Munch admitted Saturday that he was among the many who broke down in tears in the hours following the July 11 announcement. His given name is Mark Bishop, but many of his listeners know him only by his radio handle on WKNR 850, ESPN’S local affiliate in Cleveland.
He’s a Clevelander through and through. He was born on the Browns and raised on the Indians. He was a young boy when the Cavaliers played their first season as an NBA expansion team. He spent a large majority of his life in Cleveland and is unapologetic when supporting the city and its sports teams.
To him, it’s about the people.
For four years, Munch was rightfully among LeBron James’ biggest critics after the superstar held up Cleveland for the world to see and smacked the city upside its collective head. For LeBron, signing with the Miami Heat in pursuit of a championship was a professional decision.
For the helpless souls left behind, it was personal. He committed a Modellian crime, an unforgiveable felony. Northeast Ohio’s greatest son had become one of its greatest villains. And for the legion of listeners who called into “Munch On Sports,” there was no turning back.
“For some guy to spit on our faces, at the least, to me he was Public Enemy No. 2 behind Art Modell,” Munch said. “Perhaps he was even worse because he was born and raised here. It wasn’t that he left. He quit, which to me is the most heinous thing an athlete or human being could do. It’s quitting in life.”
It was no wonder why LeBron was vilified when he returned with the Heat, why fans agreed with owner Dan Gilbert’s letter criticizing him, why people burned his jerseys and sold disparaging T-shirts targeting him. He didn’t leave the Cavs. He abandoned Cleveland like many athletes before him.
But when he became a free agent this summer, and there was a chance he would return to his home state, fans were busy putting together the ashes.
“There were people on their knees begging him,” Munch said. “I was like, ‘What kind of man are you? Your girlfriend or wife just slept with everybody in the country, and you’re going to welcome her back when she knocks on the door and give her a big kiss on the lips? Absolutely not.”
If LeBron’s image was tarnished by The Decision, it was rescued by The Essay.
In his announcement via SI.com, LeBron acknowledged that his relationship with the people of Northeast Ohio was bigger than basketball. He explained his reasons for leaving in 2010. He referred to the region as “our community,” hitting the right notes and telling average Clevelanders that they were his teammates in life.
It was enough to make grown men cry, including Munch. He became emotional on the air, not because the Cavaliers were adding the best basketball player in the world but because it meant so much to so many. LeBron could have gone anywhere. He chose Cleveland, which meant he chose them.
In no time, he adjusted Cleveland’s attitude and lifted its psyche.
“I cried on the air because he never acknowledged Cleveland before, except to say that he was from Akron,” Munch said. “He acknowledged Cleveland. He acknowledged all of Northeast Ohio.
“I was getting texts from people who have places of business around the arena saying, ‘Dude, I don’t have to take a second mortgage on my house to pay for my business.’ He offered us some olive branches. He admitted some wrongs. I would be less of a Clevelander, not just a person, not to accept it.”
Cleveland already was experiencing a renaissance before LeBron decided to return home. Downtown revitalization projects have sprouted in recent years. Demand for apartments and condominiums has exceeded supply. The area known as “The Flats” is being rebuilt. The previously unemployed are finding jobs.
Johnny Manziel pumped enthusiasm into Cleveland after he was drafted in the first round, creating a Flutie-like effect with energy and optimism sweeping across the region. The Republican National Convention announced it was headed for Cleveland, which will draw tens of thousands to the largely Democratic region.
“It’s like we’ve been beat up here for the last couple of years, and now we’re coming back,” said former NFL center Dave Wohlabaugh, who grew up in Hamburg and remained in suburban Cleveland after retiring from the Browns.
“They get Manziel, and everybody jumps on the wagon. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I don’t even know their first draft pick’s name. Manziel was the second pick. I can’t even remember the other kid’s name. I feel bad for him, but it shows the type of excitement Manziel is bringing. And you have LeBron coming back. People are excited.”
(Note: The Browns’ first pick was cornerback Justin Gilbert, taken eighth overall out of Oklahoma State. In the interest of full disclosure, I needed to look it up.)
Cleveland already was going in the right direction when LeBron announced he would invest his heart and soul back into Northeast Ohio. He was more mature and sincere than he was four years earlier. Cleveland turned a small gathering into a party that has raged for more than a week and counting.
With sports comes hope.
Buffalo can certainly relate to the impact sports can have on its city. Buffalo and Cleveland are practically brothers with their struggling economies, tortured fan bases, inferiority complexes and insufferable punch lines from comedians. In some strange way, winning a title in a major sport would make us feel relevant.
No matter how miserable Buffalo was with the Bills missing the playoffs and the Sabres turning into a laughingstock in recent years, we always had Cleveland to keep us company. Both cities took turns with teams in contention for championships, only to suffer the inevitable and fall off the national radar.
“You look at SportsCenter nowadays, and Cleveland is some sort of story at least once a day,” said Kevin Quigley, general manager of the Winking Lizard Tavern, around the corner from Quicken Loans Arena. “A couple of years ago, the only reason we were on SportsCenter is because we lost 26 games in a row. Now, we’re talked about in a more positive light. People actually want to be in Cleveland.”
Cleveland has never won a Super Bowl or NBA title. The Browns last won an NFL title in 1964, when the Bills won their first of two AFL titles. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948.
Like Buffalo, Cleveland has its collection of people who know the city is considerably better than its image. It needed high-profile people who could help spread the gospel. Manziel is certain to draw attention one way or another. LeBron is back. Munch has people chewing on that.
“You’ve got the homegrown guy, the greatest basketball player in the world, who wants … to be … here,” Munch said. “You’ve got a young, brash kid in Johnny Manziel who wants … to be … here. You have the Republican National Convention who wants … to be … here. People want to be here. And that’s the best part.”