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Cleveland Cavaliers

A transplanted native shares her agony

By Marla Ridenour Published: July 14, 2010

Although Erin Phelps has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for the past few years, the Cleveland native had to vent her disappointment over the departure of Cavs star LeBron James last week. With her permission, I'm sharing her impassioned essay on ''The Decision."

It's Never Sunny in Cleveland:  What Its Like Growing Up a Diehard

Most of the world is busy forgetting “The Decision” and moving on with their lives. Notice I said most … because I get the very distinct impression that I am one of many Cleveland sports fans who is still having trouble letting go and moving on from this heart-wrenching notch on the bedpost of Cleveland misery. For the most part fans of other teams get it. They see that what LeBron James did to the Cleveland Cavaliers and their loyal fans was an abhorrent slap in the face by arguably the best athlete to ever wear a Cleveland uniform. They get why we’re upset. That doesn’t mean they understand it. They can’t possibly understand our pain …  and if they’re lucky they never will.

Sports are more than just beloved in Cleveland. They define us. Cleveland sports fans are the founding and most active members of the “There’s Always Next Year” heartbreak club. There is little to do in Northeast Ohio by means of entertainment and as a result my childhood is filled with countless memories from Richfield, Muni Stadium, The Jake and The Q. I’ve sat through rain, sleet, snow, and heat for a game and I’ve cried, laughed, and screamed for the teams that I cherish from this city. In my eyes, there is nothing more remarkable or moving than a stadium, ballpark, or arena of 20,000+ strangers all hoping and cheering for the same thing - a victory.

It’s no wonder that when faced with the decision of what I wanted to do with my life, sport was an area of interest. I graduated from Ohio University’s Sport Management program and made the decision to make a career out of my love for sports in large part because of my passion for my hometown sports teams.

Thus far I have worked for four major professional sports teams, and had the distinct honor of working for the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dan Gilbert during the LeBron Era. I am well-known among friends, family and former colleagues as “The Cavs Girl” because I literally follow the team’s every move and have such passion for the game. I woke up the morning of July 8, 2010 with almost two dozen emails, texts and messages from people concerned for my well-being should this decision not go our way. Later that night I spent an hour on the phone with my Dad trying to understand why it went down the way it did. In a pained voice he apologized to me for raising me as a Cleveland fan and putting me through such torture. It’s OK, Dad, it’s all I know.

The moment LeBron James appeared on television to announce that he was leaving us for “South Beach”  changed the way I will look at professional sports forever. Thank you, LeBron for collectively breaking the hearts of an entire city and reminding me yet again that sport is business for everyone but the fans.

I get it. I’ve been behind the scenes. I understand the inner-workings of the multi-million dollar industry that is the NBA. Yet I still watched in silent desperation as our hope for a team and a city vanished in just a few short seconds. Our leader, our chosen one, our local hero abandoned us. And he did it in the most perverse, depraved and tactless way possible. He didn’t just stab us in the back; he did it with a jagged knife while we were sleeping, and then he twisted the blade just to make sure we were good and dead.

It’s not like I’ve never witnessed betrayal or heartbreak. My skin should be much thicker by now. I was destined for crushing defeats and ulcer-inducing failures from the day I was brought home from the hospital in a Cleveland Browns onesie.

At the age of 5, Craig Ehlo was my hero and I woke up the morning after “The Shot” to hear that my boy blew it. I will never forget the first time I saw my Dad cry as the Browns played their final minutes in Municipal Stadium at the end of the 1995 season. I watched in 1995 as the best team in baseball lost to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.

I also vividly remember that blustery day the following winter when my favorite Indians player signed with the division rival Chicago White Sox. I was so in awe of good old “Joey” that I had named a stray cat in my neighborhood Belle. My brother and I had basically adopted and raised this cat for over a year. The poor cat died just a few weeks before Belle signed with the Sox. How is that for a telling sign of impending doom?

No one will forget Manny and Thome peacing-out and of course Carlos Boozer not staying true to his word. I cried and cursed Jose Mesa to hell in 1997 for blowing the 9th inning lead. I moved back to Cleveland after a brief stint in Florida just in time for the Indians to collapse against Boston in the 2007 ALCS. I was at Games 4 and 5. In the 7th inning of Game 5 I threw down my white towel and stormed out of “The Jake” before the game even ended, leaving my friends wondering where I had run off to. I knew what was coming because I had seen it before....

I’ve purchased then donated to Goodwill countless jerseys and paraphernalia throughout my years as a Cleveland fan. Such is the life of any real sports fan, I suppose. But this … this is different. This is betrayal at its worst. I truly feel like a kid who just found out Santa Claus isn’t real. Sorry kid, Santa is actually an egotistical coward with a God-complex who cares more about impressing the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy instead of the children all over the world who adore him.

Yeah … that’s how I feel. The fireplace in my apartment is currently filled with anything that reminds me of LeBron James and every collectible of his that I own. Jerseys, bobbleheads, Witness shirts, magazines, newspaper articles, laminated front pages of the Akron Beacon Journal & Cleveland Plain Dealer, stickers, etc… It’s all in there, waiting to be burned when I feel the time is right.

Hanging in my living room I have an enlarged, framed photo of his WITNESS sign taken the night he won his first MVP award. I can’t bring myself to take it down because it’s such a tribute to the love our city has for its athletes and teams. I want to burn the darn picture but I know one day I’ll want to tell my children about this experience and show them how deep-rooted our passion for “The King” and this Cavaliers team really was. I will want to show them this framed work of art.

So we move on and we try to forget, and we dread the upcoming NBA season. We come to terms with the fact that it is likely we will hear LeBron’s name every day for the next 10 years. And it is likely he will win a ring during those 10 years, which will be like pouring acid into our wounds. We know the pain, we’ve felt it before. In 2001 when the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl with our team. We are Cleveland, we lick our wounds and we try to move on as best we can.

There are three things that are helping me get past this experience.

1.  I am not alone. Seeing all my friends and fellow Ohioans venting their pain and frustration online and on television has helped me cope. “We are Cleveland- We Will Bounce Back”, as one t-shirt put it.
2.  Hope. Some day the city of Cleveland will have a parade. The curse will be broken and LeBron James will be forgotten, if only for one day. We will look back at this devastation and hopefully our victory will be that much sweeter when it finally comes.
3. Karma. One day, years from now when LeBron’s career is coming to a close, I hope he looks back and regrets what he did. Sure, he’ll have a great time down in Miami, playing ball with his buddies for the next six years …and maybe he’ll win a few rings. My only hope is that he looks back and fully understands the profound disappointment he was to an entire fan base and regrets the way he went about things. We may never know if this happens, but it’s what keeps me going.

As someone who was born and raised in Cleveland and has since moved on to cities that are “bigger and better” I can assure you that the city of Cleveland is special and so are its people. NO ONE- I repeat- NO ONE will love you like we did. Good old Dorothy was right: “There’s No Place Like Home.” And you are no longer welcome here, LeBron.

Erin Phelps

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