The most quietly telling image in the documentary “Losing LeBron” is a Nike ad featuring LeBron James with his arms outstretched and his eyes cast upwards to Heaven. Over his head is written the slogan “We Are All Witnesses.” It is a Christ-like pose that speaks volumes to his importance to the town Cleveland, Ohio where he was raised. Many felt that, in a way, James was Cleveland and many of its citizens looked up to him like a God.
Then a bomb fell on July 8, 2010 when James announced that he was leaving The Cleveland Cavaliers via free agency to join The Miami Heat. Overnight he went from favorite son to the most hated man in town. The people of Cleveland speak of “The Decision” in the same way someone might speak of The Kennedy Assassination or 9/11. As LeBron James moves on, the movie’s scope widens to show us the financial heart of a city whose glory days are long gone. Cleveland was once a mighty industrial city, but that moniker has washed away in the adamant of time so long ago that most of its citizens don’t remember when it was flourishing. LeBron James’ betrayal seems to wipe away any vestige of pride that the city had. His name became so hated that a local bar insisted the patrons not wear his jersey while on the premises. Local business offered former fans the chance to shred their LeBron James merchandise in public.
An even worse jolt hit on December 2nd, when The Cavaliers had their first game against Miami following James’ departure. We see a bar in which people are gathered to watch their former favorite son get his comeuppance (complete with a waitress wearing a 23 jersey embossed with the name “Judas.” The humiliation of that night is seen on the face of every person in attendance as The Cav lose to Miami 118 to 90.
The public reaction to LeBron James’ departure might seem harsh but “Losing LeBron” is about much more than just a sports hero pulling up stakes. It is about the emotional and financial psychology of a city that the rest of the country seems to have written off as a walking joke (every comedian from Johnny Carson to Yakov Smirnoff had fun at the city’s expense). What is interesting is that directors Nicole Prowell Hart and Allyson Sherlock have little interest in basketball. The loss of LeBron James was devastating to a town that already had a self-image problem.
We meet several people, most prominently gonzo journalist Scott Raab who, in two years, went from blogging about LeBron to publishing a book, derisively titled “The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James.” He remembers being in attendance when the Cleveland Browns beat the Baltimore Colts for the NFL World Championship on December 27, 1964 – the last time that Cleveland ever won a sports title. LeBron James was suppose to bring the city it’s glory back, but the hopes of a championship have been long forgotten as generation after generation can’t remember their city’s last sports victory.
We also meet Mike Brenkus and Candice Vlcek, dedicated season ticket holders whose entire collection of LeBron James merchandise has been tucked away into plastic tubs. Mike weakly pulls out a once-proud Number 23 jersey and can’t bring himself to completely unfold it.
Interestingly, James’ departure seems to affect the white population more than the black population. The black folks in town seem to take it in stride. You don’t hear it so much out loud, but it is implied the the words and actions of the people around town. We meet a fascinating father and son, Zack and Tyrone Shavers who are just trying to get by – Zach has a halfway approach to Job Corps classes while Tyrone works a series of temp jobs just to feed himself. They acknowledge that they don’t blame LeBron for leaving because, based on what is around them in Cleveland, they have a desire to pull up stakes and leave too.
“Losing LeBron” is an effective, if curiously short, documentary (it runs just under an hour) that deals less with sports heroes then the pride of a town that never seemed to have one. The insights help us understand that Cleveland’s problems were far deeper than any sport hero, but you’d like some more insights into the story. What’s here is interesting but if often just feels like an appetizer to a longer and more focused documentary. Still it is an original and engaging piece of filmmaking dealing with human beings and how their environment effects their emotional well-being.