You shouldn’t be reading this right now. Instead, follow this link and read the Wright Thompson story entitled “Believeland.”
If you follow popular sports culture you know it’s about LeBron James, but in a way it isn’t about James at all. We hear enough about LeBron, whether through the osmosis created by 24-hour sports coverage or because we find him interesting.
This story is about Cleveland, about a city and its sports.
In an even larger sense, though, it’s about what being a sports fan is really about. Just how different is a place like Cleveland from a city like Buffalo? Comparisons often devolve into which town is more “tortured” or “depressed” but the larger point is that these adjectives apply to both.
Wright Thompson’s story is moving in a number of ways, but a pair of reasons stand out to me: 1) It’s a glimpse at the many, many ways people value sports on an individual level and 2) It’s about the inevitable disconnect between the athlete and fan.
Why? That’s the question so many people asked and will never get an answer to. We continue to fight over the reasons why Cleveland reacted the way they did in July, but the real question will never have a satisfactory answer. We can’t understand his reasons for leaving and he can never truly understand their pain.
That unbridgeable gap between the two is a difficult truth to accept. It’s what Cleveland is subconsciously dealing with right now and will face head on tonight. LeBron James ripped himself away from Cleveland on national television, and tonight he will face the city that loved him on the very same stage.
About 190 miles away on the shores of the same Great Lake, Buffalo is quietly buzzing about a very different story. Instead of millions watching on television, we sit waiting for a few reporters to tell us about negotiations between billionaires.
Like I said, a very different story. But what is truly interesting about the potential sale of the Sabres is not who sits in the owner’s suite come January, but what fans are talking about when they discuss a change in ownership.
Ties to the area.
That’s the phrase that seems to stick out right now. When the Sabres were on the way out, “ties to the area” meant someone who owned a company in Rochester. Someone living within 100 miles of HSBC Arena was good enough because, really, anyone would have been good enough. Keeping the Sabres in Buffalo was most important of all, and that’s what B. Thomas Golisano promised.
Now that the Sabres are stable, “ties to the area” means a bit more than it used to, our sense of regionalism gets enhanced a bit. Just what is a Rochester businessman who knows nothing about hockey doing in charge of a hockey team? What exactly does he know about the Buffalo Sabres?
In fact, what is extremely appealing about Terry Pegula is that he lived very close to city limits for a time. Pegula’s time as a resident of Orchard Park is a huge endorsement because he’s one of us, he knows what it is like to struggle and suffer like a true Western New Yorker.
And then there’s this.
“Then I moved to Western New York, and I became more or less a Buffalo Sabres fan. … The Flyers and Sabres played for the Stanley Cup, and it was difficult. I liked both teams.”
Now we are getting somewhere. That’s what this is really about, right? If the equilibrium between players and fans can never be reached, can we find it between a team’s owner and fans? That’s what makes Mark Cuban so interesting, the idea that some guy gets the keys to a franchise and does things “the right way.”
LeBron James and Tom Golisano are very different people, but they have one thing in common: They don’t get it, simply because they can’t. No one wants to say it, but the most interesting thing about an ownership change is the potential that the new guy finally gets what being a Sabres fan is about for a lot of fans.
At one point in their lives, every fan has thought they could do a better job running his favorite team, if only because they would understand the fans. In Buffalo that connection seems to be especially important, whether justified or not. We want to feel connected, and the most memorable teams are the ones we lived and died with.
My childhood was dominated by The Hardest Working Team in Hockey, a saying that is all but erased from the history of this team outside of a few fading bumper stickers. Those Sabres are long gone, an estranged cousin removed by bankruptcy and a few logo changes.
But it’s that connection I think about when I read about Cleveland, when I think about Terry Pegula. I can’t help it, that’s the way I look at sports sometimes. What fans want more than anything, it seems, is an owner to finally understand why we do all this and deliver the payoff. Not only because we want it so badly, but because he’s right behind us in asking for it.
I don’t know if an energy tycoon living in Florida really understands Buffalo and can give us what we want. What I do know, however, is that I absolutely want to find out.
I haven’t decided if I’ll watch LeBron James return to Cleveland tonight. I’m not sure what I’ll really learn from it, or if it means anything at all. What I do know is this: the stories developing in each city are strangely tied together now.
Two places that share an inferiority complex as equally as they share Lake Erie are struggling to shake the feeling that things will never really change. Cleveland once thought that a boy from Akron could deliver something they’ve waited decades for.
Is Buffalo ready to put its collective dreams on one man?