Sports Nut

There Is No Justice in Cleveland Sports, Only Irony

An interview with Scott Raab on Cavs–Warriors, his embarrassment over The Whore of Akron, and what a LeBron-led championship would mean to Northeast Ohio.

Cleveland Cavaliers fans.
Cleveland Cavaliers fans look on from the crowd during Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, against the Toronto Raptors, on May 23 in Toronto.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The last time a Cleveland sports team won a major professional championship, Scott Raab was in the stands. It was 1964, the champs were the Jim Brown–led Cleveland Browns, and Raab was 12 years old. Fifty-two years later, Raab and his fellow Clevelanders are still waiting for a sequel.

Raab, a longtime staffer at Esquire, is the author of 2011’s The Whore of Akron, an excellent, deeply personal exploration of his Cleveland fandom and his emotional connection to and disconnection from the titular whore, LeBron James. As James’ Cavaliers get set to play in the NBA Finals, Raab—who is now working on a follow-up to The Whore of Akron—spoke with me about the Cavs’ matchup against the Warriors, LeBron’s return to Ohio, and what a championship would mean for Cleveland. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Josh Levin: We’re talking the morning of the first game of the NBA Finals, which is the morning of the first game of the latest attempt for a Cleveland team to win a championship. How would you describe your emotional state?

Scott Raab: I don’t have a wide range of feeling about Cleveland teams. I try to stay in the moment and enjoy the ride—all the things the players say basically. You don’t know when you’re going to get back there again, just revel in it, just enjoy it. But I’m not enjoying the moment that much. What I feel a lot of is dread. Dread, that’s it. That’s how I’d describe my emotional state.

Advertisement

How much of that feeling of dread is informed by the particulars of this series? You could look at it a bunch of different ways—the Cavs are underdogs, but the Cavs’ players are also healthy this year as opposed to last year. Or are all of those details just overwhelmed by the larger feeling of dread that has nothing to do with who any of the players are?

I don’t know if I can separate that completely, but the details—they do matter. If the Cavaliers had been the 73–9 team who got up off the canvas down 3–1 to an opponent to make the finals, I think I’d be feeling less dread. Nobody saw the Warriors coming last year. I don’t know anyone who before last season was saying, “Hey, watch out for Golden State, they’re not just going to be great, they’re going to be one of the greatest teams in NBA history.” I don’t think LeBron saw them coming. I sure didn’t see them coming last season. And they’ve gotten better. I never bet on or against a Cleveland team. I’m not going to predict against a Cleveland team in the finals, but it would be an upset of legendary proportions. The odds are definitive, decisive. The Cavs are a huge underdog.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

When you watch this Warriors team, there’s a feeling that you’re in the presence of greatness both individually and collectively. But there’s also the fact that they came back from this 3–1 deficit—there’s this anti-Clevelandness, a feeling that it was fated. No matter how far into the depths they went, there was something about this team that they just would not and could not be defeated.

I was astonished. I don’t want to harp on my age. I’m not the oldest Cleveland fan and I’m certainly not the smartest Cleveland fan, but there were a bunch of people over social media going, “I want the Warriors.” They’re down 3–1 to the Thunder, the Thunder can clinch, the Cavaliers have home-court advantage and not against the Golden State Warriors. And these—I don’t want to say morons or cretins, so I’ll settle for fools—are going, “We don’t want to win the title against this weak Oklahoma City team.” Not that Oklahoma City was weak but the odds wouldn’t have been what they are. The Cavs wouldn’t be a 2-to-1 underdog going into this series.

Advertisement
Advertisement

For me, as the guy born and bred there, if I could tear myself away from those teams emotionally I would’ve done it decades ago. I don’t know what it’s going to take besides my demise. It’s typical Cleveland in its own way that when LeBron comes home and comes home the way he did and wants to cement his legacy, when that’s all in place, at the other end of it is a great, great NBA team out in the West. They’re not just an opponent. It feels very Cleveland.

Advertisement

Where do you think we are in the arc of the LeBron-and-Cleveland relationship? And where are you in your relationship with LeBron?

Advertisement

My relationship with LeBron is kind of a one-sided deal. There’s some embarrassment, if not shame. I wouldn’t unwrite The Whore of Akron. I wouldn’t change the title. But there is something sobering about having vented—I used my love for Cleveland sports, my love for an individual athlete, used his decision to take his talents to South Beach as a narrative frame to vent 50 years of personal and fan misery. I judged a young man who was only guilty of making the decision professionally that he felt was best for him and his family. I judged him fairly harshly for that as you can tell by the title. I damned him straight to Hell for the sin of not being Moses, for not feeling it was important to lead his people, including me, to the promised land of a championship for Cleveland. And not only does he come back to the Cavaliers while there’s still, I believe, more than a smidgen left of his prime, but he calls himself out in that Sports Illustrated essay and says he feels he has a calling beyond basketball. I’m a little flummoxed by the whole thing.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I know that probably nothing I’ve done, including writing the first book, had any impact either way on LeBron. But he certainly has an impact on me and my career, so I’m still sorting through that. I had a writing career before any of y’all had heard of LeBron James. It’s not like I built my career on Cleveland sports or a Cleveland athlete. But there’s a strong sense in me at least of, yeah, I’m the only fan in Cleveland who made money when he left. I’m making money with him coming back. And maybe I should stop whining about everything and just be grateful that, somehow, I’ve attached myself like moss to the back of the greatest athlete Northeast Ohio has ever produced.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Whether they win or don’t win with LeBron coming back, that’s no more on LeBron in my mind than it was the first seven years in Cleveland. I think it’s a great narrative. There are greater storylines to be sure—Jackie Robinson comes to mind right away. But for a kid from West Akron growing up really hard, the idea that he went away to the Heat like it was four years of college and then coming back home, it’s beautiful even if it doesn’t have the kind of biblical closure that would come with a championship.

Advertisement
Advertisement

You said that the only crime LeBron committed was that he wasn’t Moses. But in the marketing around his return he basically positioned himself as Moses. Especially the commercial with all the people surrounding him …

Advertisement

Oh my God, that Nike commercial. I was there the night the Cavs opened against the Knicks, my son and I were there at the Q and they ran the commercial on what they call the Humongotron. When they played that ad, maybe there were dry eyes in the house, but none of them were mine.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I’ve used this line a long time in reference to Pete Rose scoring the winning run in an All-Star Game and basically ruining the physical health of a great young Indians catcher: In Cleveland sports there is no justice, only irony. The idea that I would call out this guy for the crime of not being Moses, and that he would return like someone who wanted to lead the fan tribe. And also some of the walk that he’s walked since his return with his foundation, a lot of the help he’s given, particularly to kids from Akron where he grew up—that’s remarkable stuff.

You were one of the people featured in ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary Believeland. It features Jim Brown, Earnest Byner, players from the Cavs and Indians, various mayors of Cleveland, and it opens with you and your son, and it closes with you and your son. You’re the heart of the movie, presented as the ultimate Cleveland fan. How does being in that position make you feel?

Advertisement

Very uncomfortable. While the response has been great and positive, there have been a couple of points made by folks—not folks I know, and in various states of sobriety, some of them quite mean—who point out a couple of things that are true. One is that I left Cleveland in 1984 to go to graduate school—that was a few months before LeBron was born, by the way—and I live in New Jersey. I go back to Cleveland a lot to write the books and I was going back to Cleveland a lot when I wasn’t writing a book. I’m a Cleveland State grad and I myself have total credibility, total legitimacy as a Clevelander, but I can totally understand the, “Who the hell is this guy?” I should point out by the way, when I left for grad school in 1984 there was no max contract on either end of that. I guess I got a little weary after the first book came out with people telling me, “How can you hold LeBron accountable because you left, too?” End of argument. And for me, of course, the details matter.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The other part of being the heart and soul of Cleveland fandom in the “30 for 30” is that I’ll be 64 this summer, so there are a lot of younger Cleveland fans, and for them I think they’re really tired of the “woe is me.” Seeing a guy my age talking about his hopes and his disappointments and trying to sum it all up, I think for a lot of younger people watching it’s like, OK, we’ve really heard this, this isn’t helping us or our team. “Old man, your time’s up, you can’t see these teams though our eyes, we’re feeling strong.” And I don’t wanna be the guy who says, yeah, I’ve been there. I’ve heard from people over and over again going, “It just feels different this year.” I’ve heard that from some people I really respect and people who are closer to the team than I’m ever going to be. And the fact of the matter is I’ve heard that too, over the years, “this feels different this time.” Yeah, those mid-‘90s Indians felt really different. That team was a juggernaut. They also didn’t win a World Series.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The most notable moment in the “30 for 30” came when Earnest Byner, the Browns running back, looked directly into the camera and apologized for fumbling and letting the fans down. When you saw that, do you feel like, “Why are you apologizing to us?” Or are you like, “Thank you, I deserve that. That was hard on me, and it’s your fault.”

I really have tried to get beyond the need to feel that these human beings simply exist as two-dimensional creatures in my mind. So I forgave Earnest Byner. I was mad at Earnest Byner for a long time. The fumble was in 1988. It took me a while. Byner was one of those guys, without ever having met him or knowing much about him, that I kind of loved. He seemed like a great guy and was a productive running back. To judge a man by the worst on-field moment of his career, shame on me for even needing to forgive him.

Advertisement
Advertisement

For me personally, it’s just a reminder that all these people upon whom I project all of these lifelong deep emotions, they’re living their own lives. If a guy leaves it all out there on the field, does everything he can—same thing I would say as a father. You gave it everything you had, the fact that it ended in disappointment or heartbreak is no reason to do anything other than feel some sense of pride and suck it up and go back at it. Guys like Byner exemplify that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Do you allow yourself to think about the Cavs winning, and where you want to be, and how it would feel, or does superstition not really allow you to go there?

Advertisement

It’s always been kind of my job to allow myself to go anywhere. If I can ponder a Donald Trump presidency, what harm is there in pondering a Cleveland championship parade?

I’ve heard from people, “you guys wouldn’t even know what to do if they won, you’re so attached to this loser thing that you wouldn’t even have an identity as a fan without that.” I’d like to put all of that to the test, because I do imagine what it would be like.

And I do not pretend for a second that it would make a meaningful or lasting impact on the lives of many, if not most, of the people who still live in Cleveland proper. That’s one of those Rust Belt communities that has suffered mightily totally separate from the sports teams, and the idea that a championship is going to bring great jobs and young families back into a city, that kind of renaissance—I don’t think that’s remotely realistic. All the issues that afflict any community, any old-line Rust Belt city, are all in play in Cleveland and have been for decades. But there is part of me that looks at Pittsburgh or even Detroit with the Red Wings and the Tigers. Sports teams and success at that level does make a palpable difference, not just in the spirit of a city but in the way people feel in that community and are looked at and judged from the outside. That seems ridiculous, but I kind of feel like I know it to be true.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Were a Cleveland team to win a championship, a lot of what we’ve been talking about—that stuff becomes footnote stuff, it doesn’t pack the same punch. I saw a Cleveland team win a championship when I was 12 years old, the Browns beat the Johnny Unitas–led Baltimore Colts, Dec. 27, 1964. I know what Cleveland felt like then. It was one of the 10 largest cities, and it had a history of success in pro sports. I don’t know that any of that is ever coming back. But the idea that I could see a Cleveland team win a championship with my wife and kid, whether I see it in Cleveland or just head to Cleveland for the parade—I could get choked up pretty quickly just thinking about it. But I do like to think about it. I do.

Advertisement