I don’t have a rooting interest in any of their sports teams, but I couldn’t help but smile as I watched Clevelanders celebrate their first major sports championship in 52 years Sunday night. After so much suffering—some of it self-induced, some of it inflicted on them by others—it was wonderful to see them finally relinquish the title of “America’s most tortured sports city.”
I’m sure some of my joy has to do with empathy. Anyone who has followed the Buffalo Bills, Sabres and Syracuse University sports for any length of time knows all about dealing with heart-break and disappointment. It’s in our DNA. But some of my joy also has to do with my affinity for Cleveland. The heart of rock ’n’ roll really does rock.
And thanks to an encore performance for the ages by native Ohioan LeBron James, Cleveland’s Cavaliers finally were able to exorcise the ghosts of John Elway, Michael Jordan, Earnest Byner and Edgar Renteria to win the 2016 National Basketball Association title and end the city’s championship drought. It was fitting that a player who goes by the initials LBJ would deliver Cleveland’s first title since the original LBJ—Lyndon Baines Johnson—resided in the White House.
When Jim Brown, the greatest running back in history, carried the Browns to the National Football League championship in 1964, few in northeast Ohio envisioned a half-century worth of heartache would ensue. But it did, and at one point, it got so bad that some masochistic citizens donned T-shirts reading “God Hates Cleveland.”
It sure did seem like the Almighty had it in for the place once known as the “Mistake by the Lake.” And the celestial curses went well beyond sports. In his best-selling book, “Ball Four,” pitcher-turned-author Jim Bouton didn’t pull any punches when writing about the Lake Erie metropolis. “Flying into Cleveland last night,” observed Bouton, “I thought about life in this great American city and decided that if you were going to crash on a Cleveland flight, it would be better if it was an inbound flight.”
There was a time when many shared Bouton’s sarcastic sentiments. Heck, by the late 1960s, the city had become the butt of late-night talk-show jokes. There seemed to be an endless supply of comedic fodder. Johnny Carson and others poked fun at Cleveland’s declining population, soaring unemployment and rotten weather. Civic pride plummeted to a new low when the city’s polluted Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. Some critics quipped it was only fitting that a dying city’s tallest building would be called the Terminal Tower.
Sports provided temporary relief, but even during prosperous times, there was always that gloom-and-doom sense that the story wasn’t going to end well; that victory cigars would remain unlit and that corks from champagne bottles would not be popped.
What longtime Cleveland sports fan can forget quarterback Brian Sipe’s defeat-snatching interception in the 1981 AFC playoff game versus Oakland? Or the dagger-in-the-heart comeback drive by Elway in the 1987 AFC Championship Game? Or Earnest Byner’s costly fumble in the title game rematch a year later? Or the game-winning, series-clinching buzzer-beater by Jordan in the 1989 NBA playoffs? Or the World Series-winning hit by Florida Marlins shortstop Renteria in 1997? Or the San Antonio Spurs’ sweep of the Cavaliers in the 2007 NBA Finals?
Even greater sports indignities occurred away from the fields and courts of play. Five years ago, James, the chosen one from nearby Akron, made the shocking announcement he was leaving the Cavs and “taking my talents to South Beach” to play for the Miami Heat. That news went over like flames on the Cuyahoga. James went from being a hometown hero to a hometown zero. Cavalier fans who once wore his jerseys with pride were seen burning them in the streets. James was deemed a traitor. In the eyes of many, he had supplanted Art Modell as the biggest villain in Cleveland sports history. No small feat, considering Modell had ripped the heart out of the city in the early 1990s when he moved its NFL franchise to Baltimore. The Browns returned as an expansion team in 1999, but the sequel has been a disaster, as evidenced by 11 double-digit-loss seasons in the past 13 years.
Happily, the city has come a long way from its downtrodden days. In the past 15 to 20 years, Cleveland has undergone a dramatic renaissance and often is held up as a shining example of urban renewal. The hoops revival began two summers ago when King James announced he was returning to the Cavs.
There have been some bumps since his return, but the occasionally polarizing superstar delivered a championship in a manner reminiscent of Jordan, his idol. Actually, one can argue that LeBron “out-Jordaned” Jordan by leading the underdog Cavs to a stunning comeback after falling behind the record-setting Golden State Warriors, three games to one in the NBA Finals. No team had ever done that before. And LeBron did it with a supporting cast not nearly as talented as the ones that helped Michael win six rings. (I’m not saying LeBron is better than Michael. Just pointing out that he achieved more with less than his idol did.)
All King James did was string together back-to-back 41-point games before finishing off the Warriors with a triple double in Sunday night’s decisive 93-89 victory. For the series, he averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists. In addition to winning the NBA Finals MVP award, James reasserted himself as the greatest player on the planet and cemented his legacy as one of the top 10—perhaps even top five—players of all time.
As the final frenzied minutes of Game Seven played out, many Cavalier fans couldn’t bear to watch, opting instead to bury their heads in their hands. Like their long-suffering Lake Erie neighbors to the East, Clevelanders braced themselves for the worst. Many believed their dreams would be dashed once more. Fortunately, this time a game ended with joy rather than misery.
It seems that God doesn’t hate Cleveland anymore. And, as James showed, perhaps you can go home again, with your arms wrapped around a championship trophy that’s been a long time coming.
Best-selling author Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
6/24/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.