Monday, May 16, 2016

"Believeland" and why things are different in the Upper Midwest

I saw the ESPN 30 for 30 film "Believeland", which is about how sports fans in the City of Cleveland had gotten its teeth kicked in continually over the last 50 years- no titles and a lot of heartbreaks. The part of the movie where ex-Browns RB Earnest Byner is interviewed talking about "The Fumble" he made in the last minute of the AFC title game vs. Denver, and the pained letters he received afterwards is pretty gripping stuff. It's a good flick.

As someone who grew up in Milwaukee, it was very relatable, because Milwaukee and Cleveland are somewhat comparable cities- mid-size industrial cities on one of the Great Lakes, with a lot of people (both local and national) thinking its glory years came decades ago. The way the movie described Cleveland's populace was also familiar, as a local talk show host mentions how everyone that lives in Cleveland is from there, and few outsiders move in. The accents are even similar among the old-timers, sort of an offshoot of the Chee-CAHHHHGO EHHH-cent. Both cities are also heavily ethnic/Catholic among the white population, with the segregation and high in-city poverty rates to match. In no small part because of these demographics, it helps explain why the first school voucher programs with religious schools started in Milwaukee and Cleveland in the early 1990s.

It's also why sports means so much for communities like Cleveland and Milwaukee - because the cities are relatively small and provincial, sports and community mean a great deal. It's why Brewer fandom feels so much more serious in Milwaukee, where they actually are bothered about it when the Brewers suck (and go crazy when they are good), and even I even remember Packer talk and fandom feeling different- more hard-core and emotional than things seem here in Madison. The connection to teams aren't professional in cities like that, it is personal, and it's something that is part of what your family grew up around.

There's also an interesting part at the end involving LeBron James, and it struck me as a very Midwestern parable. LeBron is the absurdly talented local product from Akron who ends up with the Cavs after their lottery ball magically comes up, giving them the first pick as LeBron enters the draft in 2003 (yes, I am a longtime NBA cynic). The fact that a local kid makes good in his home area gives an extra push to how great it is for Cleveland fans to be able to root on a superstar like LeBron, but also looming is his free agency in 2010. And like most of us in the Upper Midwest, there's an unspoken fear that the most talented among us aren't going to stay here, and move on to bigger and brighter things in more glamorous towns, while we get left behind back home.

This culminated in "The Decision", an ESPN TV special where LeBron made the infamous announcement that he was "taking his talents to South Beach", and leaving Cleveland to sign with the Miami Heat. You may recall some fans didn't take the news very well.

And I think a lot of this comes from a natural Midwestern defensiveness (in towns not named Chicago) where we know in our hearts that our cold, often dreary town isn't the most glamorous place in the world, and that things may well be limited in the city we live in. But we don't want to be reminded of it, so when LeBron left town, you can kind of see where it triggers this emotional reaction in Clevelanders of "We can't hang onto major talent in a town like this," and they lash out.

On the flip side, a lot of us that have talent and/or high-ranking degrees are often faced with this question of "stay home or leave for somewhere bigger?" Sometimes it hits right after you graduate from college, sometimes it's after you've worked for a few years and established yourself. And it is a tough conflict that hits a lot of people as they decide their futures, which likely explains why the mid-size Midwestern metros that keep and attract talent are high-quality of life places like the Twin Cities, Madison, Indy, and Columbus, Ohio, since money isn't the only factor that people choose when they go to those places. Likewise, places that don't invest in such things and allow communities to deteriorate aren't going to be as lucky in getting that talent.

But there's another part of the Midwestern parable that LeBron also got to live, where the talented local person comes home after making his/her name. LeBron did that by signing with the Cavs in 2014, and that happens to a lot of Midwestern-raised professionals- we leave, get paid, move up, then find a way to get back closer to our family and friends. I recall several years back how leaving the state only to return later this was a fairly common occurrence among UW-Madison grads from Wisconsin. I did it, and I can personally think of quite a few people who did the same. LeBron took a similar journey, and "Believeland" mentions that fans seemed to really relate and appreciate it, and not just because 'Bron could well win a title with the Cavs (wouldn't be shocked if this was the year). But also because THE STAR CHOSE TO COME HOME, and that's something we're not used to seeing in the Upper Midwest, but it's something we can certainly relate to.

There are definite Prince comparisons to be made with LeBron's story as well, where not only was Prince a Twin Cities-raised superstar, who set songs and his huge movie in the Twin Cities, but HE CAME HOME TO STAY IN THE CITIES. If you knew people from Minneapolis-St.Paul, the image of Prince loomed so large over the social vibe of that area, and the feeling of being cutting-edge and open to other ideas and cultures bleeds over. And likewise, a star like LeBron can change the energy and image of a previously gray, tired town like Cleveland, and I think the image of Favre and Reggie White gave a more modern, "going somewhere" feel to Green Bay, along with the updates that have been put in to Lambeau over the last 15 years.

This is just a rant that came to mind, but I figured I'd share it, because I appreciate that ESPN allows these local-based projects like "Believeland" to be shown to the rest of the country. While much of the country may not understand how things work in our little corner of America, I like being able to see our voices, accents and ethos get some play every once in a while, and being Midwestern gives an extra perspective to these things that the national audience may not have.

No comments:

Post a Comment