I’m not sure what Cleveland fans will do when their next champions are crowned, but I don’t think they’ll be setting cars on fire and breaking windows. I think they’ll walk out of their homes and head downtown, to Public Square, gather in drunken clumps, some howling, some praying, and hug it out till daybreak. I believe that Cleveland will never be the same; it will be a better, happier place. I truly believe that Cleveland’s collective soul will be redeemed on that great and glorious day. Nothing Less.
— Scott Raab, The Whore of Akron
Austin Carr had stopped crying … sort of.
The locker room was still moist, and some of the people who own the Cleveland Cavaliers were carrying around bottles of champagne that defied description (and would most likely not make it through customs). Everywhere, there were people who’d come to Cleveland to work for the franchise. But Carr, now the team’s television analyst, wasn’t just an employee. He was a lifer, a Clevelander since the team’s second year of existence (1971), a team that went 23-59 and played in the old Cleveland Arena, on 37th and Euclid, in front of 5,000 or so cigarette-smoking fans most nights.
But the tears had dried now, sort of, as all those who had come on Dan Gilbert’s plane whooped and hollered in the locker room, and all those who had grown up with LeBron James in Akron smoked cigars, and as James brought his kids with him up to the podium, the demon smote, dead at age 52, the Curse ended, at long last, by a native son of Ohio.
“Been waiting a long time,” Carr said.
They all had, the people who live in what they call Northeast Ohio — that region of the state encapsuled by Cleveland, on Lake Erie, by Medina and Elyria to the West, by Youngstown, an hour and a half east of the big city, and by Akron, about 45 minutes southeast of Cleveland down Interstate 77. They have been the ones who stayed, even as the jobs and a lot of the hope left, because most of them couldn’t go. They watched the Cuyahoga River burn in ’69, and they watched Cleveland go bankrupt in ’78, and they watched the Browns leave and they watched Tamir Rice die.
And they stayed.
They stayed and attached themselves to their sports teams, which excelled rarely but failed spectacularly when they were good. They stayed through “Red Right 88” and “The Drive” and “The Fumble” and “The Shot” and “The Decision.” All those disappointments have happened since 1964, when running back Jim Brown led the Browns to an NFL title, Cleveland’s last major sports championship. Since then, Cleveland’s sporting hearts were constantly broken anew like figurines in a china shop, besieged by a never-ending series of charging elephants.
They stayed and waited, stayed and waited. Even the promise of a local economic spike from the upcoming Republican National Convention next month was tempered by the announcements of all the companies that have already announced they won’t be coming. (Insert your own reasons why that is so here. I have mine.)
We know that sports don’t pay the rent or get drugs out of the neighborhood, or put out the fires or elect non-corrupt public officials. But we also know that sports matter, to a great many people, and most certainly to Clevelanders. And so it mattered when LeBron James became the most coveted basketball player on Earth when he was 15, because he was from Akron, and that made him important in ways that those of us who aren’t from there, and only parachute into town occasionally, will never understand.
And it mattered when James turned 18 and entered the 2003 NBA Draft, just when the Cavaliers had the first pick, because Cleveland now had the most coveted basketball player on Earth. Cleveland had something the rest of the world wanted. It had been a very long time since that had been true. And it mattered when James left in 2010 in free agency to sign with the Miami Heat, the pain so raw, the feelings of betrayal so profound that none of us who weren’t from Cleveland or Akron could understand.
And it mattered again Sunday in Game 7 of The Finals, when James led his Cavaliers to the most unimaginable of comebacks, to win the whole damn thing.
“I came back for a reason,” James said Sunday night. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to — when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about. Right now it’s just excitement. It’s not even relief. It’s just excitement for us as a team, as a franchise, as a city, as a community. To be able to continue to build up our city, to continue to be an inspiration to our city, it means everything. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
“I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city.”
“I don’t think it’s went through my mind until you asked me,” he said to me during his news conference Saturday, when I asked him about the moment and what it would mean for Northeast Ohio for the umpteenth time.
“Well, you say pressure because everyone — that’s like the whole world, the word everyone likes to use in sports is ‘pressure,'” James said. “I don’t really get involved in it. But I guess in layman’s terms, pressure, I think it’s an opportunity to do something special, and I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can be a part of something that was very special.”
Oh, come on!
Dwyane Wade. You know him! You guys are close friends! LeBron knows what’s at stake Sunday, right?
“He does,” said Wade, who flew in from Hawaii Sunday morning to be at Oracle Sunday afternoon. “He just doesn’t want his mind to go there right now. Like, you just want to focus on the task and not think about anything else outside at this point … you have to know how to do that. To be that great, you have to know how to do that. You have to know how to shut this crowd out; you have to shut out whatever everybody’s saying, everything. He’s good at that. He has a lot of years of experience.
Even Wade was blown away by what James did in Games 5 and 6.
“I told him, ‘that’s the LeBron I’ve known for 13 years,’ ” Wade said. “He’s got his foot on the gas pedal.”
For 46 years, the Cavaliers had been occasionally good, but never great. The highlight of Carr’s years as a player was the Miracle of Richfield in 1976, when Cleveland upset the defending conference champion Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference semifinals and took the Boston Celtics to six games in the conference finals.