Cleveland cool: a proper LeBron nod to the great Jim Brown

Coolest moment in an otherwise uninspired windup to the basketball season came when the Cavaliers’ valiant superhero, LeBron James, paused before the beginning of Game Three in Cleveland to pay tribute to the incomparable Jim Brown, seated regally at courtside. One found this impromptu moment – both dramatically subtle and over in a flash – profoundly poignant.

That’s largely because Brown, football’s greatest player ever and arguably the greatest athlete in all of American sports history, has never even begun to receive the accolades that he deserves and still has every right to demand, although he doesn’t because that’s not his style. Never has been.

It remains strange and sad to recall that as cool as he was, Jimmy Brown was too hot for America in the ‘50s and ‘60s when he was the most dauntless  gladiator of our gridiron wars and a driving force in the NFL’s great leap forward in the culture. It might be different today. Then, again, it might not be.

In his classy gesture, James nicely reminded us of all that. His deep bow to Brown, touchingly both simple and formal, was eloquent. So was Brown’s response: a sly smile and casual salute done with an ease bordering on nonchalance and yet strikingly sincere. Jim Brown doesn’t play-act. He doesn’t showboat. He’s a man not of few words but of no words. His presence speaks for itself. Everything about him was always totally controlled back when he was totally dominating his primary game (he excelled in four more), and a half century later, with him still looking quite herculean at age 80, everything about him still is.    

The link between Brown and James was all about both having represented hard-nosed and hard-luck Cleveland in their artistry. It was Brown who last led a team bearing Cleveland’s tattered colors to a title when he lugged – literally on his back – the underdog Browns all the bloody way, beating Johnny Unitas and the Colts in a championship game that in Cleveland, at least, remains utterly unforgettable given that since that magic moment Cleveland has won nothing in any games their teams dare compete, and that was 51 years ago.

So you can understand that it was being tenderly hoped in Cleveland that maybe this year James would redeem this woeful ledger even if he had to do it all by himself, which would have been necessary given that the Cavs’ only other faintly starry characters got kayoed by injuries along the way; one in a needless act of thuggery by a Celtics’ scrub in the opening playoff round. James is special, but it’s a team game. One-man teams only win in the movies.  

That they failed was no dishonor to James. He was wonderful but his team, even if it hadn’t been battered, was no match for the young, swift, and cocky stylists from San Francisco. Doubtless inspired by Brown’s presence, the Cavs made a brief statement with a thrilling overtime triumph that got the whole town overheated only to get romped and stomped over the last three games. In the end, it was humiliating; never in doubt.

Inexplicably, the writers named the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala MVP for having, in their judgment, done such a fine job guarding LeBron James. In the series, James averaged “only” a mere 38.5 points per game, so one finds this a touch baffling. No doubt Andre will have a fine NBA career, but LeBron was no less the MVP of this merry fandango.

But then as a casual observer, one finds much about the NBA baffling. The court, designed for men half as big, fast, and skilled, is too small. Close and exciting games are ruined – purged of most of their entertainment value – by endlessly dreary timeouts. The officiating wavers between the inscrutable and impossible. The Donaghy incident – the infamous case of the crooked referee that has never bene satisfactorily explained – still hangs over this game in my book. If there’s a game in our jock culture dearly needing to be re-configured, it’s pro basketball.    

All that aside, what most persists about this year’s NBA finale is the added grief it brings to poor Cleveland. I always root for towns that never win. They have the right to wonder if there’s no end to their misery? It has been 51 years since the Browns won, and 67 years since the Indians won. They’ve never won in basketball. Never won in hockey, either, unless in desperation you count attainments of the American Hockey League’s long defunct Barons. Never even won in team tennis! Is there no justice?

Of course, Cleveland is hardly the only town thus afflicted. In Milwaukee, the Bucks haven’t won since Abdul Jabbar called himself Lew Alcindor.  When will Memphis sip champagne, or Toronto, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Sacramento? As hockey’s absolute mecca, the grievances of Toronto – sans champion now near a half-century – are even more sorrowful. There’s a fistful of NHL towns from Vancouver to Washington back to Winnipeg that have never known the satisfaction, with the Blues and No-Stars scuffing aimlessly near a half century. It is so in every game. Teams move from city to city without breaking the spell. Ask football’s Cardinals, last winners seven decades ago when still berthed in Chicago. In baseball, expansion teams routinely wait a half-century for fulfillment as the good burghers of Seattle and Houston, San Diego, Tampa, and Arlington can grimly attest.

Small wonder the rest of the republic bristles when New Englanders mope and moan over the stray ins and outs of their four franchises that have collectively eased their pain with “only” nine world championships so far in this very young millennium. The laments of Patriots and Red Sox Nations are particularly irksome. Might we here be spoiled, pray tell? For sure, and quite “rottenly” so, the rest of the nation properly insists. The “Curse of the Bambino” bored reasonable people silly, as now does the “Curse of the Billy Goat” filtering endlessly out of Chicago where the wailing over the mindless Cubs stretches near a century.  

But for the moment at least, Chicago can take solace in its Blackhawks, every bit as beloved there as those ragtag Cubs, and more deservingly so. Back in the good old days of the Original Six, the Hawks were perennial doormats. Now they’re being proclaimed a dynasty. Three Cups in six years is impressive, but it’s too early for such talk, methinks.

This is a strong team that has found a way to prevail in a strange NHL interlude when styles and strategies are in transition and there are no great teams. The Hawks have brilliantly managed the salary cap, which has been ruinous to teams like the Bruins, and they have maneuvered through the parity minefields, player development tangles, and roster shuffling that has bedeviled even historically masterful franchises like the Canadiens and Red Wings while ruining the Leafs.

It was a good year for the NHL with significant advances in profits, ratings, media approval, and stature. The league is strengthening, the game growing. The playoffs had stretches of brilliance albeit not as sustained as featured the last three to four years. One sensed a drop off in the quality of play, especially in the Finals, and while the intensity remained striking, its furious level also slipped some and I think I know why: The darn season is just too dang long. The playoffs, always grueling, are becoming downright gruesome on top of a six-month regular-season schedule that’s unrelentingly brutal.

A superior Tampa offense only scoring once in the last two and a half games was ridiculous. The Hawks aren’t that defensively invincible nor do they feature Terry Sawchuk in goal. The Lightning were simply spent, although both teams were on fumes at the end. Knowledgeable observers suggest slightly shortening the playoffs, perhaps by knocking rounds one and two down to best three out of five. Might be wise. Something must be done. Two plus months of playoffs is too long. In the end, they become too much wars of attrition, survival mainly of the luckiest.  But will management sacrifice the big bucks? Unlikely!   
Whatever, it’s over. In a span of 24 hours, the Warriors and Blackhawks at last brought the winter seasons to a nice and mellow close. And to think it was only the Ides of June.