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Excerpt: The Whore of Akron 

A displaced Clevelander honors his hometown by stalking the man who spurned us

When I began work on The Whore of Akron in June 2009, it wasn't going to be called that. The book I set out to write would've had a title like Bearing Witness, and it would've told the story of the Cavs' first NBA crown — and the city's first championship since the Browns won it all in 1964.

Not that I was assuming any such happy ending — as a native Clevelander, I'm incapable of optimism — but what the hell: We had the league's best player and an owner who would happily spend whatever it took to win it all. The Q was packed to the rafters every game, the town was the center of the basketball universe, and ... fuck it. It's not as if you don't know the rest of that story.

The Whore of Akron isn't just that story. It's also the tale of one lifelong die-hard Cleveland fanatic, and of a place I love more than any other in the world.

COINS ON A COLD GRAVE

My favorite story of Cleveland fanhood is about an old friend of mine named Joey, the 1997 World Series, and a shortstop who played for the Indians nearly a century ago, Ray Chapman. Chapman was a fine ballplayer and a sweetheart of a guy, much loved by his teammates; he batted second on one of the greatest Tribe teams of all, the 1920 Cleveland Indians.

Those Indians won the World Series — 1920 and 1948: that's the complete list in 110 years — but Ray Chapman wasn't with them. He was hit by a pitch in a game at Yankee Stadium on August 16, 1920, and died early the next morning.

They brought his body back to Cleveland and buried it in Lake View Cemetery, one of the world's greatest boneyards. I shit you not: Lake View holds more than 100,000 former people, sits on 285 gorgeous acres, and is the resting place of James Garfield; Eliot Ness; John D. Rockefeller; Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city; and the ashes of the finest writer Cleveland has ever produced, Harvey Pekar. It always was one of my favorite places to get high and — far, far less often — laid.

Ray Chapman's grave is hard to find. The granite monument that marks it — paid for back in the day by donations from fans — simply bears his full name, Raymond Johnson Chapman, along with the years of his birth and his death, 1891-1920. Joey had never visited, but he figured it couldn't hurt to pay homage in the fall of '97 before the Tribe took the field down in Florida to play the deciding game against the Marlins.

He found the grave in an old section of Lake View, near the Euclid Avenue gate, spotted it standing by itself amid a row of unraised markers. As he walked toward it, he saw something else: the top of Chapman's headstone was covered end to end with the coins of the Cleveland fans who'd already made the same Game 7 pilgrimage.

The story ends, naturally, with Jose fucking Mesa blowing his third save of the Series in the ninth inning. It ends with the Tribe losing, 3-2, in the eleventh, on an unearned run after an error by Tony "Feh" Fernandez on a routine ground ball to second base. It ended for me in the rocking chair in North Jersey — with my wife Lisa trying to console me. I told her the same thing I always tell her in those moments: I'm good. I'm used to this shit from a long way back. I'll wake up tomorrow morning with you next to me, a job I love, cash in my wallet, and money in the bank. You want to feel sorry for somebody? Feel for those poor fucks in Cleveland who were ready to head downtown and revel for the first time in their lives in the only joy strong and wide enough to bridge — to transcend — 50 years of collective civic misery.

***

Ray Chapman was twenty-nine when he died. He was a jug-eared kid from Beaver Dam, Kentucky, who still kept his United Mine Workers card in his wallet after eight seasons in the majors. In The Pitch That Killed, one of the greatest baseball books ever written, Mike Sowell notes that when Chapman's salary was bumped up to $3,500, Ray bought himself silk shirts and handmade suits. Pro baseball was a business then, too, far uglier in crucial ways than today: The year before Chapman died, the Black Sox had thrown the World Series. But for a poor boy born into a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence, making a living by playing the game had to feel like nothing short of a miracle.

LeBron James was born into blight on the west side of Akron, and the fact that the world of professional sports had been transformed into a carnival of global scope by the time he came along hardly negates the astonishing nature of his flight to riches and glory. It happens to poor boys in other sports and from other tribes; once upon a time, Jews dominated pro boxing and basketball in America.

James did not choose to be born in Akron, and did not choose to play for the Cavs when he entered the NBA: The team tanked shamefully during the season to improve its draft position, chose him, and that was that. It never was clear that LeBron wanted to play for Cleveland in the first place, and he made plain — in word and deed — his desire to maximize his future options when his rookie contract expired and he chose to sign a three-year deal rather than four, or five, or six.

Looking back ... fuck. Fuck. Listen: I don't want to return to Ray Chapman's era. I believe in free will, free lunch, and free agency. I believe I can offer no more than an educated guess at what's in my long-fingered wife's heart, or my sweet young son's — or, frankly, my dog's. Too many days even now, pushing toward 60, I remain a stranger to myself.

What then can I read upon the stone heart of LeBron? What can I learn from the odyssey of a black kid, sprung from the loins of a teen mama, fatherless save for the seed of himself, who was a rock star at the age of 15, with girls lining up to lay naked with him just so that years later they could boast to their boyfriends that they had boffed King James?

That he's an asshole? I knew he was an asshole years before he became a free agent. The whining and ref-baiting; the tough-guy scowling and bicep flexing belied in every instance his failure to step up for a cheap-shotted teammate; his ludicrous sideline dancing in the fourth quarter of Cavs' routs: He is a hideously poor sportsman and more adept each season at acting every inch the prima donna bitch.

But despite all of that — and the Yankees cap at Jacobs Field, and the refusal to commit to a longer contract that would've relieved some of the win-now pressure on the front office, and the disillusioning up-close view of an entire organization warped to fit his whims — despite it all, he is still my asshole.

Our asshole.

I never loved Lake Erie any less when it stank of piscine death. I didn't have Chief Wahoo tattoed on my left arm in tribute to Albert Belle's integrity and Manny's mental hygiene. And I didn't have to like the Whore of Akron just to love him. His game, great as it was, was only part of our intoxication. Because he was one of us, a landsman, son of the same soil, a member of the tribe.

None of this makes LeBron's final performance against the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs — not only his play, but also his comportment — easier to explain or excuse. Quite the opposite: For fans whose bond to the spirit of Cleveland sports is a legacy dating back a century, bequeathed by a father and grandfather, it was a betrayal most profound. It was stupid and selfish enough to call attention to his elbow; had he not shot a free throw left-handed in the Bulls game, nobody outside of the team itself would have known about what was a minor injury. It was beyond stupidity and selfishness to tell the fans that they had been spoiled by his excellence. It wasn't only Clevelanders who watched LeBron James choke and quit. He brought disgrace and dishonor upon the city, and that went far past the game: It went straight to the heart and soul — his heart, his soul.

And yet, and yet, and yet, and yet. The same fans famished by decades of defeat, still so full of hope and hunger that they paid homage by the hundreds at the grave of a ballplayer few of their fathers had been alive to see play: Who among us hopes LeBron will walk away from the Cleveland Cavaliers?

***

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