It’s been two weeks since my hometown Cleveland Cavaliers won game 7 of the NBA Championship after being down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors and I think it’s finally starting to sink in. Watching the 4th quarter of the game every other day seems to help.
As many of you know, I’m a huge Cleveland sports fan and thus suffered through the heartache and misery of the Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers for the last 40 years. Unless you’re a Cleveland fan you just can’t fully understand the gravity of continually losing in the most gut wrenching, rip your heart out kind of ways. Or the long agonizing droughts all three teams have experienced. So for the Cavaliers to finally win a Championship after Cleveland fans have suffered for 52 years, was an indescribable moment. One that I knew I had to experience in Cleveland.
When the Cavaliers won game 6 my wife turned to me as I crawled into bed and asked, “what happened? Did they win?” I simply said, “I’m going to Cleveland.” She knew that I wasn’t joking. I’ve told her all along that if any Cleveland team had a shot at a Championship I’d be experiencing the moment in my hometown. Two days later I was on the road at 6 am making the eight hour trip from Brooklyn, NY. The next 8 hours would be filled with thoughts of a miraculous comeback from a 3-1 deficit (something no team had ever done in NBA history) and a ticker tape parade through the streets of downtown. The images I had floating around in my head though were hard to embrace. After all, I’d been burned so many times in the past that I think I didn’t want to get too excited. Misery hurts that much more when you’re coming down from a place of confidence and glee.
When my friends and I arrived downtown the streets were bustling with fans that had the same kind of wishful confidence that was brewing inside of me. Would this be THE night? We eventually found ourselves at a hotel bar that was packed with screaming patrons. All of us with one common desire; to witness and experience history. The game was a back and forth battle with neither team able to deliver a knockout blow. When Golden State surged slightly ahead in the fourth quarter you could feel the “here we go again” air fill the room. I’ve breathed it in many times in my 45 years and know exactly what it tastes and feels like. The Cavaliers however would quickly answer and soon found themselves in a 89-89 tie with just over 4 minutes left in the game. The collective heartbeat of the 100+ fans in that hotel bar raced as all of us felt that our dreams of a Championship might actually be realized. Then it happened. With just under a minute to go in the game, Kyrie Irving launched a 3 pointer that will forever live in Cleveland sports history. It was the shot that put us ahead for good. As the final seconds ticked off the clock the bar erupted in screams, laughter, embrace, and overall hysteria. I was in partial disbelief as I hugged friends and total strangers. We had all been downtown for the chance we’d experience what was now taking place; absolute collective joy. 52 years of suffering was gone. The curse was finally dead. Cleveland had its Championship!
The exuberance would soon fill the streets as ecstatic fans of all ages, colors, and nationalities spilled out of the bars. Everyone was now hugging and high fiving, yelling and chanting, laughing and crying. This was pure heaven for a sports fan. The misery and suffering of 52 years was finally being washed away in one night. A night that I had wished for so many years and now one that I’ll never forget.
Three days later the ticker tape parade happened where an estimated 1.3 million fans filled the streets of Cleveland. People from all over the country and world were there to take in the experience. I made sure that I was one of them. My friend Mario and I were downtown by 6 am in order to grab the perfect parking spot and hold our place along the route. Little did we know that getting a location that early didn’t matter since the streets would be overrun with fans. The parade was even delayed because the route was clogged with so many people that the parade couldn’t get through. This was Cleveland! A city and it’s fans that had been waiting for this moment for five decades. As Lebron, Kyrie, JR Smith, and all the other players slowly drove past I found myself reflecting back on the heartache of years gone by. “The Drive”, “The Fumble”, “Red Right 88”, “The Shot”, Jose Mesa, “The Decision”, and many others were now finally going to take a back seat to the incredible memories from the most amazing week I had ever experienced in my beloved hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
If you grow up in Northeast Ohio like I did, you understand the agony that is associated with it’s professional sports teams. From “The Drive” to “The Fumble” to “The Shot,” each one drives a stake of pain deeper into the collective souls of every fan. Just say the name Jose Mesa to a Clevelander and you might get a beer thrown in your face just before seeing a right hook coming your way. Because of these heartbreaking memories, (along with the river once catching on fire because it was so polluted) Cleveland has been the butt of jokes for years on end. It’s something that you just learn to take and shake off when you hear national media use your home area as a punchline to a tired and overused joke.
Friday’s decision by Lebron James to return to Northeast Ohio and the Cleveland Cavaliers however helps to change that punchline into something entirely different. Lebron understands the pain of the area. He grew up in it as a kid who followed the Browns, Indians, and Cavaliers and experienced the heartbreak right along with so many others. His letter in Sports Illustrated demonstrated his understanding that Cleveland has been without a championship for 50 years when he said, “Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time. My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.”
I, like so many others, said one championship in Cleveland would be worth at least 5 in Miami. Lebron seems to agree to some extent. He knows what a title would mean to an area that has been so deprived for so long. He also knows what his return means for so many business owners in downtown Cleveland who struggled to stay afloat in the wake of his decision to go to Miami four years ago. The economic impact he’ll have on Northeast Ohio will be immeasurable. Just ask people in Chicago what Michael Jordan meant to their city financially.
Lebron’s decision will undoubtably keep the Cavaliers in title contention for years to come. However, his return means more than just the hope of raising championship banners. For many it means the difference between struggling to stay open and being able to pay your bills. And for that reason I’m most excited to see Lebron return home.