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Top Five: Cleveland's Most Popular Athletes

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Cleveland has been home to some of the greatest athletes of all time. Who are the Five Most Popular right now? The list might surprise you.

You've probably noticed a trend with the initial Top Five posts around the Regional sites that have launched so far. If you have been paying close attention, you picked up on a theme. That's right, we have all stormed out of the gates with a great debate topic -- the Five Most Popular Athletes in our regions. For Cleveland, this was especially tough. Think about it. The Indians are struggling, the Browns have been struggling and the Cavaliers are ripping apart at the seams, at least that is the impression people have. To be honest, my first thought was, "Are there five players who deserve to be listed at all??"  Never one to break the rules, and with the help of the fine contributors of this site, I came up with five. In true Letterman-style, let's count them down. Let the debate begin.

5. Grady Sizemore

I tossed and turned in bed about this one for awhile. Is Grady still that popular in Cleveland? I say yes, even if for sentimental reasons. After trading Cy Young Award-winners C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee in back-to-back seasons, the Indians have found themselves void of talent to draw fans to the ballpark. Sizemore -- when he can get on the field, is still a draw and is a reminder of the Tribe's 'Glory Days' of 2007. Has three years ever seemed longer ago?  It was even less than that - October, 2007 - that the Indians sat one game away from the World Series, leading Boston 3-1 with C.C. and Fausto Carmona set to pitch. Grady was a sort of cult hero then, known as much for his boyish good looks as his baseball acumen. Sadly, Grady never has reached the full potential that many had for him - Ozzie Guillen once called Sizemore the best player in the American League. Still, Sizemore plays with the kind of reckless abandon that fans of a blue collar town like Cleveland fall for and he'll always hold a special place in many a-Clevelanders' heart, even as injuries rob him of playing time.

4. Joe Thomas

For all the losing the Browns have done, they do have some high-level talent. Joe Thomas is one of those guys that not only is a very good football player, but he fits in within the community as well. Draft #3 overall in the 2007 NFL Draft, Thomas has started at left tackle, a premium position, for the Browns from Day 1. Thomas finished second in the 2007 Offensive Rookie of the Year voting(RB Adrian Peterson) and has made the AFC Pro Bowl Team in each of his first three seasons. An avid outdoorsman, Thomas even hosts a TV-show on Sportstime Ohio - Outdoors Ohio - and Thomas figures to be a mainstay on the Browns' offensive line for years to come. Not the flashy type, Thomas could easily walk the street unrecognized, but lack of paparazzi doesn't mean a guy isn't popular and Thomas certainly fits the bill. 

3. Zydrunas Ilgauskas

This list is reserved for current Cleveland athletes only, so Z still makes the cut, barely. While LeBron James gets all the free agency buzz, and rightly so, Big Z will also be free to play elsewhere next season and with the Cavaliers likely to be over the salary cap it could mean the end of Z's run in Cleveland for a second time. Selected with the 20th pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, Z came to Cleveland from Lithuania speaking no English, with a history of foot problems. He missed his entire rookie year and Cavaliers fans had to wonder if we'd ever see him play. Play he did, starting in 1997, when Ilgauskas was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team. After signing a large extension in 1998, Ilgauskas injured his foot again and played just 5 games from 1998-2000. Ilgauskas returned for the 2000-01 season, but once again fell victim to foot problems that ended is season after 23 games. He played sparingly in 2001-02, before regaining his form during the 2002-03 season in which he was named an All Star. Of course, that season the Cavaliers won just 17 games, giving the team the right to select LeBron James in the 2003 NBA Draft. Even with LeBron, Z remained one of the most popular Cavaliers. Ilgauskas could have easily retired from basketball. Contracts in the NBA are guaranteed, and Z didn't have to go through all the operations, all the rehab, but he did. It was that type of work ethic that endeared him to Cavaliers fans. That's why it was so difficult to see him traded to Washington this past February. Due in large part to a large groundswell of support, Z returned to the Cavaliers in March, after the required 30-day waiting period -- but was used only sparingly during the playoffs, a curious move by Mike Brown that could be one of the reasons he lost his team. Because of the trade, the Cavaliers can only pay Ilgauskas, at best, $6 million per season, and Z is likely to get a better offer. Will he take it?  That is anyone's guess, but for now Ilgauskas, for playing through the pain during the worst of times for the Cavaliers, is one of best Cleveland sports has seen. Ever.

2. Josh Cribbs

Is there any doubt that Josh Cribbs should be on the list?  For the past two seasons, Cribbs is the most dangerous weapon the Cleveland Browns have had. The Browns know it and so do the opposition, but they can't stop him. What makes it more impressive is the fact Cribbs came out of Kent St., having played quarterback, and was undrafted in 2005, settling for the Browns as a free agent. Cribbs made the team that year as a kick returner and hasn't looked back. In just 5 seasons, Cribbs already owns the NFL Record for Kickoff Return TDs in a career with eight. Cribbs has had at least one kickoff return TD in each of his 5 season and holds the Browns record for return yards in a season. All this while playing WR and even some QB as well. Perhaps one game, Week 13 against the Steelers in 2009, embodies what Cribbs means to the Browns the best. After losing 12 straight to the Steelers, Cribbs was a one-man wrecking crew, finishing with 200 all-purpose yards, including 87 yards rushing as a quarterback. While he doesn't get the publicity some other returners do, Cribbs is the best in football and might be the most dynamic weapon in the League considering the Browns really don't have another guy that scares defenses yet Cribbs continues to be unstoppable. It was little surprise that one of Mike Holmgren's first tasks as Browns president was to get Cribbs signed to a new deal, keeping Cribbs in a Browns uniform for a long time.

1. LeBron James 

I really struggled with this one. Why?  LeBron is already on another city's Top 5 List, which is a bit odd considering that, for now, he is still the property of the Cavaliers. Even so, you'd be hard-pressed to keep James off the list, considering he is not only one of the best basketball players on the planet but is local kid from Akron. For me, that was the determining factor. If LeBron had played somewhere else for the last seven years, he would likely be just as popular in Cleveland/Akron as he is today. We know about all the accolades, the awards, the red-carpet scene. What remains, however, is the fact the James is a Northeast Ohio kid and that, no matter what New York or Chicago try and do, will never change. James built his dream home 20-minutes south of Cleveland. He holds his MVP press conferences in Akron. Whether he's playing for the Cavaliers in November or for some other team, Akron will always be home, and he will always be a large part of the community. That is what keeps LeBron on the list, and that is why he would likely remain on the list -- at least after the sting of losing James dissipated. LeBron's free agency is going to be a huge part of this site -- and the entire news cycle -- for weeks into the future. That shouldn't relegate what he has done for the last seven years to the background. Should he stay, he will once again be the hometown hero. Should he leave, he'll be the greatest Ohio export of all-time.

There you have it, the Inaugural SBN Cleveland Top 5. Be sure to look out for these every week, and by all means, use the comments to agree, disagree, and provide your own list. This site is for YOU!

Photographs by spatulated, Triple Tri, and chrischappelear used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.