After the jump on this piece: a video with three LeBron super fans from Cleveland.
One of the most surprising things about reporting on how Cavaliers fans are handling all the hoopla about LeBron James' possible departure in 2010 was the number of LeBron detractors I found at Today's Cut & Style, a barber shop in the eastern suburb of Cleveland Heights. Don Crump, one of the main subjects of the story, all but begged me not to write what some of the more negative patrons had to say about LeBron, for fear that the comments would motivate The King to take his act to New York. I told Don, "No deal, I'm reporting what I see.''
I also reported what LeBron is seeing.
But back at the shop, while most of the folks in the shop thought LeBron was the league's best player, there were a few who were almost illogical in their criticism of him. A lot of the negativity stemmed from LeBron's wearing of the New York Yankees cap to an Indians-Yankees playoff game in Cleveland, as well as his dalliance on the Dallas Cowboys sidelines during a game against the Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium this season. I was stunned by how seriously Cleveland's fans took those actions.
Shawn Bailey, one of the barbers, summed it up: "I think the problems LeBron has in Cleveland are based on Cleveland's loyalty. We have the strongest football following of losers you can get. The bottom line is that we lose all the time, but our stadium is packed. The energy in Cleveland is strong for the Browns every year because we think, 'Maybe we're going to do it this year.' Every year we say that. So when LeBron wears a Yankees hat to an Indians game or stands on the sidelines with the Dallas Cowboys, it's like 'Where's your loyalty at?' This is a loyal city. You want us to get behind you and not give you any discredit, then get behind us.''
I was able to speak to LeBron about this and he said people are making way too much out of what are really innocent actions. The folks at his alma mater, Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, will tell you that LeBron entered the school as a ninth grader wearing a Yankees cap and rooting for the Cowboys. He said his love for those teams is not at all indicative of a dislike for Cleveland.
"I'm a fan too,'' LeBron told me, before staying an extra hour after practice to shoot jump shots with Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson. "And if I'm a fan of these teams, the fans should respect that. I respect the fans that come to watch us. But you can't take the kid out of me. Ever since I was a kid, I loved the Cowboys and I loved the Yankees. This is my job, this is what I do and I respect that, but you can't take the kid out of me and tell me to stop liking the teams I grew up loving. That's like telling me I can't like Michael Jordan because he killed the Cavs a lot. That's my childhood. That's what I grew up doing.''
There really are several reasons for Cavs fans to be optimistic about LeBron staying in Cleveland. Besides the success of the team (compared to the struggles of the New York Knicks), there's the fact that LeBron truly enjoys being in his hometown. He still goes to about three or four SVSM high school football games a year and he also goes to Glenville High (alums Troy Smith, Donte Whitner and Ted Ginn) football games in Cleveland. He also visits SVSM regularly, in part because (with rules in place that forbid students from mobbing him for autographs and pictures) it's one of the few places he can go and just be a normal person.
One of LeBron's favorite "teachers'' at SVSM was 61-year-old librarian, Barb Wood. LeBron used to have long chats with her in the library when he was a student, and nowadays they text each other about three times a week. He makes sure to visit her at the school at least once a year. His most recent visit was after the Olympics, when he showed up unannounced right after school let out and had Barb call all the teachers down to the gymnasium to see his gold medal.
"LeBron's really a homebody,'' she says. "No matter how much he travels, he always comes back. That's why he surrounds himself with people he's known from the beginning. That's very important to him. He likes the comfort of being around people he's known for a long time.''
Some Clevelanders may not see it, but LeBron says he's as loyal as they are. In high school, Oak Hill Academy recruited him hard, but he wanted to stay with his friends and teammates at SVSM. He admitted that his decision in 2010 will have similarities to those days.
"I'm a loyal person,'' LeBron said. "I've always been loyal. I respect people who give me the opportunity. Right now, I think it is similar. But I'm more of a businessman now. You have to look at the business side of things. This is a business. So you look at all the options. I'm going to do what's best for my family, do what's best for my friends and do what's best for me at the end of the day.''
While he clearly enjoys the hoopla surrounding his upcoming free agency, LeBron says he's never given Cleveland fans a reason to think he'll leave.
"Ever since I've been asked about the Cavs, I never gave any indication that I was leaving or that I wasn't happy here,'' he said. "I think the franchise has definitely done a great job of giving me a team and putting me in position to win ballgames, so I'm happy here and I look forward to getting better this year and in the years to come.''
In the years to come? Sounds like good news for Cavs fans. Stay tuned.