Wednesday, December 1, 2010

On He Who Shall Not Be Named, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Hamburgers

I don't know what will happen in Cleveland on Thursday night. I'd like to think nothing out of the ordinary will take place. I'd like to think that some people will jeer, and some people will laugh, and LeBron James will pour in 46 points and we will move on to the next overscrutinized twist in Miami's Season of Overkill. But since we have arrived at this crossroads, and since there is much navel-gazing taking place,* allow me my own indulgence.

I have stated this before, but I lived in Akron from 1995 until 2000. Those years happened to coincide with the modern heyday of Cleveland. I was young, and I would often find myself in a car on weekend night, hurtling up I-77 toward the Flats or the Warehouse District or Tremont to see a concert or to drink far too many beers. I was an outsider, but it seemed to me that Cleveland was the place you went when you wanted to experience urbanity; Cleveland is a small large city.

Akron was not that place. Because Akron, even as it was undergoing its own brief renaissance, even as it constructed a minor-league baseball stadium downtown, even as nightclubs sprouted up around it, felt like something much less urban. Akron is a large small city; you'd see the same people in the same places night after night, and there was something kind of comforting about it. Akron, my friend David Giffels** once said, has one of everything, but only one of everything. Akron, my friend Chuck once wrote, could be the Springfield we know from The Simpsons. Inexplicable things happen in Akron, news stories that capture the national imagination for their sheer weirdness. Akron incubates a great band approximately once every generation (Chrissie Hynde, Devo, the Black Keys), and Akron breeds serial killers, and Akron boasts an unimaginably great hamburger franchise, and now Akron has produced the most purely talented basketball player who ever lived. If Cleveland resides in some ignominious corner of the nation's cultural framework, Akron is an ignominious afterthought for Clevelanders. This is a town that identifies itself through several layers of inadequacy; whatever it produces is seen through that filter.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except to say that in some perverse way, it makes sense that LeBron James would continue to identify with Akron while dismissing Cleveland. One is a city of underdogs; the other is a forgotten place. At some level, they can't blame LeBron for leaving town. You can only go so far in Akron before you've done everything.

*Of course, much of this navel-gazing is well worth reading. Here is one well-crafted piece from Bill Reiter of Fox Sports, about Akron and its complex relationship with Cleveland how LeBron straddles both worlds. And here is another from my friend/noted raconteur/reporter/writer extraordinaire Wright Thompson, about the city of Cleveland.

**If there is a human being more loyalty to Akron, more of an understanding of what it means to live in Akron than David, I haven't met him.

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