Thursday, June 23, 2011

Love is a wonderful thing

We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. - Patrick Rothfuss

Joe Haden, lover of fun
Fan-love can be a misunderstood concept, and perhaps no more so than when it comes to perceptions of the North Coast. When LeBron James went south, Clevelanders were portrayed as orphaned children who lost a piece of their souls along with their best hope for a championship celebration.

Writers trying to capture the regional zeitgeist suggested that James, the hometown kid with a global reach, essentially "completed" us, and like any spurned paramour with little else to live for, we filled the vacuum of our severed adoration with anger, jealousy and hatred.

Even Cleveland media got caught up. As the downtown "We Are All Witnesses" banner came down, local columnists and radio talk show hosts alike warned against future instances of such singular affection, and by gum we had all learned a valuable lesson, hadn't we?

What the media has never understood about Cleveland fans is how we define "love" when it comes to sports. Clevelanders don't fall head-over-heels for any swinging dick who can dunk a basketball, hit a home run, or throw a spiral. I think most of us respected James the basketball player for his superlative talent and his single-handed revivification of the Cavaliers. But to suggest that the city's collective worthiness was somehow diminished without LeBron was media-cooked overstatement at its worst.

If we made a mistake with James, it was thinking that he understood Cleveland. LeBron would talk up the city's litany of sports defeats, but he grew up rooting for the frontrunner triumvirate of the Yankees, Bulls and Cowboys. Maybe we should have known better way back in Oct. 2007, when an impishly grinning James held up a Yankees cap during a playoff game at Progressive Field. In hindsight, we were just a lottery-lucky stepping stone for a guy who always made distinctions between Cleveland and his hometown of Akron.

Which brings me to Joe Haden, who was born in Maryland and played for the hated Florida Gators in college. The Browns' cornerback has no tangible connections to Cleveland, but has still emerged as a kind of anti-LeBron, going out of his way to embrace the city and its fans.

Call it a ploy for attention or for Twitter followers. Call it a rich guy marking time during the doldrums of the NFL lockout. Call it what you will my cynical friends, you can't deny the hustle. Haden has been a visible supporter of the city's pro teams, appearing in full uniform and amusingly ridiculous fake beards at Cavs' games when he's not brandishing a Chief Wahoo foam finger in support of the Tribe. The Browns' DB, along with Josh Cribbs, also served as an ambassador for the Cavs during the recent draft lottery.

Put simply, Haden "gets it." He's harnessed the enthusiasm Clevelanders feel for their teams and made it his own. Marketing ploy or not, Haden looks to be having fun, and unlike your average pro athlete isn't worried about looking goofy for the cameras. To borrow Nick Gilbert's catchphrase from the night the Cavs got the #1 pick, "What's not to like?"

Clevelanders will happily embrace an athlete that does his best to reciprocate that feeling. Bernie Kosar is adored around these parts not just for spearheading the best Browns' teams of a generation, but also for being an Ohio native who made public his preference for staying here.

That's an unfortunately uncommon distinction among big time athletes, particularly in a sports environment dominated by mercenary free agents who for some reason have a distaste for five-month winters. The player/fan disconnect has grown wide in the modern mega-money era, making Haden's fun-loving, drinking buddy personality all the more refreshing.

As dorky as it is, my personal man-crush for Haden is akin to George Costanza's feelings for Elaine's easy-going, rock-climbing boyfriend Tony in the episode of "Seinfeld" called "The Stall."

"He's such a cool guy," George unabashedly enthuses to a contemptuous Jerry.

"Cool guy? What are you, in 8th grade?" Jerry replies with a smirk.

Whatever. Haden is cool and I want to hang out with him. He was at the Beachwood Sushi Rock this week meeting fans and actually picked up the tab for everyone's sushi. How cool is that? Might Haden be gone some day like so many athletes before him? Certainly, but that hasn't precluded him from becoming one of "us," even if it's on a temporary basis.