"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 The study's conclusion: The homeless don't mind wearing out-of-date sports gear, even if it comes with a little baggage.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."
And memorabilia company Fathead, helmed by Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert, marked down LeBron's life-sized cutouts to $17.41, the birth year of betrayal icon Benedict Arnold.