By Michael E. Miller
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A Cleveland bar, Bier Markt, offered free brew to patrons who brought in LeBron jerseys the night following his "Decision." Bartenders were armed with garden shears. "Enjoy that beer while we shred that jersey in front of you," bar owner Sam McNulty, who says he was drunk when he came up with the idea, remembers telling customers. One hundred two jerseys met their demise. "We gave away a lot of beer that day."
In Cleveland, it seems, LeBron's once-prized merchandise is now valued only as an effigy to be trounced, and we're the only souls backward enough to be searching for it. Sporting-goods outlets have returned their number 23s to suppliers. Even thrift stores refuse to accept LeBron-themed donations, which would only stagnate on the shelves.
At this point in our mission, there's only one man who can help: Vince the Polack.
His real name is Vince Grzegorek. But nobody can pronounce that, so he's known as the Polack. He often wears hip spectacles, a Cleveland Indians cap wedged low over reddish hair, and a halo of Marlboro Lights smoke.
He once wrote for a blog devoted to sports-uniform-related news. Now he works for Cleveland's Scene, the town's alt-weekly, where he writes a blog titled '64 and Counting — a reference to the last time a Cleveland team won a title. No other city with at least three major sports teams has waited that long.
Cleveland fans are never more miserable than when their team is ahead: They just know the mopes are going to blow it. That's why when LeBron finally left, there was Moses-strength wrath and vitriol, but there was also a hint of relief. After 40 years of building disappointment — and dress rehearsals in the departures of Carlos Boozer, CC Sabathia, and the entire original Browns team — Cleveland had finally suffered the ultimate injustice.
A few years older than LeBron, Vince followed the basketball phenom since his breakout freshman year at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. In August 2009, he wheezed through a pick-up game with LeBron at the superstar's alma mater. Never one for restraint, LeBron burst into laughter when the Polish kid had a shot blocked by a five-foot opponent of Asian descent.
Despite that warm memory, Vince had tried to get a head start on closure by urging LeBron to leave Cleveland during the pre-"Decision" hype. Sacrilege at the time, the column turned out to be mighty prescient. "Somewhere on our way to idol worship," Vince wrote, "we've lost our collective stones to groveling in hopes he won't leave us as so many others have."
So it's not surprising that when we call Vince about scouring his city for LeBronalia, he quickly volunteers the Scene's services. And he pledges his own collection, including a green replica jersey from those St. Vincent-St. Mary days, four T-shirts, a pair of sparkling $120 LeBron Nikes, and a bobblehead.
We dub our collaboration the "Wino and Gold Jersey Drive." To the biggest donor, we dangle tickets for the December 15 American Airlines Arena showdown between the Heat and the Cavs.
Some journalistic codes are harmed as we try to persuade Jungjohann to pry open his suburban vault. "You're going to have that shit in your garage for the rest of your life," we tell him over the phone. "We're going to write bad things about you."
He continues to demur. Despite the threats, bribes, and free promotion in two newspapers, by October, the red duffel has collected only a few jerseys and T-shirts.
That's when a guy named Adam shows up at the Scene office. He's a Vince doppelganger — glasses, low cap over messy hair, deep-seated loathing of LeBron — and he drops off a cache of two jerseys, three T-shirts, four pairs of shoes, and six bobbleheads. "I don't want this stuff in my house anymore, and it's too expensive to burn," he explains. "It's cathartic to give it away."
Vince texts, "We are off and fucking running."
The little stabs of backlash come soon after the Wino and Gold Jersey Drive is publicized. "I think it's totally inappropriate to go dress up homeless people," a reader named Jason Howlin seethes in an email, "and take pictures with condescending captions for your newspaper."
Not a bad idea. So when we head back to the USSR to hand out the bounty from our Cleveland mission on a weekday in early October, we set up a food platter on the trunk of our dented Toyota Corolla. On the menu: pierogies — cheese-and-potato-filled dumplings favored on the shores of Lake Erie — along with the customary sides of apple sauce and sour cream.
"I don't know what that is," announces Gary Elliot, a droopy-eyed fellow dressed like a maintenance worker in blue Dickies shorts and a matching collared shirt.