquisition by Miami. The sign-and-trade will deliver a large trade exception and a package of draft picks – which might be used soon as part of a badly-needed “big splash” deal.

But a deal like that isn’t guaranteed. And even if the Cavs manage to rebuild the roster in short order, the Eastern Conference is so stacked at the top with potential powerhouses like Miami, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta and Chicago, it will be very tough for a post-LeBron Cavs team to swim upstream against that current over the next few seasons.

But the Cavs do have assets which they can use to get better, and Gilbert seems more determined than ever to outmaneuver LeBron’s defection. There is no apparent reason the Cavs should need to bottom out to the pre-LeBron levels of the 2002-03 season, when the team went 17-65. But in a league driven by star power, the Cavs don’t have any right now, and until that changes, they aren’t going to have much weight to throw around in the East.

After getting all of that off my chest, I exhale, relax the muscles around my eyes and let the light flow back in.

As I type out those last few paragraphs, I glance up from my monitor and gaze out at the lake – at its midsummer blue best. Sailboats are on the water. Earlier in the morning, an ore carrier cruised in the distance from west to east.

Off to my left, there are still cars on the road, still people walking into the supermarket in the shopping center across the way. LeBron is no longer a Cav, and life still goes on under a sunny, warm early July blessing of a day.

It turns out that maybe … just maybe … LeBron James isn’t that important after all. And that’s a very empowering thought.

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Gunslinger

The Cavaliers are an unstable organization with an uncertain future. They have no coach, a rookie general manager and a superstar free agent who is going to do a lot of observing of offseason moves, in Cleveland and elsewhere, before committing to a team.

If there was ever a time to strive for consistency and stability, you'd think now would be it. But at least in the mind of Dan Gilbert, it's not.

The alternative was to maintain the status quo, retain Mike Brown and give Danny Ferry no reason to step down as general manager. But faced with the reality of back-to-back league-leading regular seasons with not even an NBA Finals berth to show for it, Gilbert saw a system that needed an overhaul.

So overhaul he did. Mike Brown, arguably the most successful coach in franchise history, was shown the door after two straight years of lackluster playoff performances against other contenders.

Ferry, who has always been in Brown's corner, likely didn't agree with the decision. But if he was to stay on as GM, he at least wanted to maintain full control over basketball operations -- and hire his own coach.

Gilbert wanted to remove total autonomy from Ferry's job description, opening the door for a big-name coach who might want some say in how the roster is constructed. Ferry didn't like what he was hearing, and with his contract expiring, saw the opportunity to bow out. Chris Grant, Ferry's top assistant, has taken over the general manager's role. Gilbert was emphatic in his assertion that Grant is not a placeholder, and will not carry an "interim" tag on his title.

But that doesn't mean that Grant will have final say on all basketball matters as Ferry did. He could end up developing a specific specialization, such as the draft. Grant has handled the Cavs' drafts for the past few years. He could end up as a puppet GM -- George Kokinis to a new coach's Eric Mangini. That's a setup that is bound to end badly, but that's another discussion.

What we know for certain is that Gilbert is the only figure lending any stability to the Cavs organization right now, and he is in the process of installing his second leadership regime with no guarantee that LeBron is coming back.

There really isn't a blueprint for what Gilbert is trying to accomplish. LeBron is the only selling point that would attract a big-name coach to Cleveland. Landing a big-name coach is a major key to reassuring LeBron that the Cavs are committed to winning titles. So how do you sell a big-name coach on coming to Cleveland when the superstar that makes the job attractive is waiting to see if you can make the hire -- and might still bolt even if you do make the hire?

A only if B, and B only if A. It's a maddening Catch-22. How can Gilbert do it? We're getting our first case study in Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

Several days ago, Gilbert reportedly offered Izzo a lot of money -- up to $6 million a year, double his salary at Michigan State -- to come to Cleveland and root the Cavs in the philosophy of dogged competitiveness and staunch defense that has helped lead the Spartans to six Final Four appearances and a national championship in Izzo's 15-year tenure.

At first glance, it looks like a well-connected Michigan State graduate in Gilbert overvaluing Izzo as the be-all, end-all who can cure everything that is wrong with the Cavs. But once you start peeling back the layers on Gilbert's line of thinking, the interest in Izzo does make a bit more sense.

Despite a vast improvement in roster talent over the past two years, the Cavs regressed at the defensive end. When you look at the small army of defensive liabilities they added to the roster -- namely Mo Williams, Shaq and Antawn Jamison -- it's easy to blame Ferry for the shift away from defense.

But Gilbert is right to look to the coach to set the tone for defense, and Izzo would coach defense -- not just on a cerebral level, as Brown did, but on a level that promotes mental toughness and aggression.

Izzo has no NBA experience, but his college success has made him a national celebrity, which means he has the presence to coach someone like LeBron, who is knowledgeable about college ball and likely appreciates Izzo's body of work.

But would the money, even an outright cause-effect guarantee that Izzo's arrival would signal LeBron's return, be enough to lure Izzo to town?

It would be wise to assume not. Like a lot of in-demand college coaches, Izzo can use Gilbert's hot pursuit to put a scare into the Michigan State athletic director's office. And scared executives can be far more giving of both praise and money.

Darn near worshipped throughout much of his native state of Michigan, with a sterling reputation that has been buffer to a mirror shine, there just isn't a lot of incentive for Izzo to do more than listen to the Cavs and keep his mouth shut long enough to make Michigan State sweat a bit.

Maybe he'll see an extra three million greenbacks a year and cave to Gilbert's siren song, but the cash is all Gilbert really has to work with. His vacant coaching position could be a dream job or a prison sentence, depending on LeBron's loyalty.

And if Izzo says no, Gilbert has to find another coach to try and court. And once again, he has to sell any coach worth pursuing on the mere possibility that LeBron is coming back. And that's as basketball power broker and LeBron entourage member Wes Wesley is trying to convince anyone within earshot that LeBron is on the fast track to the Chicago Bulls.

As the Summer of LeBron warms up, it seems as though Dan Gilbert is more of a gunslinger than any of his players could ever hope to be. About a month after his players tip-toed out of the playoffs with one of the most tentative postseason performances you'll ever see, Gilbert is sticking his neck far out in pursuit of improvements to his team -- and by extension, in pursuit of LeBron's signature on a contract.

At a time when it would seem that the proper plan of action is to get in the blast bunker and lock the door, Gilbert has dismantled the bunker and begun a search for new raw materials.

It's either going to be a significant triumph or a massive failure. But at least he's going to try, which you have to admire. Having said that, you are fully allowed to admire Gilbert's moxie with your hands over your eyes, peeking out from between your fingers.