Skip to main content

Cleveland rocked: City's hard-luck sports history

By Todd Leopold, CNN
LeBron James announced Thursday night he was departing  the Cleveland Cavaliers, leaving the city stunned.
LeBron James announced Thursday night he was departing the Cleveland Cavaliers, leaving the city stunned.
  • Cleveland has a history of tough sports losses
  • LeBron James' move is latest blow to city, which has had many
  • Locals are quick to mock themselves, but they have much to be proud of
  • Cleveland has much promise, whether it's in resources or simply grit

(CNN) -- It never seems to end.

First it was Rocky Colavito. Then it was Earnest Byner. Art Modell. Not to mention Jose Mesa.

They all put daggers in the hearts of Cleveland, Ohio, sports fans, either inadvertently or deliberately. Now the city has been let down by LeBron James -- native of nearby Akron, local hero, a man who has worn his hometown loyalty literally on his skin -- who's decamping for the warm lights of Miami, Florida, and its now star-laden Miami Heat.

The Forest City is the city that's kicked when it's down -- particularly when it comes to sports.

Video: Cavs GM: 'We will move forward'
Video: LeBron James poster comes down
Video: Dwyane Wade on landing LeBron
Video: Fan: 'I'm in total shock right now'

Colavito, the 1950s Indians slugger, left in a disastrous trade. Byner, the Browns running back, fumbled a possible playoff game-tying touchdown on the 3-yard line. Modell remains unforgiven for moving the Browns to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1996. Mesa blew a possible World Series-winning save.

James picks Miami Heat amid great publicity

Cleveland just can't seem to catch a break. Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski wrote a cover story about Cleveland's struggles during the Cavaliers' playoff run in 2009. When the Cavs unexpectedly lost, he apologized for provoking the SI Cover Jinx. ESPN's Bill Simmons once made a list of the 15 most tortured teams in pro sports; all three of Cleveland's major-league clubs made the list.

And Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert posted a letter on the NBA team's home page saying that James will take the "curse" with him to Miami; he's already been mocked.

What did Cleveland do to deserve this?

Dennis Roche, the president of Positively Cleveland -- the city's convention and visitors bureau -- says that the city has traditionally been slow to defend itself.

"I really think it starts here at home," says Roche, a Cleveland native. "I remember Johnny Carson making us the butt of jokes. The burning [Cuyahoga] river I think is the incident that highlighted all of that. And unfortunately, locally, we sort of looked at each other and said, 'Well yeah, I guess that's the way it is.' "

Indeed, mockery seems to go hand-in-hand with Cleveland -- and the locals do it better than anyone.

Talk about the time the Cuyahoga River caught on fire and the natives will go you one better and tell you about the time former mayor Ralph Perk's hair caught on fire. Call it "the Mistake by the Lake" and they'll correct you -- first telling you that the nickname really applied to the now-defunct Cleveland Stadium, and then add that the lakeside Tower at Erieview sways in the wind so much that the toilets slosh when the building gets hit with a particularly strong gust, and Cleveland has plenty of strong gusts. Local comedian Mike Polk made a pair of funny shorts about Cleveland's inferiority complex and tough luck (tagline: "At least we're not Detroit").

Roche is quick to point to the city's strengths: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which brings in a half-million tourists a year; the Cleveland Clinic and surrounding medical community, one of the best in the country; those lakeside winds, making the city a promising source of green energy; and, yes, cleaned-up Lake Erie, which is now plentiful with walleye, largemouth bass and steelhead trout, he says.

But it's the grit that the residents praise.

"It's this kind of grungy, cracked-sidewalk, smokestack-type environment. It just appeals to me, somehow. It's a fun place to live -- there's a lot going on here," says cartoonist John "Derf" Backderf, author of the syndicated comic strip "The City."

The Ohio native and longtime Cleveland resident reels off the music scene, the restaurants, the street theater, certain neighborhoods. Sure, it's not New York, he says, but "how many things can you do at once? In New York, you get the choice of 500 things to do, and in Cleveland you get the choice of five, but you can only do one at a time anyway, so what difference does it make?"

He adds, "If you just come to town, you think, 'What's here?' Well, it's there, it's just like hidden under the rubble."

Indeed, underneath it all you can see what was once one of America's most powerful cities. In its early- and mid-20th century heyday, Cleveland was the seventh most-populous city in the country, and its architectural centerpiece, Terminal Tower, was the tallest building in the United States outside New York. The Indians were perennial contenders; the Browns dominated pro football.

Today, though some remnants remain -- particularly the art and cultural institutions -- the city is now half its 1950 size. Like many Northern cities, it has struggled as its citizens moved to the South and West. There have been signs of growth, including a newly residential downtown, but they're often met by blows, whether it's the economy or the loss of James.

The latter, in its spiritual significance, has hit hard, and residents are angry -- not least because James has failed to credit his northeastern Ohio roots.

"LeBron James should feel a sense of shame and pain for putting together a self-serving ESPN special to inform the world that he no longer intends to play for the Cavaliers," wrote Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter Terry Pluto. "Doesn't anyone in the James camp have a clue of what people back home will think?"

Comments to his column were more pointed: "What a self-centered egomaniac," wrote one person.

Sure, losing James hurts, say Positively Cleveland's director of communications, Samantha Fryberger, but his impact has been exaggerated. "You'd think that there's one person that can kill our entire town, and that's LeBron James, and one person who can build it back, and that's Drew Carey."

Besides, despite all the knocks, Roche -- who's lived through quite a few -- sees promise. Northeast Ohio has a $180 billion economy, according to his organization; in the long term, the city will win out.

"We keep coming back," he says. "As an old manufacturing community, we've had to remake ourselves, and I think we're in the very early stages of seeing what that can bring. ... The industry's going to be just fine."

Derf sees no reason to leave, either. He had his own experience with south Florida and "I couldn't get out of [there] fast enough." He's staying in Cleveland, thank you very much.

"Cleveland's a dump," he says with pride. "But it's our dump."