Miami, team and city, up to the challenge to redefine

By | June 12th, 2012 | 17 Comments

“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.

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17 Comments on “Miami, team and city, up to the challenge to redefine”

  1. 1 Cool_Story_Bro said at 11:24 am on June 12th, 2012:

    What a pointless and vapid article.

  2. 2 Jordan Melnick said at 12:09 pm on June 12th, 2012:

    C_S_B, thanks for the purposeful and profound comment.

  3. 3 arielle said at 12:20 pm on June 12th, 2012:

    My only problem with this article is that it backpedals on its own importance. Sports may not be the most important thing in the world, but where they are relevant is where they intersect with the socio-political realm. This article (and the recent one in the HuffPost about OKC’s dirty business) does a great job of showing how this Heat team illuminates some of the bigger issues in info-tainment and Miami’s complex identity. So where is Miami’s counter-campaign. We should also call it: #iamnotsouthbeach.

  4. 4 Jordan Melnick said at 12:28 pm on June 12th, 2012:

    arielle, when seriously writing about or discussing sports, it always feels necessary to emphasize that they are unimportant in the grand scheme. But you’re right, it is a bit disingenuous because I don’t exactly feel that way — I did write 1,600+ words on the subject, after all. Also, I’m not sure anything has inherent value (except for maybe honesty), so why pick on sports? By the way, I had the same thought about co-opting #iamnotsouthbeach. I was thinking about titling this post “We Are Not South Beach” — now that I think about it, I definitely should have.

  5. 5 silver said at 12:37 pm on June 12th, 2012:

    I’ve been upset with James ever since he referred to Miami as South Beach. I think it was a blow to the city that was welcoming him. And he continues to mention South Beach (and, as you noted, so does ESPN).
    If he expects to be treated like a King, he has to at least give his subjects the courtesy of acknowledging them.
    “South Beach” as the country is referring to it, is worlds away from Kendall or Miami-Lakes or Hialeah or Cutler Bay. But it’s people in these communities (who consider themselves ‘Miami’) who are buying tickets and t-shirts and car flags.
    LBJ should be praising Miami and not South Beach. Then maybe I’ll praise him.

  6. 6 Jordan Melnick said at 12:40 pm on June 12th, 2012:

    Silver, great point about the discrepancy between SoBe and the areas that many of the Heat’s die-hard fans call home.

  7. 7 theREDsubmarine said at 2:01 pm on June 12th, 2012:

    Thanks for bringing to my attention the stupidest hashtag ever created, now I’m going to go troll the internet with #IAmNotSouthBeach.

  8. 8 Greg said at 12:25 pm on June 14th, 2012:

    For years, the video images leading into and out of games for the dolphins, marlins, and heat always show the colony hotel and ocean drive, which also feeds into the #iamnotsouthbeach idea (a good 4 miles away from the arena). But more importantly, “Celtics” is not even a word. Celtic is an adjective, describing an ethnicity from the middle ages. They should be the Boston Celts. And even then, there are no Celts in Boston.

  9. 9 Jack said at 10:48 am on June 15th, 2012:

    The Staples Center is over 10 miles away from Rodeo and Wilshire – but that has never stopped the world from associating the Lakers with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.

    The only difference is that they have 16 rings to back up their image

  10. 10 guest said at 12:39 pm on June 15th, 2012:

    Pretty off-topic, but on the subject of OKC’s “sordid” history:

    It’s a lot easier for a previously allegiance-less observer to ignore evil ownership than to ignore douchey players.

    Read: ” . . . they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.”

    I’ll pull for a Durantula over that any day.

    This is not the first time a team has moved due to refusal to build a new arena. I didn’t see everyone hating on Choirboy Chris Paul’s Hornets the past few years.

  11. 11 Jordan Melnick said at 1:15 pm on June 15th, 2012:

    Guest, no one is question Oklahoma City residents (“a previously allegiance-less observer”) for rooting for the Thunder. Of course not. But for the rest of the country to adopt Any Team That Plays Against The Heat, including a franchise with its own ruthless history of abandoning a city, shows that their hatred is misguided. As for the LeBron quote you mentioned — “…they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today.” — I personally have no problem with it, mainly because it’s true: LeBron has next to no bearing on the wellbeing of the vast majority of his haters. As for Durantula, he’s a spectacular player and seems like a sweetheart. But considering how many one-time sports darlings became unlikely villains (Kobe, Vick, LeBron, Tiger), I’m going to give KD a bit more time to reveal himself before I place a halo around his head.

  12. 12 Jordan Melnick said at 1:19 pm on June 15th, 2012:

    Hollywood, a global institution with mammoth influence, is not analogous to South Beach, which is a tiny neighborhood in a huge metro. Also, I don’t see what the number of rings has to do with it.

  13. 13 guest said at 6:13 pm on June 15th, 2012:

    Whether or not Durant becomes evil one day, I absolutely cannot root for someone that declares himself above the common folk because he can’t take some haters.

    City abandonment in sports is nothing new. We don’t need a relocation-based spreadsheet of what teams we’re allowed to root for. That would knock out quite a few. Pulling for Kevin Durant’s charm and James Harden’s beard over Lebron James’s superior attitude is totally valid despite Dave Zirin’s desire to dictate otherwise.

  14. 14 lala said at 5:01 pm on June 21st, 2012:

    “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.”

    Not a correct sentence (typical), and Miami will never compare to the creative energy and ambition of the many more cultures cities in the U.S.

  15. 15 lala said at 10:18 am on June 22nd, 2012:

    only ppl from miami take miami seriously. From the NY post:

    If you’re wondering about the difference between Art Basel and its sister, Art Basel Miami, an insider explained, “Art Basel’s the real one — the one for rich people who are really buying, not the bull[bleep] party one.”

    Read more: http://www.nypost.com/p/pagesix/basel_fete_ups_vip_ante_AtNoLgK4bwkx9jrNj6UaxN#ixzz1yX1IcOfX

  16. 16 Jordan Melnick said at 10:46 am on June 22nd, 2012:

    lala, the amount of art bought and sold at ABMB has little impact on Miami’s cultural bona fides — the “ballooning of Art Basel” is the least exciting development on that list (to me, anyway). And if “only ppl from miami take miami seriously” at this point, that’s fine by me (though I know it isn’t true). No one should take you seriously until you take yourself seriously first.

  17. 17 Laura Brown (Williams's sister) said at 9:32 am on June 23rd, 2012:

    Loved it!


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