I left Cleveland to go to writing school in Iowa in 1984. I always figured I'd come back to live, but my first wife, a westside girl I met at CSU, got into med school in Iowa, and we moved to Philly for her residency, and I started to work for men's magazines in 1993, moved to North Jersey, and wound up at Esquire for almost 20 years.
I mention this because, through a series of astonishing events having vastly more to do with luck than talent or, heaven fucking knows, goodness, I've managed to write two books framed by LeBron and Cleveland sports, and to help make Believeland into a 30X30. I'm not blind to the miracles involved here, nor to the ironies of my own self-exile, but I got a fortune cookie last week that told me, "Analyze only when necessary," and it's staring at me as I type.
Truth is, you already know all the truth there is to truly know:
The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
LeBron is the GOAT.
The rest of it is myth. Enjoy.
Excerpted with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, from You're Welcome, Cleveland; How I Helped LeBron James Win a Championship and Save a City. On sale Feb. 28.
Chapter 6: Yom Kippur
It's 448 miles direct from the Q to my driveway in New Jersey, 311 of them through Pennsylvania, on Interstate 80. I don't often drive it by night these days. My eyes have dimmed, my reactions have slowed, and I'm not in a hurry. Yom Kippur starts at sunset the day after tomorrow; I have time. And it's deer season, when I-80 abounds with grim, antlered Death.
I'm not insane. The truth is out there. More than a million motor vehicles per year hit deer in the United States; the number's climbing. Pennsylvania ranks fourth or fifth, depending on the study, in deer-related accidents per driver. Nationwide, car-deer crashes kill an average of two hundred people per year. September and October are the most perilous months, dusk and dawn the most dangerous hours. A Pennsylvania driver's approximate chance of hitting a deer during the course of a year is one in seventy.
And yet the highway beckons. The highway has sung to me since 1960, when Sandy and I drove from Cleveland to Los Angeles, mainly on the Mother Road: Route 66. No man is truly author of his fate, but Sandy tried, as all men must, and moved Lucille and three sons—I am the oldest—out west to find his fortune, which turned out to be a long war with severe bipolar disorder. Lucille and my wee brothers flew. I was eight and rode with him across America.
Never had I been so happy as a son, side by side with him, a thirty-three-year-old recently retired carpet-and-tile-store manager driving a 1954 Ford, with his eight-year-old son, a husky boy with a yellow T-shirt, powder-blue shorts hiked to the waist, and orthopedic shoes. In the few photos I have from the trip, I'm wearing his watch, its flexible band shoved up my chubby arm. We are men on the road, on our own, on the move, free of time and place.
That highway song, unlike the rest of me, has not grown old. Six hours until dawn, when those homicidal antlered pricks start foraging, and so I—exulting in wine-and-gold bliss, oozing manhood, and, not least, craving my wife and her vegan chili—ease into the Accord, cautious not to torque my manly back, and go.
An hour east of Cleveland, I pass the Lordstown plant, where the local UAW workers' uprising of 1972 failed to ignite the struggle that might've changed the fate of assembly-line workers crushed by automation and Japanese competition. After three weeks, national union leaders, fearing that other locals might rise up, connived with GM to sell them out. Back then, 7,000 Lordstown workers built the Chevy Vega, an especially ugly and unsafe car. These days, 4,500 produce Cruzes, and half of the vast parking lot is now filled with solar panels, not cars.
Comes the long curve into PA, and the night grows darker as the woods grow thick. Past Oil City, Emlenton, and Knox—out there past the tree line, folks are home in bed, but onward rides this laptop warrior, on past Clarion, past Brookville and DuBois, and on to Clearfield, exit 120—just past I-80's high point east of the Mississippi, a towering 2,250 feet above sea level.
The night is velvet, endless. I swap Van Morrison for London Calling and reflect on the Lordstown wildcatters. Youngstown, Akron, Cleveland—proud cities, filled with household heroes, crawling to achieve self-creation before we vanish. We yearn to live right—we're not animals here, after all, whatever our excuses—but we are the very same creatures who ate from the Tree of Knowledge and needed a Maker to command us not only not to kill each other, but merely to honor our own parents.
Ach. Fate is not an open highway—it's Death's turnpike. It's Mile Run, with no services plastered across the exit 199 sign. The road may stay time, but not the jug of coffee I grabbed at the Clearfield CoGo's. I carry a note in my wallet from a urologist, in case the law's long arm espies my short third leg, but I'd rather soil my drawers than urinate on the side of an interstate. Death or glory, my ass.
No services. The prostate swells. Soon or late, each man becomes Polonius, and trust me on this: your prostate is not your friend. We are finally ruled by powers beyond our power—by love, by death, by metaphysics and biochemistry. Our work is to manage our dread, to let our hearts go, to call forth whatever love we can muster. We work to earn more than a living wage. We work to earn our living. We work to make it to exit 224.
LeBron and Lee Jenkins said, "In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have." This is no less true in every corner of the world, but here it is the credo of the disrespected, a fundament of the religion of resentment. The worth, spiritual and economic, of even a sad-sack team to a Rust Belt riven by race and class and economic ruin, hope and jobs gone, abandoned and ignored, is beyond my power to calculate. A championship? Reveling in public glory? The feeling is beyond my power to imagine, even in the darkness of I-80.
If LeBron can win a crown for Cleveland, anything's possible. Even some of the pissant savants who think the league began play when they were boys might finally admit that Michael Jordan is the second-greatest player of all time.
Just to be clear, I lived in Iowa City from 1984 to 1991—seven years that felt like seventy—where SportsChannel Chicago was on the cable menu, so I watched nearly every Bulls game, suffered through Red Kerr and Jim Durham calling his dazzling youth with breathless lust. But this is not about that, or The Shot, his buzzer-beater that tore out the heart of one of the best pre-LeBron Cavs teams, in 1989.
Michael was otherworldly, but it does his greatness no disservice to recall that he came into the NBA after three years' study under Dean Smith at UNC; that his Bulls teams got dropped in the first round of the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, and never got further until Scottie Pippen showed up. Even then—with two Hall of Fame–bound prodigies—the Bulls were curb-stomped for three years more by the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then Detroit's Bad Boys fell into decrepitude, and Michael Jordan began harvesting rings in an NBA diluted by expansion, facing no true rival, and became, by unanimous consent, the GOAT.
Bosh. Believe it or not, there was an NBA before you were born, with players as great as Michael Jordan. I saw Oscar when his Cincinnati Royals played a slate of home games at the old Cleveland Arena, rubble now, on Euclid Avenue. I saw Chamberlain and Russell, and Elgin Baylor, an early version of early LeBron. I saw Kareem, the greatest big man, back when he was Lew Alcindor, battling old Wilt in the low post, in 1969.
It's hard to compare epochs with your eyes, and hard to normalize performance metrics across generations. But it is true beyond dispute that, in toto, the best athletes get better over time, in every sport. LeBron James is the finest basketball player ever. In The Whore, where I spit upon his heart, I said the same—because it was the truth, because that's why losing him hurt so much. His size, speed, and strength; his focus, vision, and intelligence; his tolerance for hard contact and his durability; his ability to attack or defend any opponent, to find every open teammate and get him the ball—he is the purest player ANY of you have ever seen.
I kiss the rings. No Cleveland fan disparages the rings. But don't count Michael's six and discount Bill Russell's eleven. And don't remind me that Michael's Bulls never lost an NBA Finals unless you recall he won ALL of them with Scottie beside him and Phil Jackson on the bench.
LeBron had no Pippen; he had Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, Larry Hughes and Mo Williams, Sasha Pavlovic and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He didn't play under Dean Smith and Phil Jackson; he came to the NBA from high school, and he was coached by Paul Silas and Mike Brown. The season after LeBron left, the Cavs won FORTY-TWO fewer games. When Michael left the Bulls, their win total dropped by two.
I saw Michael bend the NBA to his craft and his will, and I've watched LeBron do the same while not punching teammates, taking thirty shots a game, and hiding behind "Republicans buy shoes, too" every time he was asked a nonbasketball question. If you care about the truth, study the metrics—win shares, VORP, whatever lights up your mom's basement—and you'll see them running neck and neck, Black Jesus and King James. And only one of them is still playing.
AT LAST EXIT 224, Danville. There's a Best Western, and, better, a men's room close to the front desk. Best of all, the Geisinger Medical Center is right there, in case of a nondeer emergency. Three or four hours of sleep, 126 miles more, and I'm home. I shall wake at dawn, roll over, and go back to sleep until the sun has fully risen and the deer are done with breakfast. If I time it right, I'll miss the hellish morning rush hour in East Stroudsburg, a mile before I-80 ducks south past the ridge of the Delaware Water Gap and exits Pennsylvania.
Thanks to good bad luck and Chekhov's sound advice, I run over the deer with my name on it just past Buckhorn, exit 232, not long after it already has been killed and somewhat flattened, a young buck in stately, plump repose sideways across the right lane. I don't see it until I'm too close to swerve, which is inadvisable in any case. The Accord jolts twice in quick succession as its tires hit the corpse, but holds steady.
MOTHERFUCK. I'm not dragging anything I can hear, feel, or smell, and I need an oil change anyway—I'll ask the dealership to power-wash the undercarriage while they're at it. I drive on. I can almost taste Lisa's vegan chili, thick with bulgur, aflame with spice. She waits in North Jersey, my Penelope, my Molly Bloom, my Ruth, my Julia Child. If I don't hit another deer, I can make it home before the kid gets out of school.
THE DAY OF ATONEMENT, the highest of the High Holy Days, a.k.a. the Days of Awe, a.k.a. the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah to the Big Kip. The rules are simple: go to shul to pray, abstain from food and drink for twenty-four hours, sundown to sundown, and, uh, repent.
I am sitting in a Presbyterian church in Montclair, New Jersey. Our synagogue, Bnai Keshet, outgrew its chapel years ago for High Holiday services. On Yom Kippur, the day Elohim inscribes your name in the Book of Life—or doesn't inscribe it; Judaism gives no gimmes—even the least pious Jew makes a cameo, and sits next to my wife.
She's a Jew named Elizabeth Riley Brennan—a convert. Lisa was a self-exiled Catholic, and when we conceived a child, we went with Jew. It wasn't a religious or spiritual choice to me; it didn't feel like a choice at all. I'll grapple lifelong with my higher power, whom today I choose to call Lisa, but I'm no monotheism enthusiast. Yet I love Jews, love being a Jew, and there are few enough of us in the world that I wanted my son to know that he is the son of a member of the tribe.
The rabbi wears white, because purification. He is a splendid rabbi, a learned, gentle young Warriors fan from Northern California. The congregants, too, are exemplary: leftist Jews of various shades and gender blends and ages, so many faces aglow with kind spirit—I can't stand it. Maybe because the Jews who raised me once slapped the gum out of my mouth on Yom Kippur, when I was fresh from Los Angeles and unfamiliar with the drill, I don't fast. I do hold grudges.
I don't fear G-d any more than I fear Frankenstein's monster. I fear humans. It seems to have turned out that while I strongly support the concept of Jews, I don't actually feel comfortable around them, not in a synagogue, and surely not in a goyische pew.
On the bright side, a small "Prayer Request" card, pale yellow, sits in the bookrack, offering the chance to be included in the pastor's prayers for "thanksgiving and intercession."
"In our prayers today, please pray for:" it reads, and there's space to write below, so with the pencil stub in the bookrack, I fill it in:
"(continue over, if needed)," it suggests, but I don't want to be one of those greedy Jews. I stick the Big Three up top, with Kyrie and Kev first, because they're prone to injury; Dion Waiters, because he is another young lottery pick struggling to find his purpose in the league beyond bricking threes and bawling "AND ONE!" whenever he tries to finish at the rim; and Anderson Varejão, an elder now, always injured, who spent his early year with the Cavs flopping backward in the face of the enemy, hard, looking to draw charging fouls, and now whiles away his waning seasons cashing paychecks and sitting on the bench.
Andy deserves a prayer, too.
I knew it was a long shot. I'd already tried the same thing at the Wailing Wall, in 1968, imploring Hashem to crown the Browns and the Indians—the Cavs did not yet exist—in the customary fashion, writing my wish on a tiny scrap of paper and wedging it into a crack between the massive stone blocks of the last remnant of the Second Temple. I had weathered five years of Orthodox hell by then, living with Lucille and my brothers in her parents' one-house shtetl in Cleveland Heights, while in Los Angeles, Sandy wed his Catholic lover and had a Catholic son. By 1968, I was fifteen and feral—ask my poor brothers—and my mother's extended family paid to send me to Eretz Yisrael for three months, in the hope that Masada and falafel might tame me.
Hah. All I gave a damn about was Cleveland sports. I didn't go to shul or pray. I gave no thought to politics or gods. I wrote irate letters to sports columnists, phoned bilious Sweet Pete Franklin's radio show to spew on-air. I knew no higher power.
Fatherhood at forty-seven tamed me. Being the apostate son of an apostate son tamed me. Fear tamed me, too. Now here I am, sheltering in the house of the Hebrew Hammer, my tallis drooping between my legs—and here, my son, here is my gift, your legacy: a jealous, trigger-happy Lord, circumcision, Yom Kippur, and Cleveland sports.
The kid's my kind of Jew: fiery, doubting. For his Bar Mitzvah, he had to explicate a Torah portion about Korach, a post-Exodus Levite leader who, for questioning Moses's authority as Yahweh's sole capo, was swallowed by the earth along with his family, friends, and land, with a fireball thrown in for good measure, immolating 250 of Korach's community, just to quiet any blowback.
Judah went pro-Korach in his d'var, deeming him "a noble man with good intentions," calling out Moses for snitching, and adding, "That does not sound like any G-d I want to worship."
The congregation wasn't thrilled, but I chose not to take it personally; I know where he learned his shtick. After we came home from seeing The Incredibles, when he was five, he looked poker-faced at me and said flat out, "Why couldn't you have been a superhero instead of a fat know-nothing, which is what you are?"
Wowed by know-nothing and unsure if I should slap or throttle him, I shouted for Lisa to come in from the kitchen and repeated his slander to her.
"JUDAH!" she hollered.
"What?" He shrugged, eyes wide, palms up. "I LOVE him."
JUDAH'S HERE, LISA'S HERE, and I'm feeling fresh, a worthy Jew—just look at this young Jew I helped make; look at his mother, an enlistee. I'm wearing my skullcap, mouthing what I can recall of the prayers, standing when instructed, though I'm still stiff from driving, and my right hip—ah, never mind. No tallis; I wore one for the bar mitzvah, but I'm not a prayer-shawl guy. Still, I'm a Jew in his shul with his wife and son on Yom Kippur. So inscribe me for one more year at least, O Master of the Universe, with Whom I hedge my bets. Sh'ma!
Shit. I entirely forgot about the martyrology service, an Ashkenazi prayer ritual begun centuries ago in remembrance of ten Talmudic sages slain by Hadrian after the Second Temple fell. What with history's surplus of butchered Jews, there are many other souls to mourn, and despite the cruel denial of my credentials, our martyr today is another writer, Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Karachi in 2002.
I did not know him, but at a Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair, New Jersey, a half hour from Manhattan, someone surely did. There is a handout stuck in our prayer books, both sides single spaced, kicking off with a poem for the "haunted, harried, persecuted souls / who never had a choice / who've huddled all together in a corner / and press each other still and quake."
No matter that the poet Chaim Bialik was writing about a blood libel–based, priest-led, two-day pogrom in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia, that started after Easter Sunday services in 1903 and ended with 120 dead Jews. They're all martyrs: the slaughtered sages, the suicidal zealots on Masada, the Six Million, Danny Pearl.
I'd rather think about the Cavs, whose preseason begins tomorrow night, than dwell upon my tribe's insistence on its unique historical victimhood. I get it. Lucille's father himself lost five brothers and their wives and children at Auschwitz, and I have prayed at Sobibor, a factory of slaughter. I get it, but I don't like it, don't like the way the Shoah has turned Judaism into a cult of skeletons and pity. By the time I was born, in 1952—seven years after the camps were liberated—two things, one of them true, had been made plain to every Hebrew American: Ashkenazi culture and history had been nearly erased, along with most of the world's living Jewry; and the Six Million were herded, meek as sheep, to the ovens.
It burned my father's ass that anyone thought of Jewish men as weak. Sandy came up hard on Kinsman Road, a ghetto of tradesmen, thugs, and Communists. His father was a two-bit Polish hood who left the house during the Great Depression and never came back. His mother, whose own depression lasted lifelong, gave Sandy, the youngest of five children, to her baby brother Julius Raab, né Rabinowitz, an MD with a side specialty performing abortions in the 1940s and '50s. Sandy liked to boast that both his fathers did time in federal prison, which they did. Willy Pelz went up the river to Lewisburg, exit 210A, for bootlegging; Doc Raab pled to tax evasion and did his stretch in Leavenworth.
Maybe Sandy overcompensated. He always owned a handgun and talked tough. He once told my brother Michael a story about punching a shipmate off the deck and into the drink for calling Sandy a kike. I never heard about that from him, but over the years I've met a lot of Jewish men my age who heard some version of that story from their fathers, uncles, or older cousins, set in the service or a steel mill or a tavern. Their tales, true or not, required no rabbinical interpretation.
Those soul-dead motherfuckers hate us.
Throw the first punch.
Martyr or be martyred.
Reconstructionist theology rejects the idea of the Jews as a Chosen People—too divisive. I can go either way, depending on the quality of the pastrami, but without illusion; now, as ever, the mass of humanity NEEDS us to blame.
"If you ever forget you're a Jew," wrote Malamud, "a gentile will remind you."
No need. I don't forget for a second that I live among human animals and their idiot gods. Let my son go forth open eyed into a world where people still worship the Jew as trickster, parasite, and scum, let him go in the spirit of tikkun olam, let him do his best to live right and heal humanity, armed always with a weapon or a plan.
THE SERVICE IS ENDLESS. My patience is not. I kiss my wife, nod at the kid, and leave. I pull this vanishing act every Yom Kippur. I get sweaty, hungry, angry, and I'm Judah's age again, fifteen, imprisoned in my family of birth. Let me go forth, sit on the steps outside, and settle down.
Yom Kippur. Pastrami. Danny Pearl. Chopped liver.
Atone. ATONE. ATONE.
That's when it hits me—sitting alone, apart from the congregation where I need no credentials to belong and to be loved, loathing my people as I loathe myself—that I owe LeBron James more than an overwritten apology, not for the sake of credentials, but for my soul. Judah has never read The Whore of Akron. As far as I know, he's never read anything I've written, and that's fine with me—there's stuff in there about me and Lisa we're all better off with him not knowing. I didn't think about that as I wrote an angry book. I did not think even once about hurting my own son. I'm a writer, damn it. The truth takes no prisoners. I speak my heart. All that crap. And now I realize that I also gave no thought to the insult and pain my words might inflict on LeBron's children someday.
My stomach churns. Enough fasting—it's already past noon. Inscribe me, don't inscribe me: I need chili. I am past atoning. I am not media, no longer even a fan. I'm a boil on the armpit of the finest athlete Northeast Ohio has ever grown.
Pariah. No man, Jew or gentile, is truly author of his fate, and so I shall roll with this.