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Lebron Nike Witness Poster

Sometimes a sporting event transcends the game itself.  Ask the people of Cleveland.  BelieveLand

I know quite a few people from Cleveland and northeast Ohio, mainly through my longtime affiliation with the Kada Gallery in nearby Erie, PA.  Being a native of the area hasn’t always been an easy thing to own.  It has been the butt of jokes for years and years.  My own earliest memories of Cleveland were in driving through the area in the late 60’s and being overwhelmed by the incredible pollution spewing from the factories that once lined the shores of Lake Erie there that gave the sky this awful apocalyptic, yellow-brown color.  It looked nightmarish to me as a kid.  Thankfully, Cleveland now is nothing like that.

And for the sports fans of the region, it has been even worse for the last 52 years.  Their sports teams have went year after years mired in mediocrity, every so often getting close to winning it all only to be denied in heartbreaking fashion.  They even had their greatest hope, the native Lebron James, up and leave at one point, leaving them angry and betrayed.  It looked as though it might be another 50 years before they might see a sports championship return to northeast Ohio.

Today, I am really, really pleased for them because last night the Cleveland Cavaliers defied all odds in defeating the Golden State Warriors for the NBA Championship.

The cloud has been lifted.

I have followed Lebron James since first reading about him as a seventh grader with great promise.  The Next Big Thing.  They come along every year or two and seldom do they ever come close to the potential that has been granted them.  It turns out that it takes more than just great physical gifts to move into the rarefied air of  legends.  It takes maturity, intelligence, determination and oh so much more.  And these were evident in seeing Lebron in interviews even when he was 17 or 18.  He had the physique and face of a grown man and spoke in thoughtful, mature terms.  What was not to like about this guy?

But people find a way.  Lebron sometimes seems like a character out of a Shakespearean tragedy.  He is the king whose legitimacy and ambitions are always questioned. Things that start with good intentions are often turned against him.  His every word and action is parsed and dissected and the weight of history is always on his shoulders.  It’s more than a mere athlete is normally asked to bear and he bears it with steadfast determination.

When he returned home from his controversial, self-imposed exile in Miami, he put the region on his shoulders, a heavy responsibility that goes beyond the basketball court.  His foundation is mentoring hundreds and hundreds of at-risk each year and putting them through college through a partnership with the University of Akron.  He is acting as a sort of surrogate father to legions of kids who are not that unlike himself  when he was a kid.  He truly cares for his home and wears it proudly.

But the court is where his power arises.  I still don’t understand the hatred towards Lebron.  He is a physical marvel, a brilliant playmaker with court vision that is second to none and a determined competitor.  He has done things on a regular basis that seem inconceivable to most high level NBA players yet he is still denigrated and sniped at.

Well, the performance he treated us to in this last series was a thing out of legend. He did everything — and I mean everything– in taking down the reigning champs.  If someone can’t see the beauty of his game and the display of it he put on in this series, even if  they somehow find a reason to dislike him personally, there is something missing in that person.

Count me in as a witness to his greatness.

My friends in Cleveland, I am so, so happy for you.  It’s been a long time coming and your loyalty and belief has been rewarded by your native son and the great group of players– Kyrie Irving was magnificent!–around him.  I hope you’ll bask in it for some time to come.  Be proud, Cleveland.  Or is it really BelieveLand now?

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POD007850025The NBA recently announced that the MVP award of the NBA final will be named the Bill Russell Award.  I’m sure there are a lot of younger people out there who don’t even know who Bill Russell is or what he meant to basketball and sports in general.

Bill Russell was and is the greatest winner in basketball history.  Perhaps, in all sports history.

He led his University of San Francisco team to consecutive NCAA championships.

He captained the gold medal winning USA Olympic team in 1956.

He was the foundation of the Boston Celtics dynasty.  11 NBA championships.  Eleven in thirteen years.  Think about that.

Along with Bob Gibson, Bill Russell was my childhood idol.  When playing sock basketball with a bent wire hanger for a rim, I was always Bill Russell.  Trying to block everything.  Grabbing every rebound.  He won by doing the basics, not by scoring but by smothering the opponents with hsi defense and rebounding.

I remember sitting with my dada at the kitchen table,  listening to the radio, a green plastic box with a stick in the back that held the batteries in place.  The Celtics’ legendary announcer Johnny Most‘s voice cutting through the static, crackles and pops:

Russell blocks the shot!

What a competitor.  I remember reading James Toback‘s 1971 biography of Jim Brown where he recounted playing golf with Brown, Bill Russell and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.  He was amazed as Brown and Russell went head to head, both legendary competitors.  Shot after shot, they matched one another, neither giving an inch.  It was a pure demonstration of the spirit of what may be the two most dominant players in sports history.  Russell’s competitive intensity was always evident on the court in his glares and the way he stalked the lane.  The fact that he regularly dominated Wilt Chamberlain, who was perhaps the most dominant offensive talent in NBA history, in their legendary head to head battles is further proof of this will to win.

But he was so much more.  He was an intellect, smart and witty.  He could and would expound on subjects outside of the basketball courtand do so with the same strength and grace he displayed on the court.  I loved listening to him as a commentator  after his career ended.  He was insightful and downright funny at times.  His gap-toothed grin and laugh were pure joy.  He was bigger  than sport.  

It’s a pity it took so long for the NBA to honor this man but at least they finally got it right.  He should be on the trophy…

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