Many people outside of the Rust Belt think of Cleveland, Ohio as a miserable, worthless town. At best, those people are ignorant; more likely, they are pompous jerks.
Cleveland is actually an amazing, diverse city nestled on the shore of Lake Erie filled with more depth and heart than you'll find pretty much anywhere else in this country. It has a thriving, eclectic music scene; more and more great films are being produced in Cleveland; it has some of the best medical facilities in the world. Its economy may be struggling- plenty of things in Cleveland are struggling- but that struggle makes Clevelanders among the most resilient people in this fine nation of ours. At the end of the day, the city of Cleveland is a great place to call home.
Sure, life in Cleveland can be rough. Sitting on the North Coast, winters can last from October through May; the weather alone is enough to drive most people mad. In order to survive this kind of life, you practically HAVE to embrace sports to keep your blood flowing. Indeed, Clevelanders are known as some of the most intense sports fans, even if the city is legendary for having some of the worst teams in professional sports.
Although Cleveland has professional baseball (Indians), football (Browns), and basketball (Cavaliers), the city hasn't won a national championship in any professional sport since 1964, when the Browns won the NFL Championship (before there was a Super Bowl). Occasionally one of the teams comes close, but they never close the deal.
But when a high school basketball phenonemon from nearby Akron named LeBron James graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in his JUNIOR YEAR, and then was signed to the Cavaliers in 2003, the city's luck seemed to be making a change for the better. Alas, even though James would lead the Cavs to the playoffs several times, even taking them to the Finals in 2007, he never brought that championship. Nonetheless, he promised to "bring an NBA championship to Cleveland, and I won't stop until I get it" in March, 2010.
Then he choked in the playoffs against the Celtics. Fair enough, he just needs to grow a bit, thought Cavaliers fans.
But then James orchestrated the most narcissistic, profoundly arrogant act of betrayal in sports history.
He entered into free agency in 2010, courting offers from practically every team in the NBA. He was, after all, one of the best players in the game. The whole time, though, he acted like of course he was going to stay in Cleveland, while never actually commiting to anything.
He drew this speculation out through the entire season and several days into free agency, until it was announced that he was going on ESPN, on an hour-long special that would culminate in him telling the world what team he'd be playing for the next season.
He chose the Miami Heat. Cleveland was not just devastated- doing this publicly humiliated Cleveland in front of the world.
Losing LeBron is a new documentary, directed by Allyson Sherlock and Nicole Prowell Hart, that explores the impact LeBron James's departure had on the city of Cleveland. It is hands-down the most insightful, genuine look at not just how sports and life in Cleveland are intertwined, but what it means to be a Clevelander.
The film opens, naturally, with the infamous kick-in-the-nuts known as "The Decision." Sherlock and Hart both spent a lot of time in Northeast Ohio growing up, so they know well what this meant to the city.
"I spent many years in Akron as a young woman," says Sherlock. "Akron is a place I consider home, and when LeBron made the decision, it felt like I got punched in the stomach. Even though I was living in Boston at the time, I knew first-hand how intensely people were hurting. LeBron was a big part of our family growing up, as my father and brothers would go to his high school games and rave about how amazing he was. When he became a Cavalier, it was a dream come true."
Hart agrees. "It was almost like getting dumped! A lot of people talk about the feeling of a girlfriend breaking up with you, using that metaphor. That's kind of what it felt like to us. It just felt totally unfair to the city, and the country's mocking them even more."
To be sure, Cleveland reacted with monumental bitterness (though reports of citywide jersey-burning were actually based on a small incident staged by a local radio host). Cavs owner Dan Gilbert went so far as to post a letter to Cleveland, where he called James' behavior a "cowardly betrayal," among other things. Gilbert knew the NBA would fine him for this, but he did it anyway, because Cleveland needed to know he felt our pain (and when the NBA did fine him, Cavs fans offered to help pay the $100k toll).
Growing up as basketball fans, with family still in Ohio, Sherlock and Hart followed the rise of James pretty closely. They also recognized how important sports can be to a city's identity. But it wasn't until they were at Emerson College that they considered doing a movie about this.
"The project came out in a homework assignment," says Hart, "for this producing class we were taking with a Hollywood producer. And the assignment was to pitch our dream documentary. Not to go out and actually make a movie, just practice pitching.
"So Allyson and I met up, and we were coming up with all these different ideas, and LeBron had just left a couple months prior. So we came up with this idea- never intending to actually make this movie- where we would have a camera crew follow LeBron's first season with Miami Heat, and another camera crew would follow the Cavs' first season without LeBron."
"Our idea started focusing a lot more on Cleveland," says Sherlock, "and how industrial cities tend to have such intense connections with their sports teams. Next thing you know, we pitched ourselves a sort of Roger & Me meets Hoop Dreams type piece."
"When we pitched it in the class," Hart continues, "our professor came up to us after, and said, 'You girls need to go to Cleveland, and make that movie.'
"And we were like, 'yeah, whatever, we're not going to Cleveland. We don't have any money; what are you talking about?!' But she kept persisting. The class would meet twice a week, and every time she'd ask, 'Are you gonna go? Are you gonna go? Are you gonna make this movie?'
"All the focus at that time was on LeBron, and how great this was gonna be for the Miami Heat, and nobody seemed to give a shit about Cleveland. They were just like, 'oh, poor losers! Fuck them.'
"And that really bothered us, because we had personal connections to Cleveland. We were also interested in examining in why Cleveland has such a negative reputation in our media and our society. We never understood it. I love going to Cleveland; I still do, I think it's an awesome place. We didn't know why Cleveland was this national punch line.
"The more we started to talk about the film, the more we started thinking this was going to become a reality. We wanted to explore this identity that the city of Cleveland has. And the more we started learning about the sports history, and how they haven't won any national championships in 50 years, and really examining more about LeBron and the promises he had made to bring a championship to Cleveland, knowing he was from the area. We realized there was a bigger story to tell here, and we had a feeling that a lot of people outside of Cleveland don't understand, and they just think that...you know, 'screw Cleveland, they're just a bunch of losers.'"
Taking the idea more seriously, they started plotting how to actually fund the movie. Hart says, "At the time, Kickstarter had just come out, and we had some colleagues who had a successful Kickstarter campaign.
"We launched a Kickstarter campaign that November, and during that time went out to Cleveland," and began by filming Cavs fans during LeBron's first time back in the city in a Miami Heat uniform.
"And we connected with a lot of really great people that we wanted to end up being in the film, and by January we were like, 'Ok, I guess we're going out there!' That was January, 2011. We filmed on and off for the entire NBA season."
Ironically, Hart and Sherlock are Boston residents, and therefore fans of the Celtics, a team who has been a longstanding conference rival to the Cavs. So filming a movie involving basketball in Cleveland meant they had to kind of step into enemy territory.
Hart laughs, "I'd go out there and say I'm from Boston, and a lot of people would be, 'well what the hell are you here for?'"
But the resistance was pretty limited, says Sherlock. "There were a few people naturally suspicious of what these Boston ladies were gonna say about the city, but for the most part everyone was extremely welcoming and hospitable. Cleveland was a very easy city to film in - people were very okay with being interviewed and would often suggest other people we should talk to."
Hart notes that this probably had something to do with Cleveland's contempt shifting from the Celtics to the Heat. "Everybody said, 'Boston is ok now!' When LeBron was with the Cavs, that was a huge rivalry, and I remember talking shit with my cousin who lives in Cleveland Heights. And when LeBron choked, giving her a lot of crap about it.
"Then when he left, I felt terrible for them! My cousin had little kids who were crying. And I heard this story so many times, we interviewed so many people who said their kids were freaking out and crying. We interviewed one guy who drank so much, he threw up outside and woke up his neighbors. It was really awful.
"So when I went out there, we were kind of approaching it from, 'well, we want to tell your story, we think what he did wasn't right.' We understand why he left, but what we kept hearing, it was echoed every single time, it's not what he did, it's how he did it. And we totally agreed with that."
Hart points out that the Cavs also lost Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Miami Heat that year, and while he wasn't anywhere near as legendary as LeBron, he was still very important to the Cavs. But when Z left, rather than take a public crap on the city, he took out a full-page ad in the Plain Dealer, thanking Cleveland for their years of support. When Z returned- in a Heat jersey- the Cavs fans actually cheered for him when he first stepped onto the court.
Hart says that if James had acted with similar humility, Cleveland might have been more understanding. "I don't think there would have been the backlash, at all. I think people would have been upset, but I don't think people would have been burning jerseys, Dan Gilbert would not have written that letter, none of that stuff would've happened.
"I don't think Cleveland would have been as upset...and I don't think there would have been a film.
So, rather than spending a bunch of time trying to get interviews with James, the Cavs, or other notables in the matter, the filmmakers focused on talking to locals. The result is a ton of great insight from a wide range of people connected to Cleveland. They talk to residents about their take on LeBron, how important of a role sports plays in Cleveland's identity, and what it means to live in a city that is constantly the butt of jokes. Comedian Mike Polk- renowned for his "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video," among other things- chimes in on the notion of making jokes at Cleveland's expense. "I've never felt guilty in any way about picking on Cleveland, because I'm from here, I live here, I love it here, and I think that comes through in a lot of what I do...but we have a lot of issues. It has been 1-degree here for the last four months!"
Then he adds, "If anybody needs a distraction, be it through laughter or sports, it is us."
They also get a ton of insight from Esquire writer Scott Raab, who happened to be working on his own provocative coverage of James, the profoundly entertaining and hard-biting The Whore of Akron, at the same time.
Hart says connecting with Raab was pure serendipity. "Scott found us on Twitter, which was pretty epic. He reached out to us the same day I was going to reach out to him. There was this great article called 'Believeland' on ESPN, and Scott was one of the characters they followed.
"I was mustering up the courage to contact him, because you know, he seems pretty gruff, and I don't know if this guy's gonna grant me an interview, but I'm gonna try. And then that day, he wrote me on Twitter, and it was really amazing.
"And it was just really wonderful to have that parallel to our film, we were both on this journey together, in a way."
The real heart of Losing LeBron isn't so much about an NBA player, but rather how people in Northeast Ohio keep fighting to better themselves, doing whatever it takes to survive. To show this, the filmmakers tell the story of Ty and Zach Shavers, a father and son struggling to get ahead, even if that means moving out of the state.
"We also wanted to examine what it means when your teams don't win," explains Hart, "and what does it mean when you don't have LeBron's choices, and you have to stick around in Cleveland, and make ends meet. That was kind of the parallel with Ty and Zach's story, too."
Hart followed Ty and Zach as they both tried to get jobs, and talked about moving to Atlanta, in hopes of making a better life. Surprisingly, she says, their role in the movie was not at all planned.
"I was meeting with some people at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and trying to see if we could get some interns to help us work on the film as production assistants. But when I went out there that particular week, I didn't get a car, because in my mind, I was thinking, 'oh yeah, Cleveland's like Boston, you can just walk everywhere.' Boston is such a walkable city.
"So, I'm at the Cleveland Institute of Art, which is apparently 10 miles from downtown. And I'm asking people how long it's going to take me to get downtown. And they're like, 'what? Where's your car?'
"Someone said I could take the Healthline, the bus that runs up and down the main drag there. So I go and wait at the bus stop, and Ty was there, the dad. We got to talking, and shared the bus ride together. He was headed downtown to straighten out something about Zach's birth certificate or something like that.
"And by the end of the bus ride, I knew that he would be this really great part of the story, and I knew I wanted him in the film. It was interesting, because we already had everybody else lined up for the film, who we thought were going to be the main characters. But then Ty and Zach kind of came in toward the end of our pre-production, and now they're my favorite part."
They also have a ton of amazing footage of the various parts of Cleveland, from the steel mills to shots from the East Side to the Flats, sights beyond just the arena shots you see every time there's a Cavs/Browns/Indians game. A lot of this apparently came from Cleveland journalist/documentarian Kirsten Browning.
"We went out there in late-November, early-December," Hart says, "and this woman contacted us, her name was Kirsten, She was like 'I’ve been filming this whole thing leading up to his decision and during the decision and the aftermath, and I have all this footage and I don’t know what I’m doing with it, but I’m a huge sports fan and I’m from here, and I just thought it was important to capture on camera.' And she gave us a lot of the footage she shot, and she had some of the most amazing moments.
"I mean, she was incredible. She is a dedicated Cleveland sports fan, just having a camera and filming this stuff. She was really out there on the frontlines, before we were even realizing this was a film we were going to start making a couple months later.
"Kirsten also acted like a field producer in getting us interviews and places for us to shoot, and we’re just so grateful and so lucky because that would have been a huge part missing. Her shots really make the story." They quickly signed her on as an Associate Producer.
Hart also says they found Cleveland a very inviting city to make a movie.
"Whenever we go back to Emerson and show the film to students, I say 'look, if you want to make a movie, go out to Cleveland.' People are just so nice and totally accepting and open like ‘Oh yeah, film wherever you want.' We don’t get that kind of access in Boston. We’ve been here for a long time, and you have to sign over your life basically to shoot anywhere in this city.
"Everyone we met, they were so laid back about it, no one gave us any hard times. Everywhere you go they’re like 'oh you’ve got to talk to my mailman' or 'you’ve got to talk to my cousin’s sister, she’s like the biggest LeBron fan.' It was so great, so a lot of times that’s how we got connected with people. My cousin would just take me to all the great bars in Cleveland Heights, and she would just lead me around and I’d give people business cards and connect with them every time I’d go back out to Cleveland to film. Yeah, they were really awesome."
One powerful moment in this saga that defines the character of this resolute city happened on March 29, 2011, when the Cavs hosted the Heat for their last meeting of the 2010-2011 regular season. Each game prior, the Heat had defeated the Cavs, and while sometimes they kept it close, the Heat was clearly a stronger team...particularly because LeBron had, you know, jumped from the Cavs to the Heat.
As a testament to the perseverance of Cleveland, the Cavs ended up triumphing in an emotional victory, beating the Heat 102-90. Hart was there to film it all.
"I went to the game, and I found out that everybody else who I'd been following in the film just happened to be going to that game, because it was the last regular game of the season that these two teams were playing! And I snuck in a camera, and...um...I'm a feminist, but I also try to use my gender to my advantage, when it comes to instances like this. So I got to security, and they asked about the camera, and I said, 'oh, you know, I'm just gonna take some pictures!' At the time, the DSLR movement hadn't proliferated around media making, so you could shoot on a Canon 5D, and it looks like a still camera, and nobody thinks that you're shooting video. They just think you're taking pictures, when you're shooting really high-quality video.
"That's how I got in there. Scott had planned to go there, and we met up, and he just happened to be meeting with this father and son who had season tickets, back from when the Cavs had become an organization, going back to the ’70s. And they had seats three rows behind the Miami Heat bench- and they had extra tickets, one they had given Scott, and another one they offered to me!
"So that's how I was able to get those crazy shots very close up of the game.
"That was an amazing night. That whole night, I kept telling everyone that the Cavs were gonna win. I joke to my husband that I'm the Celtics' unofficial lucky charm, because I've been to a lot of Celtics games, and I've never seen them lose in person. So I kept telling people, 'you watch, the Cavs are gonna win tonight!'
"And they won! It was a really emotional moment. You look at it, and it was just a regular season game, but it meant soooo much, to all of us! Everybody really needed that. It was just so great."
Sherlock adds, "It felt like a national win, so crazy! The citizens of Cleveland deserved that moment so much!"
So now the movie is complete, having run the festival circuit, and is earning distribution through Devolver Digital Films, which has made the movie available on pretty much every Video On Demand route, including iTunes and Google Play.
"It's fantastic," Hart says about this evolving form of distribution. "There's so many different platforms that we're out on now; with the snap of a finger today, we went live to so many different outlets. It's great that we're on iTunes and Google Play, but I'm most excited about Xbox and Play Station, because I feel like that's going to have such a great market for people interested in LeBron.
"And really, I'm happy for Clevelanders to see it, if they can stomach it, if they're willing to watch a miserable experience from their past!"
As for the city of Cleveland, Sherlock and Hart say they have a lot of hope for the future.
Sherlock says, "I have my fingers (and everything else) crossed that a national sports title isn't far away. I think that would do a world of good for a city that deserves some good fortune. And I think it's going to happen.
"And I also have great hopes for the economy. We met a lot of innovative business people committed to growing the city's economy. I think Cleveland will remain a city people love to live in and visit for a long, long time."
Hart digs in deeper. "I feel like it's gonna happen for Cleveland. I want it to be the Cavs to bring a championship...but really, if I were a true Cleveland fan, I would want the Browns to be the ones to win a Super Bowl, since it's so much more a football city than a basketball city.
"I really think LeBron is gonna try and do something. I think he's got something up his sleeve. Ohio is still home for him."
This is where Hart gets weird, and says she's rooting for James and the Heat to win the Finals again this year...so LeBron will return to Cleveland.
"I want LeBron to win ring #3, because I want him to go back to Cleveland, and say, 'alright, I got a three-peat, I'm going back!' So really, it's because I feel in my heart that he's gonna try to go back to Cleveland at some point. I want him to go back, and I want him to bring a championship home.
"Can you imagine the epic sports film that would be, or just the story in general?! It's like the Prodigal Son returns, and becomes the hero. How amazing would that be, in our history, to witness that?!
"I think he's growing up, and I think he's learning that he made some really stupid decisions, but he was in his 20's. He's not a bad human being. He's not a drug addict, he's not killing anyone.
"That was the thing I kept grappling with. People would say how terrible he is, but he's really not that horrible. He just made some really stupid choices. And I think he just listened to a lot of people around him. I think he surrounded himself by his close friends that he trusts, who are his managers, and as we know, that don't necessarily make the best decisions for him. They think about what's going to be good for him now, in this moment, but they're not thinking long-term.
"But I think LeBron has already realized that; from everything I've read, I think he gets it now.
"It's hard, though, because the other part of me wonders if he has this Michael Jackson complex, where he's been told since he's a kid, 'anything you do is gonna be great, people are gonna love you.' I don't know.
"So that's why I'm rooting for LeBron, so he can win this one more time, then try to go back to Cleveland, and make good for that city. That's the only reason why."
Apparently, she's not alone in this freaky stance. "We showed the film to this small liberal arts college outside of Cleveland, where one of our Emerson colleagues is teaching. We did a Skype screening of it and talked to the students after, and we asked them, 'Well you don’t want LeBron back or anything right?' And they were like 'Yeah, of course we want him back!'
"And it's so funny because I’ve talked to a lot of people from there, and now they want him back now that he won.
"Maybe he won’t do it right away. I keep thinking because it's been 50 years since Cleveland won a championship, and all the stars are aligning and all of that, that maybe he would try to go back. I’m not so sure it’s going to happen, I don’t know, he seems pretty happy down in Miami, but then what’s really interesting is that I think people in Cleveland see that he’s figured out whatever it was that was causing him to choke earlier on, and they want him back."
It's clear that LeBron James screwed up big time with "The Decision." He shit all over the city of Cleveland in public fashion. Anybody who criticizes Cleveland for being upset about this is flat-out ignorant.
Having said that, I guess the question now becomes: should we forgive him?
Well...if the Cavs did manage to bring him back, and he's humble about it all, that would be a huge step toward repairing the deep-rooted damage he's done to the city of Cleveland, adding to the city’s "pantheon of misery," as one person in the movie says.
Because when all is said and done, the main thing that matters here is the Cavs winning a championship, dammit! GO CAVS!