"Shit, I'll wear anything."
Those are the words — uttered by a man named Patches — that start it all.
He's lean and muscular and speaks with a strong Cuban accent. The ex-con is standing in what we'll call the Unofficial Subtropical Skid Row (USSR) — the bombed-out blocks, strewn with groggy homeless people, a few hundred feet west of the Miami Heat's American Airlines Arena.
He wears mesh shorts, a green bandanna folded over his dead left eye (hence the nickname), and a red Pizza Hut hat. A twig dangles from his teeth. Patches somehow makes it all look more bad-ass than bedraggled.
The basketball jersey New Times give him completes the motif. It's a number 23 LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey — wine and gold in color, never worn, and with a $59.99 price tag only recently removed. Patches throws it on his bare torso and struts across the filthy pavement like it's a catwalk. A buddy, slouching against a chainlink fence, enviously eyes him.
On this weekday afternoon in September, Patches is the sole test subject. The study's conclusion: The homeless don't mind wearing out-of-date sports gear even if it comes with a little baggage. This might not seem like an epiphany — unless you're a Miami homeless advocate.
Two months earlier, northeast Ohio had become a Chernobyl of burning LeBron James jerseys. That's when the basketball demigod had hyped a national television special in order to dump his native region for Miami. One Cleveland man was inspired to salvage his town's jerseys — and all other LeBron-themed clothing — by collecting and shipping them to the Magic City for distribution to the local homeless. Within a month of James's joining the Heat, Chris Jungjohann (pronounced young john), founder of the project he called "Break Up With LeBron," had collected more than 400 jerseys and other items through a website and boxes he set up at restaurants.
It was simple brilliance, doomed for the buzz saw of South Florida bureaucracy.
The Miami Coalition for the Homeless, as well as several other agencies, had rejected Jungjohann's stuff. "It's on hold right now," the coalition's policy director, Rita Clark, had told us. "There's a lot of politics around this." She added that Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado privately disapproved of the project — which his spokesperson denies.
"The general consensus was that it was an attempt to mock the homeless population," Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book explains. "The reaction was a tense, but pleasant, 'No, thanks.'"
Our suspicion is that local homeless people once again wouldn't mind giving their self-proclaimed advocates an impassioned, but pleasant, slash to the tires.
The weather and weirdness of Miami would make it a natural Shangri-la for drifters if it weren't for the professional buzzkills. Last year, the Homeless Trust attempted to make it illegal to give beggars your leftovers without first taking a class on the subject. Then there are the trust's suddenly ubiquitous coin meters. Decorated by millionaire artist Romero Britto, the expensive meters are designed to encourage samaritans to donate to the trust rather than directly to panhandlers.
As with the jersey ban, there's a common theme here: Nobody ever asks the Steel Reserve-quaffing set what it wants. Hence Patches.
Wearing a grin and 60 bucks in mesh, the buff street dweller lounges against a fence as we drive away. Shit, we think. We're going to have to do this ourselves.
The faces are pasty. The smiles are genuine. The clothing is sensible. The boobs are real.
This is a strange, exotic place, but we're not here as tourists. We have an empty red duffel bag — $14 from Kmart — and we're looking to fill it with northeast Ohio's jerseys. A month before our de facto deadline — the Heat's regular-season home opener on October 29 — we have exactly no jerseys and the same number of prospects.
Chris Jungjohann, with his ominously unphonetic name, has become a villain. In the weeks since we gave away that first jersey, he has been frustratingly noncommittal about whether he'll allow us to distribute his goods. "I'm still waiting to hear for sure" from Miami's homeless agencies, he explains in an endlessly affable tone. He won't fathom that he's been stiffed with a garage full of semiworthless sports gear.
Jungjohann owns a marketing company, and he made collecting a ton of LeBron crap look awfully easy. For starters, he had timing on his side. When people throw their exes' stuff onto the street, they tend to do it in the hours, not weeks, after a breakup.
One of the first Clevelanders to torch a LeBron James jersey July 8 — the night LeBron stammered to the world he was taking his talents to South Beach — was an unnamed luminary at a Mahoning Valley Scrappers minor-league game. The pyro-innovator "avoided arrest," a newspaper noted the next day, probably because the Scrappers liked the idea. They announced a promotional night featuring a "LeBronfire." Fans bringing his jersey to be torched would receive a free ticket. The Double-A Akron Aeros ran a similar promotion, shipping off their jerseys with missionaries to be distributed in far-flung places.
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."
And memorabilia company Fathead, helmed by Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, marked down LeBron's life-size cutouts to $17.41, the birth year of betrayal icon Benedict Arnold.
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."
"I challenge Miami New Times to step up and do some real honest good for the homeless community," Lauren Greer writes. "Organize a food drive to go along with this other gimmick."
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.
"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.
He is still stung by the Miami Coalition for the Homeless's snub. "We really connected on a personal level," he laments of Rita Clark. "She told me that she used to live in Cleveland, and this and that. We talked for a long time. Then she just stopped returning my calls."
Jungjohann certainly earned the prize of free Heat-Cavs tickets. He's not Lex Luthor after all, we conclude as we drive off with a trove of grade-A LeBron swag, speeding a bit with the irrational fear he'll change his mind. The guy just happened to stumble into partnership with a government-intertwined South Florida agency. The poor bastard.
Marcelo, moseying up Biscayne Boulevard around NE 25th Street with a baby stroller full of belongings, grabs a large jersey and size 11.5 Nike Air Force 1 LeBrons. He's a bearded Puerto Rican drifter who has the look of a master collector with his carriage full of junk, a Dickies cap on his head, and sport sandals over socks. Then he admits he has size 9 feet — but he has a plan for the shoes. "I got a friend," he explains coyly. "I make a deal with him."
It's hard not to see the imaginary crack rocks dancing above his head like sugarplums. We make a mental note to ask for shoe size before distributing any more sneakers.
A retro-style jersey T-shirt goes to a man named Willie, sleeping at the Metromover station on Biscayne at NE Sixth Street. He promptly uses it as a pillow and shuts his eyes again. Getting a matching shirt is his neighbor, Reggie, perched a few concrete slabs away. A former member of the parking-stub-hustling-homeless elite who once had a couch to crash on and a clean wardrobe, Reggie looks dirty and defeated as he sits on a brick ledge. He just finished a prison stint and is hitting the crack too hard. Life on the streets is defined by NASDAQ-esque ups and downs, and Reggie is in a bear market.
Our last trip to the USSR had been orderly, even placid. But now as we drive to NE Eighth Street between First and Second avenues, the street's denizens are on the lookout for a dented beige Corolla. A small crowd gathers around the car, window-shopping the open boxes in the back seat.
Channel 10 has been tipped off as well. The sight of blazer-wearing reporter Glenna Milberg wielding a microphone with a cameraman in tow acts as a magnet for ruckus-seeking homeless.
New Times is soon beset by the roof-eschewing of every race and ilk. Many of them are unsurprisingly grubby, but a few have a scavenger's dapperness perfectly complemented by wine-and-gold mesh. Women want extra-extra-large jerseys to wear as dresses. Husbands and wives demand matching jerseys. Nobody wants to settle for a T-shirt. One loquacious woman, named Paula Andre, asks for a petite pink jersey for her daughter. We oblige. Asked her kid's name, Andre is stumped.
Word spreads to a nearby homeless shelter, and new speed-walking waves of homeless join the rabble. Then the attempts at double-dipping begin. "I told you, I gave it to my man!" a woman named Mississippi keeps yelling when reminded she already nabbed a jersey. With increasing ferocity, she slaps a New Times reporter's left shoulder.
"Take all the shit out and give me the car!" a man named Pablo screams, half-joking.
After 45 minutes of being pawed, prodded, needled, and harassed, a reporter is sweating like Shaquille O'Neal at a free-throw line. The boxes are down to their dregs. The car rocks, but nobody reaches in to help themselves. The scene borders on ugly but never hops the fence.
The mob is enjoying itself. Main Man Stacks, a pudgy dude who happens to be wearing a Cleveland Indians hat, makes it clear he wants the last jersey — and "don't even give me no other kind of shit!" he orders. "We can be choosy!"
After the escapade, only a few items are left in the car. (As for the bobbleheads, New Times has listed them on eBay to coincide with the publishing of this article. All proceeds will go to feeding the homeless in Miami and Cleveland.) A pair of shorts and two wristbands go to Josh, a beggar just north of Little Haiti. His Mr. T-like mass of rosaries and chains pegs him as a serial accessorizer.
At the discharge window outside the county jail downtown, where prisoners are freed wearing only blue scrubs, a cheery vagrant trades his government-issue top for the last T-shirt — an '80s-style petite women's item, split on the sides and reconnected with knots. And shoes are given to the reclusive homeless colony under the Dolphin Expressway bridge along NE 12th Avenue, where Vietnam-vet-looking bums threaten to "destroy you right now" when asked for their names.
It's a different story in Coconut Grove, ground zero for the famous water bums — homeless who kept skiffs and lived on deserted islands until marina officials landlocked them by confiscating the boats.
It's late afternoon and raining, but the neighborhood's most gregarious beggar is cheerily cradling a Hurricane High Gravity with his bare feet, begging for cigarettes, and chatting idly. The guy, who says his name is Departee Hardee and sports Charles Manson-style gray locks and facial hair, is hanging out with his reserved, nearly toothless buddy Michael Chaver.
Departee somehow steers the conversation to his porn-making days in Europe. "It was what we called triple-X, all penetration for sure," he reminisces. "Not in me, though — I kept it straight. That was some good money." He bursts into a raw, hacking cough.
We give Michael a pair of LeBron III sneakers and hand Departee the final remnant of the collection: the glorious LeAfghan.
Modeling it like a poncho, Departee has a revelation. "What if I poke a hole in it and put my little hamster through there?" he posits. "I could put my little dick through there right where his nose is at."
He begins excitedly unstringing his khaki shorts while pressing the blanket to himself.
A thousand miles away, Cleveland cheers.
Vince Grzegorek, web editor of Cleveland's Scene — which is copublishing this story — contributed reporting.