“In this fall, this is very tough, in this fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.”
When LeBron James spoke those immediately infamous words to ESPN’s Jim Gray on July 7, 2010, before a live audience of some 100 Boys & Girls Clubs youth and a television audience of 9.95 million rapt viewers, he did more than redefine Cleveland, the city near his hometown of Akron, Ohio, where he played his first seven years as an NBA basketball player, taking the franchise to its first ever championship series, which it lost in four games to the superior San Antonio Spurs.
Those words did more than redefine Cleveland, which had become known worldwide as the home of LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet — redefine it as the former home of LeBron James, as the small-market city that could not contain James, could not satisfy his ego and ambition no matter how large his likeness loomed over the city from billboards and arena-height banners.
Many — far too many — have weighed in on what James “did” to Cleveland when he abandoned the city whose populace adored him like a son and worshipped him as a savior who would redeem not only their painful shared sports history but also their painful recession-wracked present. The fact that he merely exercised his rights as a free agent has not withstood the avalanche of criticism that has fallen upon James, uninterrupted, since the awkward, insipid, hubris-fueled 10+ minutes of television billed as “The Decision”. Far from withstood it, in fact, for James is the most hated active athlete in America (a category that includes Michael Vick, a convicted dog torturer). Indeed, he is one of the most hated athletes in American history.
Far too few have weighed in on ESPN’s own hypocritical role in the ugly spectacle — the sports network reaped untold dollars for televising “The Decision”, then proceeded to fan the flames of LeBron loathing. But the purpose of this piece is not to mete out blame nor to exonerate LeBron James for his epic lack of tact. Neither is its purpose to belabor the way the quote that leads off this piece redefined Cleveland. Its purpose, rather, is to weigh in on the way the quote redefined — make that misdefined — Miami.
To be sure, Cleveland and Miami are very different places. I’ve never been to Cleveland, but I know this statement is true and I’m confident no one will contradict my assumption. Knowing very little about Cleveland beyond the generalities — Midwestern mores, blue-collar bloodlines, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, killer clinic, fantastic philharmonic — I know it’s true simply because I know that Miami is very different from anywhere else. No city in the United States has Miami’s bracing, often volatile mixture of ethnicities and cultures, its status as refuge for people in exile or distress, its history as unlikely staging ground and launch pad for major international events, its dizzying disparities — between wealth and indigence, creativity and vanity, ambition and apathy, club life and coral life — its ocean vistas and sluggish swamplands, nor, to be sure, can any other city lay claim to Gloria Estefan and Uncle Luke.
Still, it would be silly for me to pretend that the outside world has always misunderstood Miami, that the postcard of fun and sun we (i.e., our tourism machine) send out to the world is utterly false. To be frank: Miami is that postcard.
But the widely held belief that that postcard captures Miami in its entirety is also false, never more so than now, when the city has as much creative energy and ambition than any other place in the country. Regular Beached Miami readers know this to be true while the casual outside observer, let alone the typical vigorously uninterested tourist, may have missed the rise of Wynwood as a vibrant arts district, the ballooning of Art Basel Miami Beach to become one of the world’s foremost art fairs, the burgeoning music scene with several acts on the ascent, the explosion of film festivals (including one, Borscht, with growing cachet at the country’s top indie fests), the concerted cultivation of a progressive bike scene, and even the dawn of a poetry community anchored by O, Miami. (I left out a lot.)
Why am I enumerating Miami’s cultural accomplishments, a classic sign of an inferiority complex? (Hey, maybe Miami and Cleveland aren’t so different!) Let me get back to LeBron’s quote.
You see, he said he was taking his talents to South Beach. Thing is, the Miami Heat calls the City of Miami home. South Beach is a neighborhood in another city, the City of Miami Beach. To the outsider, and probably to many an insider, this might seem like petty semantics. After all, both cities are part of the same county, Miami-Dade County — Miami, for short. But the distinction becomes meaningful when you realize that James’s semantic slip (which was almost definitely not a slip but part of a carefully crafted script) has become a byword around the country for everyone who resents or even hates James — and by extension the Miami Heat, and by further extension Miami itself — for abandoning Cleveland.
(Side note: It is a testament to the awesome, disgusting power of celebrity that one such celebrity could, in a few words, redefine the boundaries of a place, an actual, physical location with an actual, physical perimeter that is well-recorded on actual, physical maps. But, lo, behold the power of a king.)
South Beach. To millions of people it connotes, as it always has, fun and sun but now also betrayal, immorality, even villainy. Furthermore, it no longer only refers to a relatively small neighborhood within the City of Miami Beach, home to many clubs and homosexuals and tourist traps and chain stores and fugitive parakeets — now it refers to Miami as a whole: city, county, culture, community.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider this: The Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat’s Eastern Conference nemesis and the team the Heat just beat in seven games to reach the Finals, have a fairly robust marketing campaign centered in large part on the declaration “I Am Not South Beach.” The team has a Pinterest board (with 2,138 followers) and a YouTube video (144,976 views and counting) dedicated to the statement, which is put in stark contrast to another: “I Am A Celtic.” Considering the source, the latter statement is clearly meant to connote good things such as pride, honor, and loyalty. What, then, does its antithesis — “I Am Not South Beach” (or the much used Twitter hashtag, #iamnotsouthbeach) — imply?
The Celtics’ campaign is anything but subtle and therefore easy to dismiss. But the truth is that anti-South Beach (i.e., anti-Miami) sentiment has permeated the sports world. You see this clearly on ESPN’s flagship show, SportsCenter, the bastard son of journalism and entertainment whose reporters routinely violate a fundamental principle of journalism — accuracy — by labeling the Heat’s home “South Beach”. (Again, AmericanAirlines Arena is in downtown Miami, which is separated from South Beach proper by a big, beautiful body of water called Biscayne Bay.)
Why do they so frequently commit what we journos call a “fact error”? It’s because when journalism bumps up against entertainment, entertainment usually takes precedence (on ESPN, always takes precedence). In the #iamnotsouthbeach narrative, “South Beach” is a fitting setting for a villain like LeBron James (who actually lives in quaint, quiet Coconut Grove), so “South Beach” is where ESPN places him and his team.
Ok, I hear you: Who cares? What’s the big deal? In the grand scheme of things, sports and ESPN and the Boston Celtics’ Pinterest board and even King James are all meaningless blips on the geologic record. You’re right. I couldn’t agree more.
Sure, as the Heat starts a championship series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that just about every basketball fan who’s not a Heat fan considers the Heat’s admirable antithesis (despite the franchise’s sordid history), I’d rather my team not symbolize everything that’s bad in sports to so many people. I mean, this series is going to be trying enough on this fan’s anxiety-ridden organs without the added pressure of ill-wishers on all sides.
And sure, as a life-long basketball fan, I do consider it an injustice that the Heat, a thoroughly defensive-minded team whose co-captain and most beloved player (I’m talking about Dwyane Wade) grew up on the South Side of Chicago and whose coach started his career as a video intern, gets painted as a pack of pansies with an incurable case of entitlement.
What can I say? These things matter to me.
So, too, does the definition of Miami. I would never presume to define it myself or presume that I or anybody else — not even LeBron James — could define so bewildering a place. But as the Heat head in to the Finals as a rare breed — the despised underdog — I needed to say a word for what Miami is not (and, for that matter, where it is not). I needed to say a word, many of them, because I not only want very much for Miami the team to succeed in the NBA Finals this year but for Miami the city to succeed in redefining itself as a place that no one postcard could portray in its entirety.
As LeBron said early in his notorious quote: “this is very tough …”
It’s true. But I know Miami is up to it.