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LeBron James Has Changed Our Lives — but Not Our Cleveland Jewish Identity

After the Cleveland Cavaliers made history Sunday night, becoming the first basketball team in the history of the NBA Finals to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win a title against the arrogant, formerly untouchable Golden State Warriors, my wife asked me if the victory would be in any way hard to swallow, given my attachment to the old identity of “long-suffering Cleveland sports fan.” In 2012, before LeBron returned to the Cavs, I’d in fact written a Forward article about the identification with suffering that characterizes both Clevelanders and Jews, especially my double-whammy demographic of Jewish Clevelander.

Well, the answer to my wife’s question is simple. The Cavs’ title, Cleveland’s first pro sports championship in 52 years, is no harder for a Clevelander to incorporate than is the founding of Israel for most Jews. After getting our Jewish asses kicked all over Europe, culminating in the most infamous attempt at genocide ever perpetrated, we Jews had our fill of helplessness, suffering, subjection and abuse. Zionists and the American Jews who supported them decided that anyone who didn’t like us enough to want to kill us would from now on have to go through our tanks and fighter jets to try. Israel is a massive check in the win column of that fight for existence, which unfortunately shows few signs of abating.

But that doesn’t mean Israel has parted ways with the memory of Jewish suffering or that Jews have ceased to identify with suffering, sufferers, and victims. No, the Holocaust remains central to Jewish and to Israeli identity.

King James the First: LeBron James and teammates bring unaccustomed glory to Cleveland. Image by Getty Images

The suffering of a Cleveland sports fan, of course, does not belong in the same conversation as the suffering of the Jews, except that they are both forms of suffering, much as potato beetles and elephants are both animals. Yet — ironically after parting ways with their first Jewish coach — the Clevelander’s attitude to victory (something I’ve known for less than 24 hours at the time of writing this) resembles the Jew’s. Which is to say that a memory of constant, agonizing, and belittling defeat will always be built into our sense of victory. If my previous article on “auto-schadenfreude” gave a different impression, then I must amend it here. Auto-schadenfreude is not masochism, but merely an identification, a form of collective memory. It is no real taste for suffering in the present, but only for reminiscences with suffering past.

I guarantee you that a Clevelander’s unbridled joy in this victory will always be inseparable from the title drought that preceded it. Even now, Cleveland fans are editing that historic litany that used to contain only straight-up woe: The Drive, The Fumble, the Shot, etc. The Decision has been redacted, and now there are divine, exultant entries on that list: the Block (LeBron’s climactic chasedown of Andre Igoudala’s layup) and the Shot (Kyrie Irving’s clutch tie-breaking three with less than a minute to go, which overwrites Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo). The result is not amnesia, but rather joy intermixed with pain, just like at a Passover seder. And now that he sits on top of the world, there is no way that a Clevelander turns around and bullies the little guy. His memory of pain and abuse is far too vivid. Experience has wrung compassion from the typical Cleveland sports fan, who knows loss.

To Cleveland’s enemies, on the other hand, I am tempted to say, look out. Because that memory of pain, abuse, and ridicule, of being counted out, ignored, or spit on, that identity of suffering and struggle, has sharpened our claws. You might say adversity sharpened LeBron James’s claws, and that the Warriors, who as a team had previously encountered so little adversity, were a little unprepared for scrapping with the battle-tested King and a full retinue of his courtiers.

If the Warriors’ inexperience with adversity did not affect their play, it certainly affected their rhetoric. They haven’t exactly exhibited a Jewish or even Cleveland-like humility after success. Instead there were comments about savoring the smell of champagne in the visitor’s locker room at Cleveland’s Quicken-Loans Arena; there was Warrior shooting guard Klay Thompson, son of NBA player Mychal Thompson, sitting on a 3-1 lead and condescendingly questioning the manhood of LeBron James — a self-made man from a broken home in the inner city, a man who fought for everything he got in order to become one of the greatest basketball players of all time. “It’s a man’s league,” Thompson instructed LeBron, deriding the Cavs star for his game 4 squabble with the Warrior’s Draymond Green.

Oh, Klay Thompson. I am tempted to say: we ain’t done with you yet. Because we know a whole ocean full of salty tears and you’ve only sipped them from a tea cup. We know how to lose, and thanks to LeBron James, we know how to win. I’m tempted to say, you don’t really know how to do either one — not like a “man.” Suffering is “a man’s league,” bro. Welcome to it, if you have the “length” to deal with it. Since my joy is tinged with pain, I’m tempted to say that we Clevelanders ain’t done with you, not even close. That’s not hubris, that’s revenge, I’m tempted to say, but I won’t.

Instead I’ll just say that Klay Thompson is in fact an amazing player, as are all of the Golden State Warriors, and they are learning to watch their mouths too. I’m going to follow my experienced leader, LeBron James, and leave it at that. Like LeBron says, Let’s take the high road.


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