Bracket Breakdown, FINAL FOUR Edition
By Andrew Clayman & Jeff Ellis
After spending three months sifting through 45 years of silver linings, four men have been chosen to represent the very best of Cleveland sports in a time devoid of world titles. The participants aren't shocking, but the lack of any Cleveland Indians might be. Instead, we've been left with two Browns taking on two Cavs for the right to fight for all the marbles. Can a cinderella point guard pull off the impossible? Does the beloved QB have one more comeback in him? Or are we headed for a palindromic showdown of #23 vs #32? Cast your votes... It's Final Four time!
And now... on to the semi-finals!
#1 Jim Brown vs #3 Mark Price
Round 4: Brown def. Sizemore (92% of vote), Price def. Thome (66%)
ANDREW CLAYMAN: To say that James Nathaniel Brown has cruised through the first four rounds of this tournament would be an understatement on par with calling him “mildly badass” in Ice Station Zebra. The man’s road to the Final Four has amounted to a walk in the park, with the brave likes of Daddy Wags Wagner, Larry Nance, Gene Hickerson, and Grady Sizemore posing no challenge. Brown leads all 64 tournament participants in total votes, and no one has managed to nab more than 8% of the vote from him in any round. His next victim is Mark Price, who was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, just a few months before the Browns won Cleveland's last major sports championship in 1964. Jim Brown was literally kicking ass when Price was still in diapers.
Speaking of that ’64 NFL Championship, now seems as good a time as any to answer those critics who say that Jim Brown and his teammates on that title-winning squad should not have been included in this tournament. After all, this was supposed to be a dance for those who endured “the drought.” True enough. But let it be said, the great Jim Brown was not immune to the Cleveland sports curse. While the Browns finally got over the hump in 1964, they only played in the postseason four times during Jim’s dominating nine years in the league, including a five-year dry spell that cost Paul Brown his job. Blanton Collier helped Jim silence his critics (incredibly, there were many) in ’64, but the following season—in what would shockingly prove to be his swansong—Brown was held to 50 yards rushing at Lambeau Field as the Packers knocked off Cleveland to win the ’65 Championship. This loss truly marked the beginning of the “Title Drought Era,” as within a year, the Packers would be hoisting the first ever Super Bowl trophy, while the Brown-less Browns began their slow descent into mediocrity. Jim Brown’s retirement (which, appropriately enough, he blames on Art Modell) weaved the first tangles of the 45 year-old web of "what-ifs" that we've come to know so well. So, including him in this tournament only made sense. Had Jim rejoined Frank Ryan, Paul Warfield, Leroy Kelly, Hickerson, and the rest of a revenge-minded squad in ’66, Vince Lombardi’s dynasty may well have been toppled, and Cleveland’s Super Bowl book might actually have a page in it. Instead, Jim Brown’s next hope for a Cleveland-related championship is here in the 64 Since ’64 Tournament. …And now, here’s Jeff to explain just what the hell Mark Price is doing standing in Brown’s way.
JEFF ELLIS: I’d just like to start with a moment of silence for the fall of yet another one of Jim Brown’s records—Most Rushing Yards in a Game by a Cleveland Brown. We always sensed that Jerome Harrison was destined to take his rightful place there, didn’t we? Either him or Travis Prentice. In any case, it’s hard to imagine Jim Brown ever not being the iconic face of the Browns franchise. It should be noted, though, that Mark Price once flirted with serving that role for the Cavaliers-- until the bearded puppet from those Nike ads came along, of course.
As we’ve talked about in earlier rounds, Price was among the best point guards of his era, and could have gone down as one of the very best ever, if not for Rick Mahorn’s elbow and a host of other tough breaks. But since Andy posed the question, “why is Mark Price in the semi-finals?” I have to say it probably has a lot to do with him being the “everyman”—something Clevelanders, and most other people for that matter, gravitate towards. Price was relatively short, pale, slow of foot, and seemed to have the athletic ability of your average YMCA pick-up game teammate. So how did he manage to become a local hero and a multi-time All-Star? Hard work, of course. And perseverance, and all that other stuff we tend to respect universally. Mark was a smart, dedicated guy who used every bit of talent he had to make himself a better player. With all the “high upside” players that crashed and burned in Cleveland, Price represented a breath of fresh air—the overachiever. Not unlike Bernie Kosar, he was someone we all could relate to and aspire to be like, and it made his jersey a hot seller for a lot of years. Will all of this get him some votes on Jimmie Brown? Maybe a handful. But, since Brown is inexplicably the only remaining Hall of Famer in this tournament—not to mention the living embodiment of Cleveland sports’ glory days—I suppose we can probably give Mark Price his final bow now.
#1 LeBron James vs #1 Bernie Kosar
Round 4: James def. Newsome (85%), Kosar def. Vizquel (68%)
AC: I’ve known this matchup was coming since the day the selection committee (which was conveniently just Jeff and I) named LBJ and Kosar as #1 seeds. On paper, it doesn’t look like a very even contest, especially for a Final Four showdown. But somehow, much as he did during his heyday in the ‘80s, Bernie Kosar just has a weird confidence about him going into this clash of Cleveland titans. Just look at his picture up there—calm, collected, oblivious perhaps. He knows that LeBron might be the lone Cleveland athlete that can rival his popularity with the local populous, but there is still an ace up #19’s striped sleeve . . . he’s retired. His career is over. It’s frozen forever in our memories, and sometimes in shitty, VHS-transferred videos on Youtube. And this makes him dangerous.
In his post-playing days, Kosar hasn’t exactly excelled at the game of life, but to Browns fans, he’s remained an almost infallible figure. In recent years, they’ve considered him “the best color commentator ever” and a “viable head coaching candidate.” They want him to be godfather to their children. And this is a guy who lost three AFC Championship games. Of course, Bernie did “win” a Super Bowl ring in Dallas, which gives him exactly one more ring than the King—for now. All things considered, though, Kosar’s only hope of an upset win in this matchup is for fans to choose nostalgia over hope for the future, which probably isn’t the healthiest course of action. LeBron may or may not be here a year from now, but his seven years in Cleveland eclipse Kosar’s seven prime years as the Browns’ quarterback by any measure you care to run with. For example, let’s go with league honors…
LeBron will have played in 6 NBA All-Star Games. Kosar made just one Pro Bowl appearance (1987). James has a Rookie of the Year award and an MVP award. Bernie has neither. Kosar’s 185 passing yards per game is good enough for 55th all-time. James’ 27.9 points per game over his career is 3rd best in NBA history. Bernie’s 15.8 pass completions per game ranks 50th in NFL history. But LeBron’s 6.8 assists per game ranks him 27th all-time. Perhaps most importantly, Kosar is not the greatest Cleveland Browns quarterback. He threw for 2,000 fewer yards than Otto Graham, 18 fewer touchdowns than Frank Ryan, and won 4 fewer games than Brian Sipe. Folks, Tim Couch had a higher career completion percentage than Bernie Kosar (59.8% to 58.8%). Meanwhile, there can be no argument or doubt whatsoever that LeBron James is already unequivocally the greatest Cleveland Cavalier ever. He is the franchise’s all-time points and steals leader, and ranks top 5 in minutes played, 3-pointers made, assists, defensive rebounds, and blocks. LeBron moves on!
JE: Last round, Andy and I squabbled a bit about LeBron’s Hall of Fame qualifications as of right now. He says James is already in, but I have a hard time enshrining a guy after six and a half years. Don’t get me wrong; I fully believe he’ll get there. There’s just an issue I have with counting chickens-— something I will get to a bit more in the Championship round. Either way, none of this changes the fact that LeBron has been on a collision course with Jim Brown since we started this madness three months ago. And unlike his collision course with Kobe last year, I think we’ll see this one come to fruition.
James has been the only true superstar we have experienced in Cleveland in the last 40 years. Sure, we had great players during that time-— including guys like Thome and Ramirez who are headed for the Hall of Fame themselves. Only LeBron, however, has transcended his sport and become a cultural icon unto himself. Kosar might be a folk hero in Northeast Ohio—- the local boy who found a loophole to come home and play QB for the Brownies. But he may have earned more national recognition during his days at The U. Bernie was a very good quarterback, but he was never bigger than the Browns. Meanwhile, it’s hard to argue that the Cavaliers franchise is a hotter commodity than the LeBron James franchise. LBJ is a great team player, but a one-man phenomenon. And he has a showdown coming with the one Cleveland sports legend that can rival him.
Only one round remains! The winners of these two match-ups will meet next week for the title of Cleveland's Greatest Player of the Title Drought Era. So cast those votes pronto!