“Just Show Up. Don’t Ask Questions”: An Oral History of the “Please Stay, LeBron” Video

Was Cleveland’s version of “We Are The World” inspiring or depressing? More importantly, does it even matter?

click to enlarge “Just Show Up. Don’t Ask Questions”: An Oral History of the “Please Stay, LeBron” Video
Christina Grozik

Picture it: Cleveland, Summer 2010. A 25-year-old LeBron James, coming off back-to-back years as the NBA’s MVP, had instilled hope that the franchise was close to breaking the city’s long championship drought. But his contract was almost up, and he was considering his options.

All across the nation, cities and teams clamored to be part of the next phase in James’s career. New York City’s then-mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had released a video asking James to “come write the next chapter in N.Y.C. basketball history.” There were billboards in Chicago with the URL SendLeBronToChicago.com. Behind the scenes, agents were working to create a superteam in Miami in an effort to get James there. (Spoiler alert: It worked.) But in Cleveland, the city and Cavs staff held out hope that surely James would do the right thing and stick around. Right? Right?

Comedian Mike Polk was all too familiar with Cleveland’s air of cautious optimism and/or lurking disaster. A Warren native who graduated from Kent State University, Polk first came to regional prominence in 2009, when his “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” poked fun at the city’s civic pride and jokingly asked tourists to “come and see both of our buildings.” In the summer of 2010, he was working at the now-defunct Break.com and was tasked with producing something about James’ impending decision.

The result was “Please Stay LeBron,” a video satirizing 1985’s “We Are The World,” which found mega-celebrities like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Bruce Springsteen teaming up for a charity single in an effort to raise money to combat hunger in Africa. For his hyper-local version, Polk enlisted a who’s who of Cleveland whos. But how did TV lawyer Tim Misny end up crooning next to ex-Cleveland Crunch goalie Otto Orf, and did participants actually think that singing Polk’s goofy song was actually going to play on James’s sense of regional pride? You’ll find all the answers in this, the oral history of “Please Stay LeBron.”


***

Mike Polk, comedian: At the time, I was briefly employed as a producer at website called Break.com that mostly trafficked in user-generated nut-kick videos, skateboard accident videos, and videos where dudes pulled pranks on their girlfriends by doing stuff like jumping out of laundry hampers while wearing the mask from Scream. It was based in L.A. but I remained in Cleveland. At the time, they were trying to move away from the user-generated content that made them popular, so they wanted to start producing their own content. The short-term results were mixed at best, and based on the fact that I just now tried to check out the site only to find that the domain is for sale, it appears the long-term results were worse.

The LeBron free agency was obviously a massive story at the time and anything LeBron-related was getting a lot of traffic. During a conference call meeting, one of the L.A. producers suggested making a video of random Clevelanders asking LeBron to stay. That morphed into someone suggesting that it be a song featuring recognizable Clevelanders. That turned into it becoming a "We Are The World" parody angle, probably because it was easier than writing an actual song. Once that was decided, I was tapped to produce it, less because of my producing skills and more because I was already in Cleveland and they wouldn't have to pay anyone to travel. So it became my project.

They allowed me to hire an on-the-ground field producer for the project. I had worked in the past with a really competent producer named Christina Grozik. She and I came up with a list of people we wanted and she tracked down as many of them as she could. She was a dynamo and enormously effective.

Christina Grozik, producer: Everything came together very quickly. I don't recall what the timeframe was that we had to work with, but I know we did not have much time to organize it. We just tried to identify whoever was kind of a local Cleveland celebrity.

Polk: I remember being impressed by her ability to get people there despite what must have been a fairly odd-sounding pitch.

Outreach included a letter, which opened with the gist of the project:

“Currently, the first thing people ask you if you tell them you're from Cleveland is, 'Do you think LeBron is going to leave?' We would love to respond with a confident 'No,' but the truth is, we can't really be sure. One thing is certain, we'd like him to stay. He has brought new life to downtown and a certain enthusiasm to our streets.So rather than just sit here and wait for his decision, we've decided to make a small gesture to do something about it. We are organizing a comedic, but sincere tribute to LeBron James in the form of a 'We Are The World' parody video. It will feature prominent Clevelanders performing a song entitled 'Please Stay LeBron.' We would love for you to be involved. This event in all likelihood will garner national attention. All participants would have to do is donate a bit of their time. We'll do the rest.”

Grozik: We had a really good number of people saying yes right off the bat. We got very, very lucky. I think, originally, when the idea came about, Mike had been thinking of using maybe ten people or less, but we ended up being like, “Are you up for making this bigger than that?” We didn't have a lot of time, but he said, “Well, if you think we can do that, then let's try to do that.” So that's what we did.

Polk: The goal was simply to get everyone in frame and get out of the CSU auditorium before our allotted time had expired.

I don't remember what kind of a budget they gave us but it was enough that I was able to hire a decent number of my friends who do production work for the day of the shoot.

Meanwhile, all around Cleveland, local celebrities and dignitaries were getting invited to participate in the video. Some knew Polk or knew he was involved, so they went into the video thinking it was poking fun at the whole James situation.

Scott Miller, former morning show host, WNCX: Mike reached out to me and [my co-host Jeff Blanchard] and said, “I’ve got a stupid idea. It's gonna be fun. Just show up, don't ask questions.” And literally, that's kind of how it went.

Tim Misny, attorney: Mike Polk did a spoof where he put on a plastic skullcap and did a Tim Misny commercial. That was really funny. He'd say, “if someone hits you with a shovel, I'll hit them with a bigger shovel.” You know, that sort of thing.

I sent him an email and said, “You're a comic genius. You made me laugh so hard that I didn't feel like suing anyone for a whole seven minutes.” So we became friends and he asked me to be in the video.

Colin Dussault, frontman, Colin Dussault’s Blues Project: Mike Polk and I were familiar with each other just from being on the Cleveland entertainment scene. Upon hearing about what it was, I immediately saw the tongue in cheek nature of it. I understood it and appreciated the fact that it was a parody and was going to be in good fun, so I immediately said, “Absolutely.”

Otto Orf, former goalie, Cleveland Crunch and Cleveland Force: A friend of mine mentioned me to Mike Polk and then told me to head downtown from Kent where I live. I left immediately after throwing on a shirt with our team’s logo.

Avery Friedman, attorney: I remember two people calling, but it wasn’t until I got a third call from Carl Monday that I took notice. He said, “You really should be there, you know?” I said, “Are you gonna go,” and he said, “Yeah,” and so I said, “Well then I’ll be there.”

John Caparulo, comedian: My girlfriend at the time—she's my wife now—she’s good friends with Mike. When they were putting it together, she had just moved out to Los Angeles to live with me. Maybe it was before she even moved out. But either way, I remember her asking me on their behalf and saying, “They'll send a camera crew out.”

Miller: We knew that LeBron was good. Would he be leaving? We didn't know. Would he come back? We didn't know. Would he bring us a championship? We didn't know. We were just in the moment.

It was just like, “Yeah, this sounds like something really stupid, so let's do it.”

click to enlarge “Just Show Up. Don’t Ask Questions”: An Oral History of the “Please Stay, LeBron” Video
Christina Grozik

Others, for whatever reason, went into the shoot thinking that it was entirely in earnest and that, as a group, they were going to sing a song with the aim of getting James to stay in Cleveland.

Patricia Britt, City Clerk, Clerk Of Council: In 2008, I became the Clerk of Council, which is managing the staff of the City Council. As far as I can remember, I was contacted by a young woman (Grozik) that I’d first met when they made one of the Marvel movies here. She contacted me and said that they wanted to do a performance that would ask LeBron to stay in Cleveland. That's how I got involved.

Zack Reed, former member, Cleveland City Council: Mike and I worked at WTAM together. Mike's like me. We love Cleveland. We love the people in Cleveland. We love the direction that Cleveland's going and hey, whatever we can do to make Cleveland go to the next level, we're gonna do it.

Britt: I think we saw ourselves as… I hate to use the word “missionaries” because I'm not that religious, but I think we saw ourselves as being on this mission to convince [James] to stay. If he had all these adoring fans, certainly he wouldn’t leave us.

Peter Lawson Jones, actor and former Cuyahoga County Commissioner: [Getting James to stay] was the ultimate objective. It was both plaintive and joyful, and we had some degree of optimism and hope that this would be particularly effective and affecting, when it came to encouraging LeBron James to stay in Cleveland and not take his skills to South Beach or anywhere else. So there was optimism, ebullience, excitement, and a joy in the room. We really felt that this kind of community outpouring might make a difference in his decision.

Bill Martin, former anchor, Fox 8: I didn't think it was going to work, but why not give it a shot? Why not try?

Friedman: I'm not really sure that there's a plausible downside of having made that effort.

Polk: It's not surprising that the response was divided. I think people were probably there for different reasons.

Jeff Blanchard, former morning show host, WNCX: I’ve been friends with Mike Polk for years. His tongue was firmly planted in his cheek with this, but I think, judging by the atmosphere when we got there, that the joke was lost on a lot of people. It was a serious project all of the sudden.

click to enlarge “Just Show Up. Don’t Ask Questions”: An Oral History of the “Please Stay, LeBron” Video
Christina Grozik

Regardless of the reason they were there, everyone in attendance seemed to agree that it was a unique and special opportunity.

Orf: There was a lot of energy in the air.

Jones: It was the equivalent of being invited to sit at the cool kids table. Those who were invited to participate in this choir represented some of the more prominent people politically, in the legal world, in entertainment, and in news in Northeast Ohio.

Reed: ​It was an exciting time in the city, with the Cavaliers being one of the best teams in the league. Having the opportunity to ask LeBron to stay, for a guy like me, was fantastic. And then to see the people that they assemble and see people you've looked up to and people you've known just from afar? To know you're going to be on stage with the opportunity to participate in something that was that important really made me feel like I was somebody in the city of Cleveland.

Dussault: It was cool to be lumped into the category with some of those quote-unquote “Cleveland celebrities.” Every market’s got the late night TV commercials that are so annoying that they're classic. In Cleveland, that's the furniture guy and Misny, the lawyer, and if I'm down the line being a musician, I don't mind.

Blanchard: [Polk] got the governor of Ohio for the video. I mean, [Ted Strickland] wasn’t necessarily our greatest governor, but he was still there. The idea that Mike [Polk] is putting together a comedy video, and he gets the governor to drive up from Columbus to sing? You can say whatever you want, but he still got the governor.

Grozik: I had just been working as the director for the Ohio Film Office, so that’s how we were able to get the governor to do it. We were very fortunate that his scheduler was willing to carve some time out, because I know his schedule was pretty busy.

Ted Strickland, former governor of Ohio: I'm a great admirer of LeBron James. In fact, there was a huge banner hanging on the side of one of the buildings up there and the federal transportation administration said that it had to come down because it was too visible from the interstate or something to that effect. I went up there in the dead of winter and sat across the street from that banner and had a little press conference. I said, “That's not coming down, because it’s not an advertisement. It's art.” I got this really nice letter from LeBron thanking me for that and saying, “If I could ever be helpful to you let me know.”

Of course, I never asked him for anything, but I always admired him and thought he was a valuable asset to Cleveland, and to all of Ohio. And so as he was contemplating his decision, this effort came to my attention, and I thought it would be kind of fun to participate.

Caparulo: It's cool to see that they got all the people that they got, whether it was news anchors or people like Big Chuck. For me, it was just cool to see all of these people that I grew up seeing, these local celebrities, and then to actually be included with those people? That was a surreal thing for me. To know, “Wow, they actually care that I’m in this video so much that they’re going to send camera people to shoot me in Los Angeles”? There was no way I was going to say no to that, because I was honored to be a part of it.

The Cleveland shoot took place in a studio at CSU. Though some participants likened the actual experience of shooting the video to “herding cats,” Grosik and Polk remember the shoot going incredibly smoothly, all things considered.

Polk: I remember the shoot day being a stressful but fun clusterfuck.

Grosik: When you bring people together, there's this collaboration and this collectiveness that happens, and when it's something that people believe in and they're excited about, there's a certain energy that goes with that. There were all kinds of people from different sections of life, talking with one another and sharing stories. There were new people meeting for the first time, and they all had this common reason for being there. That shoot just naturally brought people together.

Bill Louis, former Program Director, WNCX: It was a truly bizarre evening. There were people from all walks of life. It was bizarre just looking around and seeing the lawyers and the politicians and Dick Goddard. Tim Misny came in a big old trench coat, wearing a beret. Apparently he wears that a lot, but for a second I thought it was the guy from Night Court.

click to enlarge “Just Show Up. Don’t Ask Questions”: An Oral History of the “Please Stay, LeBron” Video
Christina Grozik

It was as much of a treat for the eyes as it was for the soul.

Britt: All of these people were just milling around. We were running up and down the aisle, seeing people we knew and going to talk to them and then coming back and being seated because we were waiting on some sort of instruction as to how it was going to go.

At one point, I think somebody asked for people who wanted to do a little bit of a lead or a solo part, and I remember saying yes. I don’t remember why I said yes, though, because I only sing in the bathtub.

Miller: We started to see some bodies trickling in. Some were head-scratchers. Then we got the lyric sheets and went through it. It really wasn't a long or crazy process. In hindsight, we all took it too seriously. We were trying to actually sing and stay on key and time and everything else. Really, the bottom line was that you have a bunch of non professional singers grabbing a lyric sheet and just going at it.

Strickland: It was a communal experience. We were all from different places in our lives as we stood there and sang that song, but we were united in our appreciation for LeBron James.

Dussault: Basically, we're all reading off the script on camera. I think they just brought me in because they knew I could sing on pitch.

Britt: The people who were doing a solo would go into a room one at a time, and they would do whatever it was, and then someone else would go, and then someone was organizing people in another section. So it was like watching this thing in pieces and parts, and then finally coming together to sing the song as a group.

I remember going through my part probably eight times. They kept asking me, “Can you sing a little bit louder?,” and I was just thinking, “No, because if I sing louder, people will know I can’t sing.”

Louis: We were all sober at the time, sadly, which I would never do again. If I had to do this over, I would have had a few before.

Miller: Certainly no one had any expectation that our little song and video were going to sway LeBron in any way, shape, or form. It was more that we got to be part of something really stupid. It was really an Animal House moment. Like, this is going to take an act of sheer stupidity, and we’re just the guys to do it.

The shoot was over pretty quickly, whether it was because, as Polk speculates, they had to get out of their rented room on time or because of the clip’s simple conceit. Most participants estimate they ran through the whole thing as a group only five or so times, and then shuttled people in and out based on their groups and parts in the song.

Not everyone in the video was famous—or Cleveland famous. The production was staffed by a number of film students from Kent State, all of whom were working for free, just so they could have a credit to put on their resume. Their professor, Traci Williams, was seven months pregnant at the time, but came to participate in the shoot as a background vocalist. She also brought her 3-year-old son.

Traci Williams: It was fun. I just remember having a good time. I remember Dick Goddard just really liked my son a lot. In the video, he’s actually holding my son.

My son was sitting next to me looking around and all of a sudden, Dick Goddard was like, “Aidan! Aidan! Come and do this with me!” So that’s why he’s part of the video, because Dick Goddard called him down there to do it with him. I told [Goddard] that Aidan was heavy, because you can kind of see it in his face. I was like, “Are you sure?,” but he was like, “I got it, I got it.” And so I said okay, because Aidan was so happy.

My son still remembers Dick Goddard. When he passed, he was really sad.

Misny: We brought my younger son Max with us and he was about a year old. He’s in the video, too. He's that little guy being held up by some firemen.

Grozik: I loved being able to see people come together and have this experience that they will forever have together. So no, I never got sick of the song. It’s a great song.

I've had people tell me that, “I met so and so, and I didn’t know them before that day,” but now they're on friendly terms.

It's inspiring to see people come together. I think there are certain ways that you can unite people for a cause, and some are more positive than others. Getting together and singing a song collectively is a great way to have your voice heard, and it’s positive. It was just a fun experience for everyone.

Martin: There’s a sense of community that Cleveland has, like “We're in this together.” That's what I remember about doing that video. Nothing may happen from this, but at least we're all together.

Reed: I can't think of another city that would look at one of their superstars like that and put something together saying, “Please stay,” and have fun doing it.

When the video dropped, it was a quick success, drawing over a million views on Break.com. Considering Polk says the goal of the clip was “unequivocally [to get] web traffic,” those were big numbers. Those numbers also meant that the video was reaching a wider audience than just the city of Cleveland. That meant reactions were a bit of a mixed bag. Most Clevelanders understood Polk’s tongue-in-cheek intention, but outsiders tended to view the clip as a sincerely sad attempt to woo back a star that had outgrown the city’s potential spotlight.

Polk: When it went up on Break.com, it did really well as far as viewership. I have no clue how many of those viewers were watching it for sincere purposes and how many were watching it ironically, but I don't think the Break people cared as long as those 10 second ads for Axe Body Spray kept pre-rolling before people saw it.

Misny: I get the New York Times delivered to my home every day. One day I went out, and it's like a scene from The Sopranos, with Tony walking down to his mailbox, in his robe, drinking a coffee, a little hungover from the night before. I got the paper out of the mailbox and I glanced at it, and oh my God, there’s my picture on the front page of The New York Times. I had to do a double take.

It was for an article about the effort that we were making, and that other cities had made, like New York and the Knicks. Everyone had all their local stars working on this, like Patti Labelle and Spike Lee, and we had Mike Polk, Dick Goddard, and a fireman.

Blanchard: Over the years, some people got it, but the amount of derision that this silly parody video got – “They're just pleading and begging" and "It makes everyone look bad?" That's like saying, "’Weird Al’ Yankovic wants to be Madonna." It was apparent to me it was just a joke.

I do think the reason that it might come off as pandering or thirsty is because when you get that many people involved in a project, not every one of them is going to look at it the same way or with the same intention that the seed of the idea started with. I'm sure there were people there thinking, “This is gonna get him back.”

Polk: Not long after it surpassed a million hits, it was taken down for violating copyright. I think it was Quincy Jones' production company who flagged it because they owned the rights to “We Are The World.” I remember at the time Break briefly considered fighting it but then decided that they had already gotten what they wanted from the video so they let it slide. I personally had no complaints about its removal and will always feel slightly indebted to Quincy Jones' legal team.

Regardless of how the video was received outside of Cleveland, watching it years later, it’s a good (and funny) reminder of the city’s resilience and self-deference. True Clevelanders know the campy joy of a Norton Furniture commercial, and they also know the pain of always feeling like greatness is out of reach. That’s part of what makes “Please Stay, LeBron” such a success, in some sense: It’s for Clevelanders, by Clevelanders, and there’s some germ of truth in there for all of us.

Caparulo: You have to earn your right to make fun of something. Growing up, I was never a Cavs fan, but I was always a Browns fan. I obviously got the idea of this video and the desperate plea for LeBron to stay because I remember what it was like when the Browns left. I remembered how big of a deal it was.

So, for me, the video was sort of a two-fold thing. It’s funny to cling on and desperately want to keep this guy, but there was also some truth to it, where it’s just like “Please, stick with us.” It’s really clever. Mike’s always good for that.

Friedman: For me, that video was a link from Cleveland to the rest of the world. It was our way of saying, “So long. Hey, thanks a lot.”

Sherrod Brown, U.S. Senator: I’m proud to be from Northeast Ohio—that’s something that LeBron James and I share. We all know LeBron is not playing for Cleveland anymore, but his departure left an opening for new heroes—in sports, in science, in manufacturing, in the arts. There’s so much talent in Cleveland and I’m looking forward to what all of the next kids from Akron or Cleveland or Canton will do.

Strickland: It was fun. It was communal. It was a way for the Greater Cleveland area and all of Ohio to express our feelings about LeBron and the message was true. Cleveland needs Lebron, whether he's physically in the city or somewhere else in the country. He's closely identified with northeastern Ohio and Ohio values and Ohioans have a right to be exceedingly proud of him.

Martin: That's what I’ve always loved about Cleveland. We're not winning anything, but we're resilient. We're happy at our core, and we're generous people. There was an idea that, maybe If we can put all that stuff together, it'll create something positive and LeBron will stay. Of course, he had other ideas and wanted to take off, but he did come back. And we did win.

Orf: When LeBron returns one more time, then the story will be complete. [sings] “Come home, Lebron…”
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