Lost splendor

Balls, Pucks and Monster Trucks
By RICK WORMWOOD  |  July 14, 2010

In case you haven't heard, LeBron James will play basketball in Miami next season. Yawn. Personally, I care less about LeBron than I did the World Cup (congrats, España), but the LeBron sweepstakes, which culminated in last week's bizarre prime-time announcement special, were hard to avoid, just like that damn soccer tourney. Yes, the LeBron fuss was nauseating, but put aside the legitimate questions of whether this reconfigured Miami Heat team can win championships with three all-stars and a bunch of scrubs (who else is starting? Ed Pinckney, Voshon Lenard?), or whether or not James quit in last year's playoffs (he did). Here's what fascinates me: LeBron went from biggest hero in the league to the NBA's greatest villain in an instant, and all he had to do to complete the transformation was say the magic word, which, in this case, was Miami. He will be fun to hate, but what about the rank-and-file Ohioans left behind?

Five years ago I spent a week at the Cleveland International Film Festival. I'm a contrarian, so I like Cleveland. Some call it "the Mistake On The Lake," but Cleveland reminded me of my hometown, Sanford: post-industrial blight with a very bad attitude. I felt comfortable there. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a flaccid, corporate crypt, but other than that, the city's funky vibe was appealing. The Film Festival's theater was in the middle of Cleveland, in a redeveloped train station that also contained a mall, and the only thing that mall seemed to sell, in 2005, was LeBron James Cleveland Cavalier jerseys. Everyone was wearing one. Not most of the people, but everyone. Remembering that, it was the people of Cleveland whom I felt empathy for last week when LeBron spurned them and packed up — but, as I told a friend over this past weekend, all hope was not lost in Cleveland. The city still had Harvey Pekar!

Pekar was not a sports figure. In fact, he was perhaps the most unathletic person imaginable. A dumpy, crotchety comic-book writer, Pekar's American Splendor (most famously drawn by Robert Crumb, among others) chronicled his blue-collar life of northern Ohio drudgery, working as a clerk at a Veterans Administration hospital. The comic was adapted into a beautiful 2005 film of the same name, starring Paul Giamatti. If you've never saw the film, rent it. If you think the comic sounds interesting, go get one of the many compilations. You won't be disappointed. Pekar embodied his hometown the way that Faulkner did Yoknapatawpha County, or that Charles Bukowski did seedy, postwar Los Angeles. Pekar was Cleveland. Yes, LeBron James — who quit in the playoffs, who has never won anything, and who is so insulated in his little world that he makes the late Michael Jackson look like a Wal-Mart greeter — might leave Cleveland, but Harvey Pekar never would. It's not like comic-book guys become free agents and get signed away.

But then, on Monday morning, Pekar died suddenly. He was 70 years old and had been suffering from prostate cancer. When I heard, all I could think was, "Holy cats, Cleveland is really taking one swift kick to the nutsack after another this week!" How much can one city be asked to suffer? First LeBron, then Pekar. Who's next? (Cleveland native George Steinbrenner.) Is Eric Carmen all right? Has anyone heard from Bernie Kosar or Cheetah Chrome in awhile? Maybe someone should check on them.

And while doing so, let's keep things in perspective. Harvey Pekar was the King of Cleveland, and the king is dead.

Rick Wormwood can be reached at rumblingp@gmail.com.

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