By Chuck Strouse
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"It's like a Polish empanada," we inform.
"I don't know what that is," he retorts smugly. But the mystery grub disappears quickly, as do the dozen or so jerseys and T-shirts.
A pleasant, gabbing crowd gathers around the car as Patches stands nearby, leaning on a bicycle and listening to a tiny radio playing salsa music.
"Let me trade you — I got blue pants," Elliot tells a buddy and barters for an away-game matching jersey. "I'm going to cherish this."
"Why wouldn't we want them? We're homeless," Darius Moore says as he pulls on an extra-large home-game jersey. He wears camouflage shorts, a faded black military-style cap backward, and a few touches of gold jewelry. His breath smells like the floor of a distillery. "I know they're old clothes, but it's the sentiment behind the garment. Somebody cares."
The folks living on NE Eighth Street in downtown Miami come from Cuba, Alabama, and Detroit by way of lost jobs, prison, and penchants for drugs and drinking. Most of them say they've been homeless for two years. It's unclear if that number coincides with the recession or is the point when they stop keeping track.
"Seven days a week, to five, to three, to two," Juan Reyes says of how his last job — setting up banquets — began to evaporate. The Havana native wears a heavy sweatshirt adorned with the Indians' Chief Wahoo logo, customized with a diamond earring and a headband, to look like LeBron James — a little sample of Cleveland's willful naiveté, considering LeBron has always been a Yankees fan. "Then to twice a month. Then job's over."
"I already know I'm going to get off these streets," Darius says. "I got a 4-month-old baby, and I'm going to raise her."
But like most conversations in Miami lately, this one eventually turns to sports, and everybody is a pundit. "It's a hell of a team," says Darius, who keeps up with the Heat through discarded newspapers and sports radio. "But then again, it's an unbalanced team."
A few hours later, New Times is three blocks away, on the steps of the American Airlines Arena, before the Heat's opening preseason game. We're trying to raise some cash for our new friends by selling LeBron bobbleheads for $25 each.
Thousands show up to see LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh take the court together for the first time. A few fans are interested in buying a bobblehead, but none bites. Then two security guards appear as if from vapor. "You selling something?" one demands before they sing in unison: "Gotta go! Gotta go!"
We leave the steps and head home, where we fondle the empty duffel and get Vince on the phone. It's the equivalent of the scene in Blow where the street-level coke dealer frantically calls Johnny Depp after selling the first big shipment in a day.
"Can you get more?"
On October 11, just more than two weeks before the Heat's home opener, the LeBron crypt-keeper finally caves.
We drive in Vince's car to Broadview Heights, a woodsy Cleveland burb, and pull into the driveway of a drab brown house. Chris Jungjohann, waving gregariously as he lumbers from the garage, looks more like a friendly Muppet — Google "Bunsen Honeydew" — than a villain. He is burly, hairless, and pleasantly round-headed. An unseen puppy whines behind a door to the house.
On the garage floor behind Jungjohann sit eight or so large boxes filled with what might be the largest surviving collection of Cavaliers-era LeBron gear in the universe.
Jungjohann gives us carte blanche to dig through the boxes, and the booty is incredible. There are jerseys of every variety: orange-and-white throwback jerseys, All-Star Game jerseys, and NBA Finals jerseys from 2007, when the Cavs came within four wins of a championship.
There are hundreds of T-shirts. One features a Slam magazine cover with LeBron wearing a king's robe and crown. Others are inlaid with glossy gold lettering. There's a pink jersey with no adornment save LeBron's head floating phantasmagorically on the front.
One tee is simply a Wet Seal-brand women's V-neck with a message scrawled creepily in fabric marker: "Why did you leave? Cleveland is your home."
The most common item, though, is the simple wine-colored T-shirt modeled after LeBron's jersey. On many of them, the lettering has cracked after repeated washings. These were people's favorite shirts — the first ones they put on after doing the laundry. The boxes also hold upward of 50 children's jerseys, each tragically representing another kid doomed to worship Antawn Jamison.
And then, buried near the bottom of one box, there's "LeAfghan": a trippy wool blanket stitched with the portrait of LeBron standing next to another LeBron. With a nippy winter on its way to Miami's streets, this is the crown jewel of the collection.
Per Jungjohann's instructions, we place two boxes in our trunk and leave the rest with him. He says he'll use secret channels to get the rest of the stuff to Miami's homeless. It appears that certain homeless advocacy groups, afraid to piss off anybody, have agreed to take his collection as long as it's not publicized.