The old adage says that the clothes make the man. It's as practical and self-evident as advice gets. Don't wear a jumpsuit to a wedding unless Britney Spears is involved. If you're going on a date, bypass the tattered T-shirt and sweatpants for something clean and slick. Simply: Dress to impress.
What the adage doesn't tell you, though, is that outward appearances can be deceiving, and because visual recognition is so powerful, what you perceive can hold great sway over your general opinion of a person.
Take superheroes, for example. Superman is less spectacular without the cape. Spider-Man is just some scrawny photographer without his costume. Not only does the garb distinguish the hero from the ordinary person, but the clothes are also powerful nonverbal messages to the public.
This brings us to LeBron James and Kelly Pavlik, the two biggest athletic superheroes in Northeast Ohio, and the differences in perception between the King and the Ghost, or in this case, Bruce Wayne and Batman.
If you've seen Kelly Pavlik featured on ESPN, or even just glanced at pictures from his fights, you know that he is from Youngstown. He's constantly photographed wearing "Defend Youngstown" T-shirts emblazoned with a steelworker wielding a sledgehammer, and in the ring he usually wears trunks featuring the Youngstown State penguin and the Ohio State logo.
When Clevelanders look at LeBron, they want to see something similar. They want Captain Cleveland. They want their own Rust Belt hero - a powerful guy with a chip on his shoulder who gets all his magical powers from the Cuyahoga, swinging the Terminal Tower against anyone who should dare disparage the Forest City. Instead he dons Yankees hats, Cowboys shirts, Gucci suits, and anything and everything from his line of Nike gear. While the rancor caused by King James' choice of apparel can be attributed to any number of emotional reactions - inferiority complex, betrayal, pride, etc. - it's hard to dispute that James would probably be perceived differently if he dressed the part of a hometown Cleveland/Akron boy.
But the very fact that LeBron's appearance is that of a worldwide icon makes me believe that he gets it and most Clevelanders don't.
Cleveland and Youngstown are more alike than any Clevelander is willing to admit. Both are Rust Belt cities with dying economies. Both are looking for heroes anywhere they can find them - in government, the arts, in sports. What has engendered such a worshipful response to Pavlik is not just the tangible things that he does for Youngstown - keeping his business there, staying at the same gym he grew up practicing in, drinking at the local dive bar - but also the fact that he looks like Captain Youngstown. He's the living symbol of a dead past that everyone hopes will come back. We do that here too. We like to believe Cleveland can be saved by puffing out its chest and isolating itself from the globalizing effects of capitalism, somehow saying, "We have everything we need here."
LeBron, however, is the future - Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 companies bundled in a preternaturally athletic body and one of the savviest business minds to come out of professional sports. But while Pavlik has the support of every man, woman and child in Youngstown, whether they watch boxing or not, LeBron lacks that stranglehold over the Cleveland psyche, even battling for the support of Cavs fans because he's not a Tribe or Browns booster.
In King James, local fans see global multinational corporations, designer clothes they could never afford, a self-promoting millionaire who puts himself first and his city somewhere near the bottom of the list. They see a conglomerate they've long blamed for the loss of industrial jobs. LeBron might as well be the robber baron who shut down the mills and shipped jobs overseas.
This, of course, is not true. But it's all about appearances, and the man is judged by his clothes. What the public doesn't see is that the Rust Belt has long since failed its citizens, and it's time for some Silicon Valley. When you see Pavlik, you're tempted to believe that the steelworker on his shirt is real, and that he's going to come back one day, sledgehammer in hand, ready to get the mills working again. But that just won't happen. For all the good Pavlik has done, his wardrobe represents the same blind provincialism and complacency that has kept Rust Belt towns like Youngstown and Cleveland from emerging from their economic stupor.
Then there's LeBron, globetrotting in pursuit of a business model he knows can succeed, one that can actually help the city in measurable and substantial ways. But no one seems to give him the respect he deserves because they're all waiting for Superman to walk through the door. What they don't realize is that all the phone booths are gone, and they're never coming back.