1.3 million people showed up at the biggest party the state of Ohio has ever seen to celebrate LeBron James and his band of Cavaliers, who together brought Cleveland its first championship in 52 years. It looked like fun: Kevin Love had WWE title belts slung over both shoulders, Kyrie Irving flung his strapback into the crowd as it roared in adulation, and James got to let loose in public for probably the first time in his thirteen-year career. The spoils of victory aren’t limited to whooping as loud as you want, but achieving that freedom–of burden, of narrative, from basketball thinktankery and its smuggish progenitors –might be the best part. It was certainly hard-fought.
One storyline everyone enjoyed was the ongoing shirtlessness of J.R. Smith, the Cavaliers’ delightfully capricious but embattled shooting guard. After playing a key role in their Game 7 victory (I think he scored 10 of the Cavaliers’ first 12 points after halftime), J.R. was not seen wearing a shirt for like, the first 72 hours after the final buzzer sounded on Game 7. This was entertaining because it was J.R. doing him, in a winning way–acting silly, in other words, without “acting out.” Supposedly, we got to enjoy J.R.’s foibles without compromising on our overly moralizing ideas of what “winning” behavior looks like–ideas which when put into words are often racially coded, and which have been used to antagonize Smith pretty much from the moment he entered the draft out of high school. Here’s a quote from a story about Smith being benched by Denver Nuggets coach George Karl in the 2006 playoffs.
According to the newspaper, Smith’s mistakes throughout the series have bothered Karl, leading to his decision to bench him for Game 5. Karl seemed perturbed by Smith’s 3-pointer with 25.7 seconds left in Game 4 on Monday night with Denver trailing 93-89.
“I have no idea what planet that came from,” Karl told The Associated Press. Karl said he had drawn up a play to get the ball to Iverson or Anthony.
“And then, of course the one with eight seconds to go, from 50 feet,” Karl said. “I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me.”
Despite his refusal to suppress his stylistic inclinations at the dour altar of George Karl (and by the way, when you’re down 4 with 25 seconds left you should definitely be shooting three pointers), J.R. Smith now has one more championship ring than his old coach, who’s currently unemployed. There still may be something troubling about J.R. infatuation subsisting on a typecast of him as a fool, but to quote LeBron, Imma let that go. Let’s conclude here: J.R.’s celebration can be instructive about winning behavior and doesn’t need to be dissonant.
I’m really digressing. Here’s what I came to say: J.R. marauding around town without a shirt was important(!) because it was a black man proudly showing his body in public, in a place where black bodies have always (and in the news only recently) been under attack. Violence against blacks in Cleveland is pervasive and debilitating. Many people know the story of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old African American child shot dead by police while playing with a toy gun; know, too, that Cleveland is among the most segregated cities in America (possibly #1 in that category):
The white poverty rate in Cleveland is 9.3 percent, and the white unemployment rate is 5.4 percent while black people in the city have a poverty rate of 33.6 percent and an unemployment rate of 20.2 percent.
When LeBron James says he’s doing it for Cleveland, for Akron, for the state of Ohio, he’s not just talking about ending a title drought. There’s more suffering in Cleveland than 50 or even 500 losing seasons could hold, and Cleveland’s historical trauma cuts more deeply than Craig Ehlo. Almost none of that goes away because the Cavaliers won an NBA Finals; that’s what the bread and circus is all about. Still, the feelings of unbridled joy that come from celebrating a championship may resonate more deeply in Cleveland when the team is led almost entirely by black men. LeBron is not just a hero for The Land, he is a black hero, and that can’t be skirted on this occasion.
J.R. Smith, perhaps the most heavily tattooed NBA player (which only makes him more of a lightning rod for criticism), was comfortable parading his black skin through Cleveland. In doing so, he helped us celebrate race as a central feature of the Cavaliers’ coronation: he is black, he is a champion, he is free. And so was Iman Shumpert, sans shirt at the parade and also rocking a super-high top fade. They are basketball players–the body is the locus of their labor. If a divided city is going to unite in the town center, let them cheer their deliverers as they are.