It took a while, but I feel better now.
The first few days were difficult, and I was afraid I might not ever recover, and I couldn’t at all fathom how life that way would have been. I’d been through hurt and heartache before – the litany can wait until later – but this time was not like the others. This time had an especially bitter quality, as though I’d been not just defeated but broken, not just broken but embarrassed, not just embarrassed but exposed, revealed to all the world as a cheap, inadequate, self-deluded pretender to the throne.
It was an ugly moment, to be sure, when I was confronted with the truth, forced to admit that the naysayers had their point, forced to rely upon miracle after miracle to save my self-esteem. But even as a couple of miracles actually happened, I dared not admit to anyone that, in my heart of hearts, I was coming to believe that miracles alone might not be enough.
With winter’s snowy revelry receding from memory as the cruelest of jokes, I spent those first few days après le deluge vacant, emotionally hollowed out: I felt like I’d been had, hoodwinked, bamboozled. It is beyond my nature not to dream any more or ever, but somehow I knew that no matter what happened – even if by some accident of fate that dream might someday come true – that I could never, will never, ever, dream like that again.
Of course, you say, I should be used to this. But no, you never get used to this, nor do you want to. We Cleveland sports fans are forged of one part steely sturdiness, one part blind, eternal hope. We have had plenty of chances to give up these last 44, soon to be 45, years since a major pro sports team in Cleveland won a league championship, a stretch no American city has ever experienced.
Since the Browns won the National Football League title in 1964, we have lived through decades of lackluster (I’m being nice here) baseball; a legendary hockey franchise dissolved into the ether and two subsequent teams come and gone with barely a trace; a basketball franchise that lost its first 15 games, then a decade later propelled itself into disarray by trading away its draft choices (prompting a league rule forbidding such foot shooting); and a football team taken away from us in a monumentally infuriating act of corporate arrogance and personal hubris.
We Cleveland sports fans have spent our lives under the spell of endless athletic mediocrity, broken only by moments when the prize, so close we could taste it, was unceremoniously ripped away, moments whose names (Red Right 88, The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble) stand as shorthand for a city’s collective heartbreak. Yet we have not given up, and we will not. We cannot – if we could, we wouldn’t be Clevelanders, and no matter where that diaspora extends, we are still and always Clevelanders, long since adept at licking our wounds with a dash of Stadium Mustard.
What happened 30 May doesn’t have the distinction of a Wikipedia-ready moniker to share with grandkids in our dotage. The Cavaliers, possessor of the best regular season record in the 2008-09 National Basketball Association campaign, and on the verge of contending for the league crown, and thus ending our dubious streak of distinction, were bounced from the playoffs – not by a team we’d had in our radar all season long, not by Boston or Los Angeles, but by Orlando, a team seemingly designed to exploit our every weakness.
They were bigger, younger, longer, quicker, and stronger, where we were older, less able to move and react quickly, with fewer reserves and resources to respond to their challenge (spare me your Sun Belt-Rust Belt economic analogies, please). Some forecasters, most notably TNT analyst Charles Barkley, saw this beatdown coming, and I knew that Orlando had been giving us trouble for a couple of seasons. But I stubbornly clung to hope against hope, as if that alone could overcome being outworked, outshot, outmanned, outcoached, and outgunned.
Hope alone, of course, and LeBron James. For those who don’t follow basketball much, he is the most improbable package of size, skill, talent, determination and good-natured joie de vivre the game has seen in at least a generation. No one six-feet-eight and 270 pounds has the right to run as fast or leap as high as James can. Very few players have his ability or desire to make themselves better, especially when they are already among the very best.
Only a handful have been accepted as gregarious pitchmen for mainstream products like car insurance and tricked-out water, not to mention hosting Saturday Night Live. Even fewer have excelled from the moment they entered the league. But James is, in two crucial respects, head and shoulders above even that small number.
First, he has been this good since he was in high school. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio, about a half-hour down the road from Cleveland, with a headline of “The Chosen One”. Even then he was NBA-ready, and absolutely no one cried or lamented any sorry state of affairs in the basketball feeder system when he went straight from high school to the pro draft (something that is no longer allowed, no matter how good you are).
Conveniently enough, he just so happened to be doing this right when the Cavaliers were absolutely awful, a long way from the early ‘90s teams that kept getting dismissed from the playoffs, beginning with The Shot, by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The year James entered the draft, the Cavaliers managed to be bad enough, and lucky enough when it counted, to land the first pick in the annual draft lottery. Only in fairy tales do things work out quite that nicely, but Cleveland was a sports town badly in need of some fairy tale-like karma for a change.
James single-handedly put my beloved hometown back on the basketball map. In his third year, Cleveland returned to the playoffs. In his fourth year, the world saw him do something we Clevelanders had long grown used to seeing on a regular basis. In a critical playoff game against Detroit, James put the team and the metropolitan region on his back, scoring 25 straight points in the fourth quarter and two overtime periods to bring home a critical win (Cleveland won that series, but got outclassed by the more experienced San Antonio Spurs in the title round – yet another Cleveland sports frustration, but one that didn’t hurt quite as much because we all just knew LeBron would take us to the promised land in short order). As the big Nike sign on the side of a downtown building proclaimed, we were all Witnesses, and proud to have the privilege.
Since then, pundits have wondered where James ranks among the current greats; that he’s going to be one of the all-time greats has been a foregone conclusion for years. This year, the conversation pretty much boiled down to who’s better, him or LA’s Kobe Bryant (James won the Most Valuable Player award, for what it’s worth, but Bryant’s Lakers won the championship, dispatching Orlando with less effort than Orlando used to dispatch the Cavs).
But sports talk what-ifs and Nike commercials with Kobe and LeBron puppets aside, here’s the other crucial respect that elevates James into even more rarefied air: Bryant never took on the collective hopes and dreams of a region which just happened to be his sports-happy, championship-starved home town. Nor did Jordan, or Julius Erving, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or Bill Russell, or just about anyone else on the short list of all-time greats.
Not only has James taken on that burden, he’s done so with a smile – and a wicked array of dunks, no-look passes and long-range jumpers. He’s lived through enough frustration as a Cleveland sports fan himself, and nothing would have made him happier than to end that frustration this spring. The last player of James’ magnitude to walk down that path was Wilt Chamberlain in Philadelphia in the ‘60s, and neither pro basketball nor civic identity through athletic success was the business they both are today.
None Loom Larger than James Nathaniel Brown
James Nathaniel Brown
None Loom Larger than James Nathaniel Brown
So we Clevelanders believed that James, surrounded by the best supporting cast he’s had to date, would make this the year to end our wanderings through the sports wilderness. When we clinched home-court advantage, having compiled the second-best home record in NBA history, we felt like we were one step closer. Orlando dealt us a serious blow by winning the first game of the series, but James revived our hopes with a miraculous shot to win the second game.
We carried on as though we’d won everything, but in reality he’d only saved our bacon for a moment. We had LeBron being Lebron, but they had a buncha guys playing out of their minds, and the Cavs were no match for them in the end. James staved off elimination for us for one game, but ultimately couldn’t do it a second time, and there Cleveland was again, in that all-too-familiar posture of not just defeat, but defeat that feels like the end of the bloody world.
Of course, it’s not the end of the bloody world—at least not yet. The upcoming season will be the last on James’ contract, and people have been wondering for months (in Cleveland, the word would be “scared”) if James will bolt for greener (as in $) pastures. All that will play out in earnest when the season begins this fall. For now, let us consider the last time the city of Cleveland boasted of a black male athlete with superior physical gifts, whose achievements became legendary, and who seamlessly entered the broader world of pop culture and entertainment. And in that process, we shall see just how vast an expanse 45 years really is.
Most folks – including many Clevelanders – don’t realize this, but Cleveland can lay claim to several significant mileposts in black sports history:
Pro football had been lily-white per “gentleman’s agreement” from the early ‘30s until 1946, when the Cleveland Browns of the fledgling All-American Football Conference became one of two teams to sign black players (the other was the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, which had just moved out west from Cleveland). Fullback Marion Motley and defensive end Bill Willis were trailblazers at their positions, and helped the Browns dominate the conference in its four years of existence. They continued their stellar play once the franchise joined the NFL in 1950. Both Motley and Willis are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
We all know who Jackie Robinson was, but not too far behind him was Larry Doby, a 23-year-old outfielder signed by the Cleveland Indians from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League in the spring of 1947. Doby had an outstanding big league career, but is overshadowed in the history books not only by Robinson but also by Leroy “Satchel” Paige, the 40-something-year-old Negro League pitching legend the Indians signed in 1948.
Beginning in the late ‘40s, Cleveland was a stop on the United Golf Association circuit. The tour was formed by black golfers, who were denied membership in the mainstream Professional Golf Association tour. The UGA was in business until 1960, when the PGA finally admitted blacks. The first black to win a PGA event was Charlie Sifford, in 1959. Sifford retired in the mid-‘70s to become a teaching pro at a public course in Cleveland. He was part of the festivities when the Senior PGA held its 2009 Championship in Cleveland this spring.
John McLendon was the first black coach of a pro sports team, the short-lived Cleveland Pipers. McLendon, a legendary basketball coach at black colleges in the ‘40s and ‘50s (most notably Tennessee State University), moved up the ranks for the Pipers gig in 1959, while the team was still in a semi-pro league. The Pipers turned pro in 1961, joining the brand-new American Basketball League. By then the team was owned by a Cleveland shipping magnate named George Steinbrenner; even back then he’d garnered a rep for, shall we say, mercurial ownership practices: he once traded one of the Pipers in the middle of a game—to the team the Pipers were playing!. McLendon couldn’t deal with such behavior, and left the team (which won the league championship under his successor). McLendon went on to become the first black coach of a predominantly white college team – at Cleveland State University in 1966.
Frank Robinson became the first black manager of a major league baseball team, taking over the Indians in 1975. He had actually joined the team as a player late in 1974, and speculation began almost immediately after the manager was fired at season’s end. Robinson took over with a bang: on Opening Day 1975, in his first game as player-manager, he hit a home run in his first at-bat. But that was pretty much the end of the history making, as Robinson didn’t have much success with the Indians (no one did in those days), and became the first black manager to be fired in 1977. (As it happened, Doby became the second black manager, for the Chicago White Sox in 1978.)
And throughout the years many black stars have passed through Cleveland – some at the beginning of their careers (Bobby Mitchell, Albert Belle), some towards the end (Nate Thurmond, Bobby Bonds), and some for the duration (Leroy Kelly, Brad Daugherty). But none loom larger, either during their time or years after it, than James Nathaniel Brown. In the 43 seasons since he retired, seven men have amassed more career rushing yards than Jim Brown, and nine have scored more touchdowns. Yet he is considered, virtually without debate, the greatest running back ever, if not the greatest football player at any position.
Jim Brown All American
Art Modell, Walter Beach
(US DVD: 24 Aug 2004)
Brown, an intimidating package of size, raw strength and speed the likes of which had never been seen before, excelled at four sports at Syracuse University (football, basketball, track and lacrosse). He was drafted by the Browns in 1957, just after their glorious 10-year run of championship success (10 straight division titles, seven league titles) at the franchise’s onset, and just before pro football started to register on the national consciousness.
He fit right in with the rough-and-tumble nature of the game back then, and proceeded to dominate it. He could run over defenders, around them or away from them – and often did all three on the same play. Rarely did one player alone tackle him. His brutal confrontations with hapless defenders still elicit awe on highlight reels. In an era where medical support for players was far from today’s sophistication, he never missed a game in nine years, dishing out far more punishment than he ever seemed to receive.
Brown helped his team reach that fabled ‘64 championship game, in which the Browns upset the Baltimore Colts 27-0. He helped the Browns get to the title game the next season, and the franchise seemed poised for another run of success. But during the 1966 preseason, Brown was off shooting a movie in London, and was not in training camp with his teammates. The team’s ownership called him on it, basically ordering him back to Cleveland or threatening to discipline him. Brown called their bluff, opting to retire immediately rather than to be ordered around like chattel (a theme linking all the phases of his life).
Thus did one of the greatest careers in pro sports, and possibly the greatest of any Cleveland player in any sport, end in the blink of an eye. He may or may not have thought about retiring when he was at his peak, but that’s how things worked out. His career record of 12, 312 rushing yards, amassed in only nine seasons, stood for 22 years.
Brown, who had already completed one movie while still a football player (Rio Conchos, 1964), proceeded to make his name in Hollywood by capitalizing on his image from the field: as one big, strong black man who stood apart from the crowd and took no gruff from no one. That movie he was off shooting turned out to be The Dirty Dozen (1967), one of those war movies that actually is more about the present day than the actual period of the war. Brown plays the resident militant black man on a team of Army renegades in World War II, recruited out of the doghouse to execute an all-but-impossible mission they’re given little chance of surviving.
We’ve seen the formula a thousand times: establish the premise for bringing the archetypical characters together, introduce their individual badass selves, watch them bond (with a nod or two to the moment’s cultural vibe), then set them loose on their mission. Brown acquitted himself well alongside Hollywood veterans including Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, despite not having to do much more than be a big, black, headstrong outsider with a keen sense for justice, which could easily be argued as typecasting.
His other movie role of note was as a bounty hunter who gets caught up in his target’s mission in 100 Rifles (1969). That movie is less remembered for its plot than for a significant moment in modern film history, Brown’s sex scene with Raquel Welch, who played the feisty leader of a band of renegade Indians. It was the first interracial sex scene in a big-budget Hollywood movie, and while nothing about the act itself would make a 2009 audience blush or squirm, its very happening, a scant two years after the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriages, made it more than a little sensational at the time.
Again, the scene trades on Brown’s uber-black mystique, pairing him up with Welch, the reigning sex goddess – what sparks would fly when Hollywood’s two most fetishized bodies of the late ‘60s started rubbing up against each other? In some quarters, this was actually seen as racial progress of a sort, in that a black man could have sex in a mainstream movie with a white woman (OK, she’s actually part Bolivian, but few knew that back then) without being characterized as a savage beast.
The First Black Athlete to Parlay On-the-field Stardom into Pop Entertainment Stardom
Lebron James on the Vogue cover (partial)
The First Black Athlete to Parlay On-the-field Stardom into Pop Entertainment Stardom
On the strength of those two roles, Brown established himself as Hollywood’s first black action hero. He followed them up with a string of interchangeable roles in interchangeable blaxploitation flicks (Three the Hard Way, Black Gunn, Slaughter and its sequel Slaughter’s Big Ripoff which featured Brown as a Righteous Black Brother standing up for the community, beating down The Man, and accommodating the various young ladies who came his way.
His was such an iconic presence in black pulp cinema that a generation later, he starred in the blaxploitation homage Original Gangstas (1996) and the send-up I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988). Sprinkled throughout his oeuvre are mainstream potboilers like …Tick…Tick…Tick… (1970) and various projects that barely registered at the box office.
Thus did Brown become the first black athlete to parlay on-the-field stardom into pop entertainment stardom. Paul Robeson briefly played pro football in the ‘20s after excelling at Rutgers and before beginning his movie career, but the game was still in its infancy then. Later, Woody Strode, one of those two L.A. Rams who desegregated the NFL in ’46, became a member of John Ford’s stock company in the late ‘50s, fought Kirk Douglas to the death in a memorable scene from Spartacus (1960), and picked up supporting movie roles through the mid-‘90s. But Strode’s football career was unremarkable aside from his one year with the Rams. Boxer Jack Johnson fancied himself an entertainer, among other pursuits, after his boxing days, but we’ll always remember him primarily for what he did in the ring.
Up until Brown, if you saw a black sports star in a movie, it was as himself in either a walk-on role or as the star of a biopic (The Jackie Robinson Story, The Joe Louis Story). After Brown, and as pro sports athletes became more recognized in American pop culture thanks in large part to broader television exposure, crossover opportunities for black stars became easier to pursue.
The next big step was OJ Simpson, who parlayed his football success and TV-friendly good looks into a side career as a pitchman (famously running through airports for Hertz Rent-a-Cars) and then actor (beginning with a brief role in the first chapter of Roots (1977). Simpson was no great shakes as a thespian, but the success of his commercials helped cement the idea that black sports stars had brand recognition that translated easily and well to the larger consumer market.
No one made more of that opening than Michael Jordan, that rare commodity who was the center of not one but two iconic ad campaigns, for Nike (with a mighty assist from director Spike Lee) and Gatorade (“Be Like Mike”). He’s still at it, starring with Charlie Sheen and Cuba Gooding, Jr. for Hanes ads in recent years. Jordan became the gold standard for capitalizing on athletic excellence within pop culture; since his day only Tiger Woods has been as ubiquitous a pitchman among athletes of color. The distance we’ve come from Robinson hawking Chock Full o’Nuts coffee in the ‘50s, and black A-list jocks hawking virtually anything under the sun today, is astounding, and Brown remains a central figure in that lineage.
He’s central not only for his performances on and off the field, but also because of his political activism. Brown’s activist work dates back to his playing days, when he and other black ballers formed the Black Economic Union, to advocate for greater economic development and entrepreneurship within the black community. Brown also convened the group to support Muhammad Ali after his heavyweight title was stripped due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam.
Today, the BEU stands out less for any achievements it accomplished than for the fact that it’s virtually the only instance of an ongoing body of black stars working for a progressive cause beyond the playing field. It’s not been lost on anyone, especially Brown, that there hasn’t been that same out-front involvement in the issues of the day from most of the black stars since the ‘60s. Brown has continued his activist work with his organization Amer-I-Can, which has worked to end gang violence and help gangbangers start productive lives in L.A. and across the country since the ‘80s.
Linking all three aspects of Brown’s life in the public eye, as footballer, movie star, and crusader for equality and justice (not to mention a couple of run-ins with the law over domestic incidents) is the image of Brown as a strong, self-reliant black man who would not be beaten down or turned away from his goal. Of course, for some that’s an image only a couple of steps removed from Brown as the embodiment of natural, unthinking, brute black force. Either way, it’s an archetype almost as old as America itself, and the fact remains that while other athletes have eclipsed Brown’s marks and outshone him in some pop culture arenas, none have come close to his measure on all three levels.
One would think that LeBron James has that chance. The athletic achievements go without saying. He’s got the pop culture name recognition going, as well. He can even trade on the big black buck image for laughs, as on that June 2008 Vogue cover shot with Gisele Bundchen that many considered insulting (as others did for a 2002 Sports Illustrated cover depiction of a bare-chested Charles Barkley breaking out of chains). But no one is mistaking him for a fire-breathing rabblerouser.
Like many athletes under contract with Nike (Exhibit A: Michael Jordan), James has typically sidestepped calls to press the shoemaker on its Chinese sweatshop practices. And like virtually all athletes of his generation, he’s not vocally outfront on any social issue. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t give back on a smaller, less visible scale, or that he hasn’t written a couple of nice-sized checks over the years. But true activism is more than just an “NBA – Where Caring Happens” self-congratulatory feel-good promo. It’s personal time, commitment and involvement.
Perhaps, as some have argued, it’s the difference between the two eras that accounts for the difference between Brown-style activism and the retreat from that level of involvement since then. The social temperature of our times, highly charged as it is in many ways, is nowhere near that of the ‘60s, in which seemingly everyone felt compelled to make a stand. It’s unrealistic, in that respect, to expect athletes to be any different from the rest of society, then or now. It may also be unrealistic to expect that athletes, by dint of their exposure in the media and influence over young fans (not to mention seven- and eight-figure incomes), should be involved; Barkley’s best-known commercial is a Nike spot in which he declared that athletes should not automatically be expected to serve as role models.
Rightly or wrongly, many fellow blacks continue to hold black star athletes to high expectations of participation in social uplift. It has been that way since Jackie Robinson, when being a black ballplayer was a political statement in and of itself, even if athletes now have more flexibility not to choose the path of sports star-as-social activist. But Jim Brown made that choice, and neither his football career nor his film career suffered for it.
He bridges two distinct eras – back when black stars were expected to be part of the struggle in some way, and now that they have the freedom to merely be stars – and sits comfortably in both of them. That’s the true measure of his accomplishments, and 45 years after the fact, those are the footsteps James walks in today, far outweighing even the hopes and dreams of long-suffering Cleveland sports fans.
Jim Brown and Bill Russell: An Enduring Friendship
Jim Brown (left) and Bill Russell
Jim Brown and Bill Russell: An Enduring Friendship
Further evidence of the hold Jim Brown has in the American pop imagination – as if a 2006 biography, two autobiographies, and a 2002 Spike Lee documentary weren’t enough—comes with the re-publication by Rat Press of James Toback’s 1971 Jim: The Author’s Semi-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown. In the late ‘60s, Toback took an assignment from Esquire to do a feature story on Brown, and flew out to LA to spend some time with him. That article never happened, but Toback got a good picture of Brown’s life circa 1967-69: the activism, the parties, the still-burning competitive nature, even the relationship with the local authorities.
The fact that in Toback’s telling, the story is as much about him as it is about Brown doesn’t make this any less interesting a travelogue through Brown’s first few years after football, even as it simultaneously reduces and elevates him to some sort of totemic figure – a proto-Magical Negro, in some respects—against which a man can measure himself, as Toback does in bouncing his personal issues off against his time with Brown. (For his part, Toback re-investigated the notion of the complicated big black stud-as-muse with his recent acclaimed documentary Tyson, in which the former heavyweight champ achieves something of a life explanation/reputation reclamation).
Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown
(Rat Press; US: Mar 2009)
One of Toback’s adventures in Jim is sharing a round of golf with Brown and Bill Russell. Both men had much in common: they excelled at the collegiate level in the mid-‘50s at predominantly white schools despite the racist attitudes of various authority figures; both had an immediate impact upon their sports once they turned pro; both were outspoken about the issues of the ‘60s; both left their games on top (Russell retired in 1969 after leading the Celtics to 11 championships in 13 years as player and player-coach, the NBA’s first black coach); and both were proud competitors.
They were also great friends, as Toback captures in recounting their good-natured back-and-forth on the gold course. There was a nominal bet, but the afternoon was less about establishing superiority than about playing a game and having a good time.
Toback was too much in hero worship mode to notice that at the end of it all, nothing more remarkable happened than two black male icons of strength, achievement and conviction had just spent a few hours being, simply, friends. Of all the sides of black manhood seldom explored in mass culture, the aspect of friendship ranks right up there. Brown and Russell may have been known as athletic and social iconoclasts in their day, but that in no way precludes their humanity, or their ability to enjoy those moments when they can step away from it all and simply hang.
That friendship endured, and was on display during June’s installment of HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The host also spent a round with Brown and Russell on the links, the two warriors physically slowed by time (and Brown supporting himself with a cane) but still adept at trash talk. Neither could remember when he’d met the other, not that it really mattered. What was important was that through it all – the athletic records established, the FBI files earned for their activism back in the day, the challenges in their personal lives, their autumn years as elder statesmen of sport and social responsibility – their friendship endured.
Gumbel didn’t include much about their views on the state of sports today, but he did press them about their views on the level of social involvement from today’s megastar black athletes. Russell guardedly observed that the battles today are far different from the ones he and Brown waged, which were far different in turn from what Jackie Robinson went through to pave the road that all since him have followed. Brown was more dismissive, especially of Jordan and Woods, the two biggest black megastars ever, calling Woods’ demonstrated commitment to social causes, or the lack thereof, “terrible, terrible.”
The segment ended with Brown and Russell on the golf course, friends above all else. Forty years after Toback’s round, it’s still rare to see depictions of genuine friendship between black men. And 40 years after all manner of progress and struggles, from the Black Panthers to Barack Obama, it’s still gratifying to see those two noble black champions from a bygone time, still unbroken and unbowed.
One can only hope that 40-odd years from now, James will have a counterpart in sport and social engagement, and together the two brothas will be able to open up their friendship for an interviewer or other interloper, the victories that didn’t matter long since forgotten, the ones that matter still enduring, talking trash off into the sunset.
And who knows? Perhaps that counterpart will be Shaquille O’Neal, the jovial giant whose own crossover appeal (star of postgame press conference one-liners, self-effacing commercials for everything from footcare products to cable TV, a couple of fair-to-middling rap records, a side career in law enforcement, and acting in TV shows, videos and movies we’ll not mention because, quite frankly, no one wants to relive the legendary-for-its-awfulness Kazaam) overlaps the years between Jordan’s career and James’. The Cavaliers recently acquired Shaq to pair with James for the 2009-10 run at the title, setting local sports talk radio ablaze with hope for the upcoming season four months away, as the Indians muddle through yet another disappointing campaign, and in advance of a Browns season no one expects to be all that fruitful.
O’Neal announced that he’d forgo his longtime uniform number 32 for 33, the number he wore in high school and college; a wise move, seeing that in Cleveland number 32 essentially belongs to Brown, who wore it during his Browns career and defined it in Cleveland sports forever since. So it’s safe to say that O’Neal too is aware, at least on a most basic level, of the mighty ground he walks upon.
But it’s not just him. All black superstar athletes owe Brown, whether they choose to acknowledge it, whether they follow his examples of social activism or success in pop entertainment, or not. By comparison, James and now O’Neal have it slightly easier. All they have to do is to keep a city’s heart from being broken yet again. Good luck with that, fellas—we Cleveland sports fans are counting on you.
Image (partial) Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel from interview with Brown and Russell.