Those of you who read my blog a few years ago know that I haven’t always been charitable towards LeBron. Ok, I basically said that he was worse than Hitler and Satan. (LeBron, I’m sorry.) But last year, when Cleveland lost the championship to the Warriors, I was able to forgive him. I saw a picture of him walking off the court after the game. He was crestfallen, struggling to hold back tears. In that moment, I could feel just an ounce of the burden that LeBron must have felt to bring a championship to Cleveland. Dear God, it was heavy. (Hell, I wanted to run away to Miami too.) I have no doubt that Atlas would feel for him.
We expect a lot from sports and from our athletes. This is not purely a Cleveland or American problem. I have no doubt that the Brazilian soccer players of the 2014 World Cup are doomed to suffer a fate worse than death as a result of a semi-final match that was less a soccer match than a re-enactment of the infamous Red Wedding. Sports are central to our identity, our pride.
Cleveland has had little in the way of pride over the past 52 years. That’s putting it mildly. For decades, Cleveland has been known as “the mistake on the lake.” When I meet strangers from other cities and I tell them I’m from Cleveland, their first question will be , “So how did the river catch on fire?” I remember seeing a clip of Steve Martin in the eighties asking how to prevent people from fighting over Poland . He answered, “He’s going to name it Cleveland, because no one will ever want to go there.” Our factories closed, jobs dried up, and in the early 2000’s Cleveland was declared the poorest city in the country. It is because of this that most Clevelanders are grateful that New Jersey exists.
Sports have not made this reality any easier.
Cleveland had not won a major championship since 1964. 1964. Think about that. Cleveland had not won a championship since Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) had just been re-elected. Gas was 25 cents a gallon. The Feminine Mystique had just been published, Bewitched was on TV, the Civil Rights Act had just been passed, and man had not yet walked on the moon. That’s a long time.
Worse, there had been heartbreaks along the way. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. Jose Mesa. Those of you who have seen Believeland are familiar with these dreadful events from the past. For me, Jose Mesa is the one I remember, and like any good Clevelander, I am still mad. (See the guys above.) These events were a kind of local Stations of the Cross, a Way of Sorrows upon which every Clevelander would meditate.
That all changed on June 19th.
On June 19th, the Cleveland Cavaliers came back from a 3-1 deficit to the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA Championships. I have to be honest, I did not see this coming. Even I, a non-basketball fan, knew that Golden State had a truly historic season and were one of the all time great teams. When we were down 3-1, I knew, I knew, it was over.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Over the past few years, I have read a few articles that eloquently, and movingly describe what a championship of any kind means for Cleveland.
For me, it is quite simple. We are somebody again.
I saw an speech by Bernhard Schlink, a German writer, who described a moment during the 2006 World Cup. He was watching the game in a bar when the German team scored. A middle aged man in the bar shouted. He did not shout “Yes!” or “Goal!” Rather, he shouted, “We are somebody again!” For him, sports eased the burden of his country’s history and gave him a place in the world.
I feel the same way.
I almost wrote an article about LeBron, the Cavs, and Cleveland last year that would have argued that, championship or now championship, the C-L-E was doing great and we did not need a championship. Our city is being rebuilt, people are flocking downtown, we have fantastic hospitals and an exceptional arts scene. Even so, I’m glad I didn’t get the chance to write it, because it would have been bullshit. We are doing great, but we absolutely needed a championship.
And now, we are somebody again. Just a few days ago, the Chicago Tribune wrote an article about the Cleveland Renaissance and all of the wonderful places in Cleveland. All of those places existed well before the championship, but the Chicago Tribune never wrote articles about that. They may have written them during the forthcoming Republican National Convention, but considering that the Republicans have seen fit to nominate a dictatorial, racist, orange blob, they may have been distracted. (Of all the political conventions in all the world, Cleveland has to get this one.)
But now, the Chicago Tribune will write articles about the wonderful things of Cleveland, because we won.
We can hold our heads up high and once again be proud to be Clevelanders.
We are somebody again, because we are the champions.