We've heard a lot about Cleveland's reaction to "The Decision," seen video of burning jerseys, read Dan Gilbert's nutty letter, but the reaction I heard again and again, all over Cleveland, almost without exception, white and black, rich and poor, is the reaction of the steel mill workers hanging at this bar in Garfield Heights. People were mad at the theatrics. The Decision. Toying with the emotions of a city that's known nothing in the past four decades but sporting heartbreak.Best:
I ask a dozen or more people what they think, and all of them say: It's not that he left for greener pastures; it was how they thought he showed them up. They think he rubbed their noses in it. "I was all right with him leaving," Crowder says. "I didn't like the way he did it."
Everybody says that. I've heard it from the owner of a steakhouse, The Lancer, that's a gathering place for the African-American community. I've heard it from a homeless guy who cleans the Cavs' arena. I've heard it from a right wing radio host and hipster liberals and architects and ex-cops and a James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef. If you talk to regular people who pulled for LeBron, you'll hear a nuanced opinion that doesn't jibe with the hysteria we saw from afar. To a man, that's what these guys at the Venture Inn say.
These dudes work hard for a living and don't ever begrudge someone doing what's best for himself. Life ain't easy in the world. It's hell near the furnaces. They wear long johns in the heat -- a few minutes inside, they soak with sweat, which cools them off. At closing time, guys head to the bar for a beer. "You order two," a steelworker cracks, "and you pour the first one on your head."
They feel lucky to have work. The jobs that still exist might not for much longer.
"This town is dying," a customer says. "If I could leave, too, I think I'd be out."
"Why?" the bar owner asks.
"The future's not bright in Cleveland," he says.
That's why they understand. Many of their sons are the first generation to not find work in the mines or the mills. Their own children, when faced with LeBron's decision, made the same one. So the men at the Venture Inn aren't angry. They get it.
"I'm proud of my son," he says.
So, they don't mind the leaving. Their fathers and grandfathers moved to find the best jobs. They provide for their families despite the odds and surveys and television documentaries that tell them their way of life is dead. They are proud people, which is why they did not like being the foil in The Decision.
"The way he did it was f---ed up," says Lenny Sofranko, a steelworker for three decades.
These guys have a code.
They think LeBron broke it.
Take Eric Barr. He's a Browns fan. He grew up in Connecticut, but his dad worked in a factory and loved the Browns, which made his son love them, too. The things the team represented meant more than geography. So Barr bought season tickets, and he drove 500 miles to every game until, a few months ago, he quit his job, left behind a steady check and benefits, and moved to Cleveland. He still hasn't found work. He lives out of a suitcase. He is lonely except for the few hours he communes with other fans on game day. He plays solitaire. He spends his days at a library looking for jobs. The money's gonna run out. Things seem bad. He wonders why he did this. He's 33, alone, with no furniture, no job, no future. But a few days ago, a glimmer of hope arrived. He got a call from a fellow Browns fan. Guy lived in Tennessee and read about Barr in the paper and wanted to do something. The Samaritan gathered oak and cut it into boards, smoothing each one, carefully putting them together, using his own hands to build someone he'd never met a bed. Then he delivered it to Barr. A man ought to have a bed. The Browns fan refused to take any money. All he wanted was a promise from Barr: When you're on your feet, do something kind for a stranger. That's what loving sports really means: giving part of yourself to someone you'll never know because the giving makes you feel good. At their worst, sports fans in a place like this can be crazier than the craziest ex-girlfriend. But at their best, they create a community.
They are willing to do something kind for a stranger.