A championship you had to see to believe
The Cavs won the NBA championship last night.
It still doesn’t seem real.
The front page of my hometown paper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, ran the news story with the headline, “Believe It.”
Believe me, I’m trying.
I don’t need to tell you that Cleveland has been a cursed sports city. Up until last night, it had the longest championship drought of any major sports town, going a whopping 52 years without a title. I know every franchise has its tortured moments, and that being a sports fan means watching plays that make you chuck the TV remote across the room or storm out of the stadium propelled by the steam coming out of your ears.
In Cleveland, however, many of those moments are referred to with terms that are vague enough to describe any flub (“the shot,” “the drive” and “the fumble” come to mind). The difference is, these titles don’t need more context. They’re part of Cleveland’s tormented history. They’re the plays our parents taught us when we were young to let us know what we were up against. They were warnings, used as examples in the “we-live-in-Cleveland-so-soul-shattering-moments-like-this-will-happen-to-you” talks we got after we watched our beloved teams lose over and over.
Because when you live in Cleveland, you have no choice but to be a sports fan. LeBron and I both left Cleveland in the summer of 2010 when he “took his talents” to Miami and I took my talents (ha — not really) to Columbia, Missouri to start college. There was only one question people asked when they found out where I was from.
“How do you feel about LeBron?”
“If he doesn’t want to be in Cleveland, then we don’t want him there,” I would say.
The truth is a little more complicated. Deep down, I understood. I also left my family, my friends and my home to pursue an opportunity that would supposedly set me up for future success. Granted, LeBron left in a big ole spectacle that made Cleveland fans light their jerseys on fire and protest at the “Witness” sign downtown. Although my family cried when I left, I’m not a sports hero with legions of fans who had been named a two-time NBA MVP and a six-time All-Star before deciding to peace out in a highly publicized television special. But anyone who has ever left, or thought about leaving, their home can identify with the struggle that comes from moving away from what you know and love in order to grow.
Still, it felt like a betrayal to have someone who brought so much hope to the city seemingly decide that he valued winning above all else. The thing about Cleveland is that, despite it all, we never stopped believing, not just in LeBron, but in the chance that whatever year we were living in might be the “next year” we had been waiting for our whole lives.
While he was gone, LeBron ended up winning, not once, but twice. We crossed our arms and stomped our feet, all the while wishing he had won for us.
Then, somewhat miraculously, he decided that he would try to end the decades-long Cleveland curse.
“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given,” he wrote when making his next “decision.” “Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
He was speaking the same language that we had spoken our whole lives. That’s why we understood that, when one of your own wants to come home, you take him back.
I remember reading LeBron’s homecoming letter when I was, once again, living in Cleveland, unemployed and looking for jobs in other cities.
His words made me want to stay. He realized that, above all else, there was more meaning in bringing joy to the people you knew and loved than there was in winning and hoisting the trophy up on your own. In winning away from home, he realized there was something to be said for giving back to the community that had given so much to you. (Side note: I did end up moving, but that’s a whole different story — this one is about Cleveland).
LeBron was willing to try for Cleveland. He was one of us, and, because of that, he believed.
It all sounds cliche, but then again, this championship win could be the love child of a blockbuster Hollywood film and the most hackneyed sports story ever written: The long lost son of the city returned to redeem himself, only to make an unprecedented comeback against a team that had what would’ve been the greatest record in NBA history. Oh, and they took it all in the last few minutes of the final game, then knelt to the floor and sobbed out of pure euphoria.
The fact that the championship really happened, that the drought is over, is still what is so unfathomable, even for a city filled with people who, despite it all, have never figured out how to give up hope.
I can’t explain why Cleveland was cursed for 52 years, just like I can’t explain how LeBron is a superhuman athlete who can average 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists in a series and sprout invisible wings to fly across the court and make what is surely one of the most beautiful blocks in history.
I can, however, tell you that a fierce, burning love for the place you come from, especially one as tortured and ridiculed as Cleveland, can bring out something supernatural, a kind of magic that can end a curse and make an entire city weep — this time from joy. It’s something that showed us that even if we chose to leave Cleveland, it will never leave us.
It’s something that proved we were never wrong for continuing to believe.