|A Close Look at LeBron's Leaving...and Return to Cleveland|
By John Black
After turning his back on loyal fans in 2010 to seek greener pastures – and two NBA championship rings -- in Miami, LeBron James announced on July 11, 2014 that he would be returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers next season.
It was great news for fans…or was it?
Documentary filmmakers Nicole Prowell Hart and Allyson Sherlock (Boston-based; families in Cleveland) spent four years taking a close look at the impact that the sports superstar’s leaving had on the city and people of Cleveland, told through the eyes of the fans he left behind. The feature-length film, Losing Lebron, also explores why sports are so important to the struggling city.
Intrigued by the story, Color Magazine conducted an email interview with the directors to learn more about the relationship between a city and its sports heroes, as well as how LeBron’s return impacted them as filmmakers.
Color Magazine: You spent four years making a movie about the effects LeBron leaving had on Cleveland, and then he makes an announcement that he’s coming back to the Cavs. Can you describe how you felt when you heard the news, both as filmmakers and as people with strong Cleveland ties?
Nicole Hart: As a filmmaker, I felt as though we were just handed a fairytale ending to our film. The Prodigal Son returns! We immediately contacted everyone who was in Losing LeBron to get their reactions to LeBron’s return. We’ve already been out to Cleveland to film, and the city is just so ecstatic.
Truthfully, I was much more excited for the people of Cleveland (and for all the Cleveland fans in our film) when he announced he was going back, especially when he returned in such a humble manner. His words were absolutely heartfelt and genuine, and I think they lifted a giant weight off the shoulders of Cleveland. I had been telling people for the past four years that I thought LeBron would return to Cleveland, and I kept saying, “This is the year—the stars are aligning!” 2014 marks 50 years since any Cleveland sports team has won a championship, LeBron is turning 30, he’s married now, expecting his third child, has two titles under his belt, and his contract was expiring. To me, the timing seemed perfect for him to return. I got laughed at quite a bit for my theory, but when his essay was published, we actually had a lot of people asking us if we had inside information for making such an accurate prediction! There was no inside information: it was just the right thing for him to do—the only thing that made sense. Again, it was The Prodigal Son.
Allyson Sherlock: I was equal parts shocked and elated. But I’m really impressed with his decision to return; it took guts.
CM: Your story is both specific to Cleveland and universal: All I had to do was substitute Tom Brady leaving the Patriots and think how devastating it would be. Why do you think people care so much about one guy playing for their team?
NH: Cities make ties to certain players—in our case in Boston, it’s definitely Tom Brady. Or David Ortiz, after his epic “This is Our F*cking City!” statement after the Boston Marathon bombings. New York has Derek Jeter. San Antonio has Tim Duncan. Sometimes teams just get these standup players who have the total package of what you want to represent your city: someone who is talented, a respectful teammate, a mentor, and responsible in the media spotlight. Role models. There’s a lot of ways athletes can fail you.
Why was LeBron so important? He was one of them. Brady is from California. We accept him as our own, but he’s not a Bostonian. LeBron is from Northeast Ohio. People kept saying, “He was one of us.” This was something we really tried to tackle in Losing LeBron. A lot of people outside of Ohio didn’t seem to understand how important LeBron was to Cleveland. Born and raised in Akron, just a half hour from Cleveland, LeBron knew all too well the heartbreaking history of Cleveland sports. He promised to reverse the history of The Catch, The Fumble, The Drive, The Shot, The Move, and instead, publicly dumped Cleveland on national television in The Decision. People really believed he was The Chosen One who was going to finally bring Cleveland a title, so when he left, people felt utterly backstabbed. And for Cleveland fans to watch him go on to the Miami Heat and become even more of an amazing athlete and win championships? Well, that was torture as well.
When we were filming Losing LeBron out in Cleveland, we kept hearing of all the famous people who got their start in Cleveland, and then left. John D. Rockefeller is one of the best known. My cousin, who lives in Cleveland Heights, said to me, “We’re like the farm team. We breed talent… we just don’t know how to retain it.”
AS: It’s very natural for people to ascribe feelings of worth to the success of their sports teams. Cheering for our teams gives us a sense of place and belonging that few other cultural activities do. So when you have the best player in the world on your team, you feel like he is ‘yours’. As we know from our film, this isn’t always a good thing. Let’s just hope it works out better this time, ha.
CM: Is a Cleveland fan really that different than a fan from another city? Do you think winning a championship – in any sport – will change them the same way that breaking the Curse of the Bambino changed the world for Red Sox fans?
NH: YES. It’s said in the film, and I wholeheartedly believe this: when your city wins, you expect to do better. When your city loses, you expect to fail. There’s a favorite saying in Cleveland: “I’m waiting for next year.” They even have an entire sports blog dedicated to it. I think if Cleveland wins… I should say, WHEN Cleveland wins, the city is going to literally go crazy. They won’t know what to do with themselves. It’s going to be a Renaissance Era. And I think Cleveland is kind of already going through that right now. It’s an extremely fun place to visit. It’s affordable, hip, a culinary hotbed, and it’s fueled by endless amounts of boomerangs who have come back to help make their city world-class. Their Public Square is getting renovated, hipster bars are popping up left and right, high-rise condos keep going up, the RNC is going to pump $200 million into their economy, and now LeBron is back. I keep joking that Cleveland is going to be the next Brooklyn, but who knows? It just might be. So a title in that town would be the ultimate reversing of any curse, and Cleveland would never look back.
AS: Absolutely yes! I think a win for the city will change things dramatically. I don’t think the psychological boost of a win can be stated enough. It will have an impact.
CM: Maria Menounos is the executive producer of the film. What expertise did she bring to the project?
NH: Maria is a fellow Emerson College alumna, where Allyson and I attended grad school for our MFA degrees. A Boston-area native, Maria is a huge NBA fan, and believes in supporting young filmmakers, especially female filmmakers. She and her non-profit, Take Action Hollywood, were instrumental in helping fund our project, and she’s been extremely supportive of our film, cheering us on the entire way. We’re really grateful to have her team on board, and we’re also excited for her—in the time we’ve made this film, she’s published two New York Times Bestseller books, had her own reality show, and now has signed with E! for her own talk show. So we’ve all kind grown together, and it’s been a truly rewarding experience to work with her. She’s got an insane work ethic and knows how to hustle—and that really helped inspire us and keep us going while we were making the film.
AS: Besides being an avid basketball fan, Maria loves to help young filmmakers see their dreams to fruition. She has been in the business a long time and brings a professional perspective that is extremely valuable.
CM: You’re Boston-based filmmakers…who are the Boston sports players that make an impact on the city that’s comparable to LeBron’s impact on Cleveland?
NH: To me, it’s impossible to compare, because we just don’t have anyone that’s truly from here. Tom Brady is probably the closest we have in current sports, but perhaps Larry Bird was one of the most memorable. And Bill Russell, Ted Williams, Bobby Orr. But we just don’t have our own LeBron.
I will say that watching Ray Allen go to the Miami Heat was like my own personal Decision hell, and losing Pierce, Garnett, and Doc Rivers all in one year broke my heart. When I heard Doc was leaving, I cried my eyes out.
One thing I learned in making this film was that I’m actually just as crazy of a sports fan as Cleveland sports fans are. There’s nothing like watching your city win a title, and going to that victory parade. Watching the Sox bring a championship to Boston six months after the Boston Marathon bombings? That was one of the most cherished moments in sports history to me. I know sports are often put down as an opiate for the masses, but it’s really a remarkable way to bring people together, for something positive, if only for a short while. And I can’t wait for LeBron to bring that to Cleveland—they are long overdue, and they certainly deserve it as much as any other city, if not more. And we will certainly be there to capture it all, with a camera in hand!
AS: LeBron’s story is so distinctly unique that I don’t think there is an equal comparison. His roots to the Ohio community make it a story as much about home as about basketball.
Losing LeBron is available to rent/own on digital VOD (Video On Demand) via iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Xbox, PlayStation, Vimeo on Demand, VuDu, VHX, Distrify, and others. For additional information, visit www.losinglebron.com and www.devolverdigital.com/films/view/losing-lebron.