By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
"Shit, I'll wear anything."
Those are the words — uttered by a man named Patches — that started it all.
He's lean and muscular and speaks with a strong Cuban accent. The ex-con stands 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 badass than bedraggled.
The basketball jersey New Times gave him completes the motif. It's a No. 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, eyes him enviously.
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 The study's conclusion: The homeless don't mind wearing out-of-date sports gear, even if it comes with a little baggage.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 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' 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.
Several agencies rejected Jungjohann's stuff. "The general consensus was that it was an attempt to mock the homeless population," explains megalobbyist Ron Book, who serves as the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust chairman. "The reaction was a tense but pleasant 'No, thanks.' "
Our suspicion is that local homeless people wouldn't mind giving their self-proclaimed advocates an impassioned but pleasant slash to the tires.
So we took it upon ourselves to find a test subject. Hence, Patches.
Wearing a grin and 60 bucks in mesh, the buff street dweller lounges against a fence as we drive away. Our mission is clear: We're going to have to hand out these jerseys ourselves.
In Cleveland, 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.
In the weeks since we gave away that first jersey to Patches, Jungjohann has been frustratingly noncommittal about whether he'll allow us to distribute his goods. "I'm still waiting to hear for sure" from South Florida'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 did so on July 8, the night LeBron stammered to the world he was taking his talents to South Beach. The unnamed luminary lit it up 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 a jersey to be torched would receive a free ticket.
A Cleveland bar, Bier Markt, offered free brew to patrons who brought in LeBron jerseys the night after "The Decision." Bartenders armed themselves 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 and 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 No. 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 smoke from a Marlboro Light.
He once wrote for a blog devoted to sports-uniform-related news. Now he works for the Cleveland 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 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, C.C. Sabathia, and the entire original Browns team — Cleveland had finally suffered the ultimate injustice.
A few years older than LeBron, Vince has 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 pickup game with LeBron at the superstar's alma mater. Never one for restraint, LeBron burst into laughter when Vince had a shot blocked, he recalls, by a "five-foot Chinese guy."
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.
Soon, a guy named Adam shows up at the Scene office. He wears glasses, low cap over messy hair, and a deep-seated loathing of LeBron. 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."
On October 11, we hit the LeBron jackpot. Jungjohann finally agrees to give us access to his stash. He invites New Times to his drab brown house in Broadview Heights, a woodsy Cleveland 'burb. When we pull into the driveway, Jungjohann waves gregariously as he lumbers from the garage. 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.
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 washes. These were people's favorite shirts — the first ones they put on after doing the laundry.
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 winter on its way to South Florida 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 South Florida'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.
Jungjohann certainly earned the prize of free Heat-Cavs tickets.
Our Wino and Gold Jersey Donation kicks off on a weekday at Fort Lauderdale's Stranahan Park. First up is Keith Facyson, a genteel 48-year-old who calls himself the granddaddy of the displaced legions who gather under the park's gazebo and cypress trees.
Asked about the homeless advocates who turned down LeBron's unwanted goods, Facyson is quick to protest: "Nobody never got the opinion of the homeless about LeBron James. They never asked us."
Sitting in the concrete shade of the park's enormous gazebo, Facyson is almost dapper in a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt, linen pants, and a baseball cap with a Scion logo. He accepts the first proffered white-and-gold jersey without hesitation. Then he takes a T-shirt too, for when the weather gets cold. "I love LeBron James," he explains. "I think he's gonna help us win a championship."
Facyson followed "The Decision" controversy closely and has been waiting for this moment to opine: "I think he didn't get a fair deal in Cleveland. I don't think it was racial. It is what it is. It's a business."
Facyson's voice sounds like raked gravel. His goatee is flecked with gray, and the skin on his hands is dry and chafed. He's nursing a Big Gulp that smells like beer until he spots a cop car and dumps the amber liquid into the gutter.
After 17 years in prison due to a love affair with crack, Facyson now casts the past decade of off-and-on homelessness as a lifestyle choice. "Being out here isn't all that bad," he says. "You always have a place to eat, people bring you clothes, you ain't got to worry about no rent."
He has a sister he could stay with and a twin brother who gives him hand-me-downs. But Facyson believes the Lord put him on the streets for a reason. Pointing to a blue grocery bag beside him, he says he collects donated sandwiches, snacks, and drinks and hands them out to people needier than he. "When God puts you someplace, you just got to sit still," he says.
As Facyson delivers his soliloquy, swarms of onlookers are getting restless. Allen Roberts, 40, walks by on his way to the library. He's shaped like a WWF competitor with a fox-red mustache and a cig in his mouth. The controversy surrounding an NBA superstar's jerseys doesn't impress him. "Yeah, I'll wear it," he says. "I don't care. Makes no difference to me."
Another friend, tanned, green-eyed Brandon Johnson, sits hunched and indignant on the steps beside Facyson, smoking vehemently. "How can they speak for the homeless?" he says of the advocates who have refused the jerseys. "I'm just glad LeBron James came to us."
Around his neck, Johnson proudly drapes his new heirloom: a T-shirt featuring LeBron's face superimposed on the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo logo — a little sample of Cleveland's willful naiveté, considering LeBron has always been a Yankees fan.
We head back to the USSR to hand out a portion of the bounty from the trunk of a dented Toyota Corolla. This time, we decide to pair the clothes handouts with a bit of food. 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 explain.
"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 stopped 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. "Then to twice a month. Then job's over." The Havana native wears a heavy sweatshirt adorned with the Cleveland Indians' Chief Wahoo logo, customized with a diamond earring and a headband, to look like LeBron.
Marcelo, moseying up Biscayne Boulevard around NE 25th Street with a baby stroller full of belongings, grabs a large jersey and size 11 1/2 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."
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, who 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.
We drive to NE Eighth Street between First and Second avenues, and a small crowd gathers around the Corolla, window-shopping the open boxes in the back seat. Channel 10 has been tipped off. 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 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, 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. "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. 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 in downtown Miami, 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.
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 contributed to this article.