February 13, 2012

Kyrie Irving, I’ll Never Buy Your Jersey. You’re Welcome.

Looking back, it’s no wonder Kyrie Irving began the year with such low expectations. As the Cavaliers’ questionable #1 pick over Derrick Williams, Irving was the face of a draft without a superstar. Experts projected him as a poor man's Chris Paul. And a city needing a successor to LeBron got a soft-spoken kid NOT from Akron, Ohio, who doesn’t have “Chosen One” tattooed across his back. He couldn’t even attract ESPN or TNT to cover one game.

And he's been outstanding.

It's not just that he's averaged 18.0 points on 49.2% shooting (41.3% on 3's), but that he's done it while only playing 29.8 minutes a game. He creates shots for himself and for those around him (5.1 assists per game). He already has wins over Boston, Rubio in Minnesota, and the defending champion Mavs. In a rookie season that's so far better than LeBron's, some feel he was snubbed an All-Star selection, even though no rookie point guard has made the team since 1982. But instead of complaining, he's excited to be in the Rising Stars game. Cleveland loves him. And so do I.

So much so, that I refuse to buy his jersey.

No, really, it's no sweat. See, I get how injuries plagued him at Duke, and after sitting out the last three games with a concussion, the last thing he needs is a curse. And I refuse to subject him to the torture that befell every player whose jersey I've ever owned.

Derek Anderson

A Google search of "Cleveland Derek Anderson" will yield photos of the Browns' canon-armed slinger of 2007.

But this Derek Anderson was the Cavs' 1997 lottery pick. While most fans gravitated toward newly-acquired Shawn Kemp, I preferred the swingman with Ray Allen's skill-set. The former "Untouchable" from Kentucky was of a select few to sign with Jordan's brand, and was permitted the number 23.

No one knew of him when I got his jersey for my 13th birthday. By then, the Cavs were midway through a 47 win season with Anderson posting a promising 11.8 points and 3.4 assists. In April, I wore his jersey to Gund Arena to watch the Cavs vanquish Jordan's Bulls for the second time that year. It was only a matter of time before he became the first home-grown star in a decade.

Except... the lockout happened. Shawn Kemp gained 70 pounds of marbling, Z went down for the year, and the Cavs finished 6 games under .500. And Anderson... well, he didn't regress, he just never eclipsed his rookie numbers. He was eventually traded, then kicked around the league for a few years, fading into further obscurity.

Admittedly, tame results for Anderson. But they got worse...

Jamir Miller
You might ask, who is Jamir Miller?

The 2001 Browns rebounded from two disastrous first years in the NFL to post a respectable 7-9 record, highlighted by two victories over the defending Super Bowl champ Ravens. Had they closed winnable games against Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville, rookie coach Butch Davis would have had his team in the playoffs. As consolation, outside 'backer Jamir Miller made the Pro Bowl, the team's first representative since their return. 

A few months after the season, I bought his jersey. A few months later, he tore his Achilles tendon. He would never play again...

Tim Couch
To this day, the Browns have never faced a more difficult schedule than 2002. With 7 games against playoff teams - including the eventual Super Bowl champs - they still managed 9 wins. The man under center, Tim Couch, led come-from-behind victories over the Jets, Titans, and Ravens en route to the team's first playoff appearance since 1994.

Unfortunately, a broken leg in the final game of the season (a clinching win vs. Michael Vick's Falcons) sidelined Couch for the playoff game in Pittsburgh. Enter Kelly Holcomb, whose 429 passing yards staked the Browns to a 17-point, second-half lead...only for the Browns' prevent defense to prevent a victory.

The performance created a quarterback controversy, championed by the fans and media who never really liked Couch. And there were whispers that the receiving corps also preferred Holcomb. But I bought my orange Couch jersey anyway. Why not? I mean, a good coach like Butch Davis wouldn't abandon a playoff quarterback for a career journeyman...could he?

He could. And did. And the Browns went 5-11 in 2003, the lone highlight coming when Couch - subbing for an injured Holcomb - embarrassed the rival Steelers 33-13 on Sunday Night Football.

Couch was sick of Cleveland. He bounced around the league a bit - backing up Favre in Green Bay, a stay in Jacksonville - before calling it quits. He now coaches high school in Kentucky.

"Why, Shawn? Why..."

The brilliant Butch Davis was forced out in 2004 after a 3-8 start. He coached college at North Carolina, but was fired prior to the 2011 season.

But I shouldn't deflect responsibility. The fault lies with me, and me alone.

Travis Hafner
In August 2005, my grandfather and I went to Jacobs Field to watch the Indians play the Rangers. We sat in right field with Travis Hafner at the plate. The lefty turned on a fastball and nearly tore the cover off the ball as it screamed past the first baseman. My grandfather remarked that he'd never seen a ball hit so hard. I bought Hafner's tee-shirt jersey a few weeks later.

The 2005 Indians dropped 6 of their last 7 games, narrowly missing the playoffs. "Pronk" came 5th in MVP voting. 2006 was even better for Hafner, who hit .308 with 42 HRs (including a record-tying 6 grand slams) and 117 RBIs. He got on base at a .439 clip and had a 1.097 OPS. Had the Tribe not struggled, Hafner would have been MVP. So...the curse was broken? Not quite.

The Indians had two marquee contracts due to expire in 2008: Travis Hafner and CC Sabathia. Mid-market teams can't afford to chew up payroll with two contracts, so the Indians had to choose one. They went with Hafner, paying him a $58 million extension over 4 years.

And the 2007 Indians were brilliant. Sabathia won the AL Cy Young, #2 starter Carmona (Heredia?) was the ERA champ, the offense clicked, and Kenny Lofton's return sparked the Tribe to its first division title since 2001. The Indians blitzed the Yankees 3-1 in divisional series and led the Red Sox 
3-1 in the ALCS, one win from the World Series.

But what about Hafner? It was 2006 in reverse, Pronk fading as the team excelled. In the regular season, he hit .266 with 26 HRs. Maybe he'd turn it on in the playoffs? Against the Yanks, 4 hits in 4 games; versus the Sox, 4 hits in 7 games (and a dreadful .503 OPS). The Indians blew the series to Boston, who of course would dismantle the Rockies in the World Series. Sabathia was traded and eventually signed with the Yankees, leading them to a World Series title.

Meanwhile Pronk has been a shell of his former self. 42 homers in 2006, he's had 42 in the last three years combined. He and the Indians began strong in 2011, and hopes are high for 2012.

But, man, had I not bought that jersey...

Grady Sizemore
I never owned a proper Indians jersey. Not even from the star-driven '90s teams of Ramirez, Thome, Lofton, Alomar, and Vizquel (had I, would they have been stars?). In 2009, Grady Sizemore seemed a logical choice. He struck out a lot for a leadoff hitter, sure, but he was a five-tool player with the potential to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. He was a three-time All Star coming off his second Gold Glove. Hard-nosed, scrappy, a fan-favorite. The 26-year-old was never hurt, missing 21 games in 4 years, one of the most durable guys in baseball. I purchased his jersey in January 2009.

His career would never recover...

2009 was shortened by surgeries to his elbow and groin. In 2010, he logged 33 games before injuring his left knee. In 2011, it was his right knee. Over that time, he played 174 games out of a possible 495. When not under the knife, his speed, mobility, and power disappeared. A guy with 30-30 potential has hit 28 homers the last three years combined and had ZERO stolen bases in 2011. To top it off, some candid pictures intended for his girlfriend were intercepted and posted online (though for an athlete with sex appeal, maybe that's a positive?).

Like Hafner, 2011 had promise. Perhaps 2012 will offer a resurgence. But let's be real: his fate was sealed in January 2009...

Peyton Hillis
By 2010, yes, I'd learned my lesson. But listen... When my mother asks what I want for Christmas, she hates when I say money. Hates it. It's not even that I want money from her it's just...what else do I ask for? Paid time off? Box sets for TV shows I have no interest in? In November 2010, Peyton Hillis had just bulldozed through the Patriots and Saints en route to 1,177 rushing yards, another 477 receiving, and 13 TDs. When mom asked on Thanksgiving, I said the first thing on my mind: a Peyton Hillis jersey.

Instant regret.

Then, a Christmas miracle: every store in northeast Ohio was sold-out of Hillis jerseys! It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Because they are so few, a successful pro athlete in Cleveland can magically separate cash from wallets. The 24-year-old bruiser looked to carry the offense for a long, long time, and Clevelanders wanted on the bandwagon. And for once, I wouldn't be the one to derail him!

Cut to summer 2011, and a surprise package: a beautiful, white "Hillis" jersey with a note: "Better late than never!" Oh crap...

I accept that a player's performance and well-being will inevitably suffer through my selfishness. I just never thought it would affect their psyche. NFL players play through sprains, pulls, concussions, broken bones...you name it. In week 3 of 2011, Hillis sat out against Miami with...strep throat? No way. Was it a ploy? A byproduct of contract negotiations? Were the Browns concealing a knee injury? Nope. Strep throat. The humble Arkansas boy would later flake out on a charity event, and his frequent mental lapses would prompt eight veterans to stage an intervention. He missed another five games with a hamstring injury and only scored 3 TDs all season.

Those who cite Hillis as another victim of the Madden curse can't begin to know the truth. My bad, dude...

Anyway, Kyrie, if you're reading this, you can rest easy. I fully understand how draping that veritable voodoo doll over my shoulders will bestow pain, suffering, and mediocrity upon the name scrolled across the back. Take your time with your recovery, please. Because if you become the first player to suffer a serious injury in the Rising Stars game, I'll consider myself vindicated and your jersey fair game.



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