In Our Lifetimes
On love, Cleveland and the unimaginable.
When the clock finally struck zero and what we’d spent our lives believing impossible was suddenly, bewilderingly real; when 52 years of despair disintegrated, and it became clear that, for the first time, no other shoe was about to drop; when the moment of cognitive dissonance passed and our brains registered that, yes, those men in the black pajamas leaping for joy actually did play for Cleveland, and this was not some cruel collective fever dream or mass hysteria from which we’d soon be roused with buckets of cold truth; when the crushing weight finally lifted and the unimaginable wait ended… I didn’t cheer. I didn’t scream. I didn’t jump.
As LeBron James sank and sobbed in elation 2,600 miles away, I crumpled to the floor in Brooklyn and shook like a faulty paint mixer.
I wept in a dark apartment lit only by the glow of those unfathomable images being beamed from California, as if from an alternate universe. My phone danced on my desk, rattling with incoming texts I couldn’t answer. On the broadcast, I could hear the announcers’ astonishment and the players celebrating, but whenever I lifted my head to watch and realized anew what had happened, the tears seized me.
A disclaimer right away: I know how silly this is. I understand why it’s ridiculous for a (nominally) grown man to have an emotional meltdown over a basketball game. Please know that I know this. But please know, too, that it happened, and while I apologize for the disjointed, sloppy rambling to follow, none of which I really expect anyone to read, in my own head it somehow makes perfect sense.
On Sunday, one of the primary governing principles of my life — Cleveland loses always, forever — was pulverized into powder that’s probably gusted halfway across the Pacific by now. There will never be another night like it.
So I’m going to write for a bit. I don’t know what will come out. I don’t know for whom I’m writing, except for myself, mostly as a record (however overwrought and embarrassing it will seem in the future) that this actually happened… and that it meant something.
We love Cleveland because it needs loving. (Well, we love Cleveland first and foremost because it’s genuinely worthy of love. That should always be the headline.) But we love it sometimes with a ferocity bordering on madness because it can be so damn hard to convince everyone else.
We didn’t grow up in New York or Los Angeles or Miami, where civic pride is no less authentic but certainly comes with the equivalent of built-in grade inflation. You’re happy you were born in the place that’s always showcased on TV and in song? With the pristine beaches or the dazzling skyscrapers? Well, bully for you. Must be nice. But that’s tee-ball. That’s starting the race near the finish line. Cleveland? Cleveland is trying to clear the hurdles with a blindfold and bricks tied to your feet.
We didn’t have cachet. We didn’t have cool. We didn’t have glamour. Look: I’m not pretending we grew up in the shadow of cartoonishly ominous steel mills belching black smoke, or that our daddies were just aw-shucks assembly line workers somehow more virtuous than your average Angeleno. People are people, and Clevelanders are no holier or salt-of-the-earth-ier than anyone else. I grew up on streets and in schools not any different than other streets and schools across the country.
But geography can matter. Graph lines dip. Patterns calcify. Industries atrophy. Narratives unspool. Inferiority complexes grow.
And despite Cleveland’s many very real charms as the best location in the nation, we who grew up post-peak under cloud-clogged skies and lake effect snow warnings and national condescension were led to believe we were just anonymous accessories to the real action, wherever that might be. We were Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns dotting the suburban sprawl bookending the husk of a once-booming urban center. Our city was invisible to outsiders, unless it was being kicked.
Our love for Cleveland is sentimental but not romantic. At least not in the non-romantic “romantic” way people speak of cities like Paris or Prague or Poughkeepsie. Every minute of every day, some rube steps off a plane in New York and “falls in love” with his or her romanticized notion of the city. It’s a borrowed love. It’s a love of projection. But it’s still real, and it still happens. Hell, it happened to me.
Cleveland? No, Cleveland tends not to inspire that special strain of polished rom-com love. No, what Cleveland cultivates is a primal, instinctual love. It is a heaving, desperate love. It is the love of birth. It is the love of home. It is the love of family. It is the love of the ignored and the dispossessed and the stubborn. It is the love of what used to be, and the straining, urgent love for it to be again.
It is the love of protectiveness and defensiveness. When I see “Cleveland” anywhere in print, no matter the context, my eyes screech to a halt. Good news or bad news? When I hear “Cleveland” anywhere on TV, no matter the context, my ears perk. Are they mocking us? Most times, yes. Fidelity hurts.
Clevelanders may disagree on the exact nature of the “Cleveland narrative,” but there’s no denying it’s always there. Regardless of how much the sneering, self-styled cosmopolitan hacks may get wrong by underrating and undervaluing Cleveland, it’s indisputable that we’re seen by many as a punchline, and that each generation’s bid for Cleveland redemption is up against the effects of this characterization. Cleveland does not need validation from outsiders. But the cumulative effect of decades’ worth of coastal dumpage and condescension regarding Cleveland has effects. Are we defensive? Wouldn’t you be?
We love Cleveland’s incredible patchwork of ethnic enclaves and idiosyncratic neighborhoods. And for decades, amid the city’s decline in stature and confidence, during default and tumult, in the face of flight and blight, one common thread wove together all of these precincts and suburbs, however far-flung and however mismatched…
Blind, devastating, ass-puckering devotion to three sports franchises mired in misery.
Loyalty hurts. That much we know.
I can’t really articulate what made me a Cleveland fan because it just seems so… unremarkable. It would be like talking about why I have brown eyes. It just is. There’s no dramatic origin story. There wasn’t even really any choice in the matter. I was born right-handed, with flat feet, low self-esteem, and Factory of Sadness-standard allegiance to the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers. Rooting for those teams was just kind of… I don’t know. Geographic DNA? Elemental and inescapable.
Fandom itself is such a strange thing.
It is a universe. It is inherently impersonal. It stretches across years and space and will exist long after you. It is a constellation of ultimately fungible people connected only by their shared interest in the goings-on between the sidelines or on the diamond or pitch, a communal experience that folds the individual into the energy of the crowd.
But on another level, it is subatomic. It is inherently personal. It is in the marrow and the soul. It is me (and you) at my (and your) most private and intense. It is a unique experience, exclusive to me, even as it’s shared by the fan next to me. In this way… it is a portal.
What other silly things do we identify with as a five-year-old… and as a 25-year-old… and as a 75-year-old? What returns us to where we began? What course correction? Life gets very complicated, very fast. It morphs in directions we can’t anticipate or control. Life takes from us, little by little. Everything erodes. Except for a few things. And this is one of them, if you so choose.
You go back. You go back in your mind. You go back in your memory, way back, back so far you gasp remembering that yes, it was you, you who lived that moment or saw that sight or smelled that smell, and what a terrible shame it is that you can’t just summon up your whole life at will at all times.
You go back to the small pleasures and the larger (but still, in the end, small) devastations. You go back to the feeling of ink on your fingers, an actual copy of an actual newspaper spread before you on the floor in your parents’ house, your fingers tracing the box scores. You go back to those late nights of pointless homework and study, the Tribe on your bedroom radio, the black Ohio midnight softened by the broadcast from a sun-streaked West Coast ballpark. You go back to the agony of Sunday school in the hours before a Browns game. You go back to those Browns, those old Browns, those original Browns that still existed in a stadium still on dry land. You go back to the gorgeous filth of that place, like the terrifying sight as a child of beer-pickled drunks filling a communal urinal trough.
Things unravel. Threads loosen. And the threads that don’t, the threads that fray but don’t quite break as life rushes inexorably forward — those are worthy of attention. Those are worthy of fidelity. And this is one of those.
You go back. 19 years before Sunday, in another dark room, in front of another soft glow, I felt ill. We know what happened. And I think it was then, in that basement, watching a slow-motion nightmare spring from the depths of a teal Hell, that I knew, for sure, with zero — zero — doubt, that I would never see Cleveland win.
Of course, I knew it already.
A lot has been written this week about the hope and belief that kept Clevelanders afloat for these five decades. But that’s only half of the story. At least for me and most of the people I knew, the overwhelming feeling was fear. We lived in abject fear of the loss we knew was coming. In football parlance, Clevelanders “hear footsteps” and freak. We live in a world where Jose Mesa blew it. Where Craig Ehlo couldn’t quite reach the ball but Mike Davis could. Where Byner. Where Elway. Where Modell. And on… and on.
I’ve paced and quaked my way through hundreds of bad moments. The agonizing anticipation of the gut-punch moment, followed, always, but it actually happening? I don’t wish it on anyone. It’s like sticking your head and heart and dick in a vise and turning the crank. Over and over again. For years.
It’s a strange thing to feel so viscerally connected to something over which you have no control. It’s like being a passenger on a stomach-churning roller coaster… all the time. And the failure was so fundamental, so all-encompassing, so natural as to lose all meaning. It’s like the famous bit from that David Foster Wallace commencement speech. The old fish swims past two young fish and asks, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And after a while, one of them turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?” In Cleveland, sports failure was water.
Yeah, about hope and belief. The ever-present soundtrack to all of those years, to all of those games, to all of those lost seasons, was the loud thrum-thrum-thrum beat: “Not gonna happen.” Beneath that, though, there was the barely perceptible sound of the smallest voice. Actually, it wasn’t even a voice, because to verbalize this tiny, insane brain fart would tempt fate or anger the gods. But if you could, in quieter moments alone, allow yourself the fantasy and indulge the voice, you’d pick up this message: “In our lifetimes… in our lifetimes… one night, in our lifetimes…”
But, I mean, come on. That was never going to happen.
The old line goes: “Clevelanders are 90 percent scar tissue.” To root was to slowly somersault into the void. The losses numbed us. There was the weight and the wait and they defined everything. Things might change outside the stadium and the arena. But inside, the teams were always there (except for… well, you know) and always losing. And we were there with them. Pining. Whining. Groaning. Moaning.
You tell yourself that the misery strengthens you, toughens your leather, builds character. Maybe. What it definitely did was hurt. 12 months a year. Just as it’s easier to sing Malibu’s praises than Mentor’s, it’s easy to have “faith” as a Red Sox fan when you’ve tasted victory with the Patriots. Forgive me for saying so.
Like participants in some deranged relay race, Cleveland’s teams passed the baton of sadness among themselves each year, with each new season. The Indians, the Browns, the Cavaliers, the Indians, the Browns, the Cavaliers, the Indians, the Browns, the Cavaliers, on and on and on, faster and faster, slower and slower, it didn’t matter. There was no finish line. Only running in circles.
When you and everyone else in town invest yourselves for this many years, with this little reward, something breaks. The teams’ very identity becomes indistinguishable from the losing. The city’s identity (unfairly) follows. The losing is so expected, it starts to feel like no great loss. That’s just what happens in Cleveland. Losing.
Perhaps it was my impoverishment of imagination that rendered my world-building so small. Or maybe a lifetime of actual, sports-unrelated depression and self-doubt, cutting far deeper than any silly title drought, had sometimes made it difficult to imagine the world in bright colors. For whatever reason, I didn’t daydream too much, and not very often at all about exotic adventures or personal triumphs.
But from time to time I thought about what it would be like to see Cleveland win a title. It became a tic of my subconscious. And sometimes, when I daydreamed about that victory in which I’d have no part, a baseball or basketball or football championship achieved by complete strangers I’d never meet, it seemed impossible in part because my own personal redemption — as Daniel, in real life — seemed so implausible, too. I’d conflate the two, even though they couldn’t be less connected.
The parade will never happen, I’d think. The parade can’t happen because it would atom bomb everything we know and feel and understand.
I’m not smart enough to have read Proust. But the thing about the madeleine is that tasting it connects him — viscerally and overwhelmingly — to his past experiences? Is that the gist? I wasn’t an English major.
Anyway, In Search of Lost Time and madeleines and memories and all that… aren’t we always searching for little bits of the past? It’s not just nostalgia. It’s not just history. It’s something deeper. It’s more personal. Time bleeds. It whirs like microfiche. Or maybe more like a centrifuge, spinning people and places and events in a million directions. How do we recover what we’ve lost? How do we hold onto the rope as the storm rages?
Maybe your memory betrays you. About almost everything else. Hell, maybe even about this. Maybe you don’t know who you are. Maybe the feeling persists. Maybe you have trouble sleeping. Maybe there are a few filaments tethering you to you. Family. Friends. Love. And what else? What have you known? What was always there?
In the end, isn’t that why sports (like any passion that spans the years — Harry Potter, abstract painting, French movies, beekeeping, the Gathering of the Juggalos, singing in the shower, couponing, plumbing, grilling, Slip ’n’ Sliding, whatever you like) matter? Because they connect who we are to who we were and who we’ll be? Not in a meaningful way, at least not in a vacuum. Sports are silly. To be happy or sad when a man in a colorful costume swats a ball over a wall, or when a group of men collide, giving each other CTE as a differently shaped ball squirts loose near a section of painted turf… it’s all so silly.
You see the teams, you bite the fucking madeleine, and it comes rushing back. Do you know how many moments there are? Moments forgotten and blurred, and moments seared into the brain forever?
It’s 1999. “Anyone who ever told a Cleveland joke can officially . . . SHUT UP!” Drew Carey screams. They take the field. Pittsburgh beats them by 43.
It’s Obama Night 2008. The streets are filled and joyful. Thousands, millions take to them. “Amazing,” is what everyone says, in one way or another. Then someone: “Isn’t it weird how something so big can feel so personal?” For a moment, your mind drifts west, to the shores of Lake Erie.
It’s sometime in the last gasps of the 1980s, and I’m going to my first baseball game. I’m told we’ll be “in box seats.” I think it means we’ll sit in boxes.
It’s sometime in the first chills of winter 1991. I’m listening to a 68-point win over the Heat at the Coliseum. I write out a box score, even though one will be printed and delivered to my driveway seven hours later.
It’s 1995 and I wake up after watching Jim Thome squeeze his glove on a division title. The warmth didn’t cool overnight.
It’s 1995 and I wake up and the Browns are bolting and the city is in a panic.
In my closet in my childhood bedroom, there is a suitcase. In the suitcase are old newspapers, mostly from the seventies. They are yellowed and brittle with age. And they report defeats. There is a paper from December 1991. I don’t know why I saved it. It’s there, too.
It’s college, and I’m sad about a thousand things, and I’m still on a bus to watch the Browns in another state.
It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m home from New York and in the muni lot and thrilling in the chill.
I’m small and teetering up the walkways at old Municipal Stadium. To look down is to quake in fear. I hate heights.
I’m big and driving down the equally terrifying Pacific Coast Highway, trying to get to a safe haven to watch the Cavaliers clinch the conference. I hate heights.
It’s high school, and I’m working too hard and falling asleep with the radio tuned to the Tribe. In my dream we win. I wake; we didn’t.
It’s spring in 2007 and my grandfather is dead. He loved to tell preposterous stories. One was that the Browns would get to a Super Bowl and he’d buy tickets.
It’s 1997 and the Indians are an inning away. My cousin calls in anticipation. It’s there. It’s right there. We lose.
It’s 2002 and we’re en route to a minor league park, with homemade signs, to cheer on Sal Bando and Jeff Manto. We look insane. It’s fantastic.
It’s Thanksgiving 2008. The muni lot hums with anger.
It’s 2003 and they pull a Grizzlies logo from the envelope. Wait. That means..! I leap. We leap.
It’s 2003 and I’m standing in a Providence hot wings joint, watching LeBron James shake David Stern’s hand. It’s official.
It’s 1988 and I’m rooting against Denver in the Super Bowl because of what happened. What does Washington, D.C. look like?, I ask, referring to the NFC champs. Someone flips over a coin to show me.
It’s 1999 and the helmets are back and glowing in Canton and it’s amazing.
“How do you want it to end?” I don’t know when this is. “It has to be the Browns, right? But I also want it to be at home, so it can’t be a Super Bowl.” Makes sense. “Home run? Or we’re up and there’s a high pop to center?” It’s pointless. I don’t know how old we are.
It’s 2009 and Major League is on TV and even though I’ve seen it three dozen times, I’m still worried Taylor and Hayes won’t beat the throws.
Year after year, I pull the same yellow-pitted T-shirts from different sets of washers and dryers. In Providence. In New York. The Cavs shirt I got in high school. The “Factory of Sadness” shirt. The misspelled “Indains” shirt. I shove them in the bag. I pull them over my head. Year after year.
There were those mid-autumn Sunday afternoons, when the light doesn’t last, and the Browns had lost again, flattened by a team that looked as though it played another sport entirely, or perhaps undone by a last-minute gaffe so ludicrous you’d swear it was scripted. And somehow that last hour of game time would stretch a bit, uncomfortably toward 5 p.m., and the chill in the air outside your dorm room or the Browns Backers bar and the lengthening shadows and diminishing day would remind you that winter was coming, Browns not to be included.
And you’d suddenly be faced with the long week ahead, at the school where you felt out of place, or at the job that was slowly grinding your spirit to powder, and you’d think about another lost weekend spent terrified of the future and haunted by the past.
And in New York, there’s a homeless man who sits near the subway entrance near the bar. And when the Browns lose, which is almost always, you find him and give him a bit of money. Not because you’re such a great person. But because no matter what happens with the sports team losing on TV and you losing at life, others have it worse, and using your low moment to help someone feeling even lower may justify your own wasted opportunities and relieve the pit in your stomach.
You don’t remember the first time you hear about him. But at some point, probably in the PD or maybe on local news, this kid is mentioned. The kid is from Akron, and he’s doing incredible things on the basketball court for someone his age. Interesting, you think. Or maybe you don’t. It’s back there in the mists somewhere.
The murmurs become louder. The kid is great. Not Akron great. Great great. Huh, you think, going back to your breakfast and your ‘SportsCenter,’ waiting for Tribe highlights, worrying about summer jobs and what the hell to do with your life.
And, for a small window of time, LeBron James is just a really awesome high school basketball player. We joke he’s probably good enough to be on the Cavs. After all, they’re dreadful.
The volume increases. They’re televising his games. That’s crazy. They’re saying he’s the best high schooler in the country. The country? They’re saying he could enter the NBA now if he were draft-eligible. Now? At an age when most kids are dicking around with a learner’s permit?
What the hell is happening?
And then comes the Sports Illustrated cover. There’s the kid, in his St. Vincent-St. Mary jersey, this kid from fucking Akron, and he’s staring at you over three words that seem ludicrously unfair, as though the magazine’s editors are determined to snuff out the kid before he starts: “The Chosen One.”
And you think: Well, that’s the end of that guy.
We are desperate for modern myths and fairy tales. We manufacture them where they don’t exist. We exaggerate and hype and speculate so relentlessly, there’s barely any oxygen for the real thing.
And then the real thing shows up.
A teenage girl in poverty in a thoroughly oxidized corner of Northeast Ohio Rust Belt gives birth to a one-in-a-trillion basketball savant who has every mental and physical gift for the sport, combines them in a way no one has really seen before, is labeled ‘The Chosen One’ at 16, somehow exceeds the hype, never buckles beneath the pressure, works his ass off, flourishes under unprecedented scrutiny, and is then drafted by his hometown team when it lucks into the right position, making him the next best hope to end a mathematically implausible, spiritually crushing sports championship drought that has tormented the economically and emotionally battered region for decades.
That’s the beginning of the fairy tale.
I know how creepily obsessed Clevelanders sound when they talk about LeBron James. The messianic narrative can be… problematic. Is that the word? But… you need to understand just how shocking it was for Cleveland to have a local superstar become a global megastar in the sport where that kind of singular talent has the greatest impact. He played for our basketball team. It was the type of thing that never happened in Cleveland. Guys like LeBron James usually ripped out our guts. But the actual LeBron James was our avenging angel, a marvel and baby-faced assassin who became the city’s warrior-king and savior.
But there was a problem. Or maybe it was more of a riddle. There was the kid, and there was the law of nature. And they couldn’t both win. It was beyond obvious that LeBron was too good not to win an NBA championship. It was also beyond obvious to anyone with even a tangential understanding of how things work in Cuyahoga County that an NBA championship could never happen in Cleveland.
It was the irresistible force against the immovable object. How? we thought, daily, monthly, yearly. How would the kid beat nature? It seemed, despite what our eyes told us about him, impossible.
And yet… the more often he scorched opponents and soared toward greatness and did what had never been done and dragged a crew of also-rans to astonishing heights, it really seemed like he might just do it. He was the only one we’d ever seen who could even make us consider the possibility. He could drive a stake through the demons. He got so close. He was still so young. It was beautiful.
And then it wasn’t. Everyone knows what happened. Millions of words have been devoted to The Decision. It was gutting. We were scorned and angry. We rooted for his failure. The Cavaliers stunk again. The drought seemed more permanent than ever.
When Scott Raab published his bitter, furious account of LeBron’s departure, The Whore of Akron, I bought it and bought in. When Wright Thompson traveled to Cleveland for the first post-LeBron game in 2010, he published the original “Believeland” article, maybe the best-ever examination of Cleveland sports culture by an outsider. The fans he portrays are defiant and petty, myopic and passionate, but most of all desperate for deliverance from the narrative of losing. They want to win.
And that — the comically simple, obvious reason for why Cleveland welcomed LeBron back with open arms in 2014 — is what people from other places couldn’t seem to understand. I was repeatedly asked why Cleveland fans would re-embrace the guy who left. And I was repeatedly confused.
It is always — always — about the laundry. If you wear ours, we root for you. Period. Fans have overlooked behavior several orders of magnitude worse than The Decision if it meant supporting a player who helped the team win. That doesn’t make the rapists and murderers and abusers who have hit home runs or rushed for touchdowns any less contemptible. But if LeBron James’ biggest crime was playing in Miami’s laundry? How could that be disqualifying?
Because it’s ultimately not about LeBron. No contemporary athlete in American team sports has a deeper, longer, more textured personal history with a place than LeBron does with Northeast Ohio. And it’s still not really about LeBron in Cleveland. It’s about Cleveland in Cleveland. And LeBron was Cleveland’s best shot.
The day of LeBron James’ first regular season game back with the Cavaliers in October 2014, Nike released a meticulously hokey commercial, showing thousands of diverse Clevelanders, in alleyways and in the streets, outside the arena and inside the huddle, arms and spirits joined, swaying together and chanting, along with LeBron, “Hard work! Together!” It was the Cleveland of the imagination, the balkanized suburbs and inner city joined together as one, blue collar solidarity bridging any racial divide and streamlining this very complicated city’s very complicated problems into a chant for unity behind a basketball player and his sneakers.
Was it contrived, manipulative corporate swill? Yep.
Did I give one fuck? Nope.
It was awesome. I couldn’t stop watching it, because it so crisply captured that civic yearning that really DOES span the city’s enclaves. Say what you want about sports’ often ugly tribalism, but within a city, and absolutely in Cleveland, nothing else is guaranteed to bring together the white and the black, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the West Siders and the East Siders, conservatives and liberals, Muslims and Jews… I mean, nothing. Most of the time, these groups exist in their own pockets. But not when there’s a game.
No one believes LeBron (or any other athlete in town) will bring back the steel mills, or bring in new tech industry, or improve the high school dropout rate, or reverse the region’s brain drain, or energize a plodding local government. And LeBron’s return certainly didn’t turn Cleveland into some bastion of racial and social egalitarianism. Less than a month after I welled up at that Nike commercial, a 12-year-old black kid named Tamir Rice was gunned down by police about four miles from Quicken Loans Arena.
LeBron can’t cure our ills. Sports can’t cure our ills. The city and the country have major problems. Congress is broken, an ugly election looms, and it seems like we as a nation keep tripping over our own feet. Maybe that’s overstating the crisis. Maybe it’s not. I’m not smart enough for Proust. I’m sure as hell not smart enough to know where America is going. But unity, even fake unity, even choreographed unity selling Nikes, was a nice two-minute respite from life.
The media nonsense surrounding LeBron’s second stint in Cleveland often made it nearly impossible to enjoy. In 2016, everything is so hyper-sensationalized and designed to trigger conflict, sports have been largely sapped of charm. The games themselves have receded, conceding center stage to pundit noise.
I know it sells. I know I sound like an old man yelling at clouds. But I’m tired of snark. I’m burned out on hot takes. I’m weary of empty contrarianism and too-clever-by-half sniping. That shit’s easy. What’s harder is sincerity. That’s in short supply.
Maybe it’s always been this way, and technology and the never sated Internet content mill is just exacerbating the problem. Empty-headed, full-throated bloviators pamphleteering on the streets, the radio bigots inflaming the airwaves, the fossilized newspapermen wasting barrels of ink on cliche and provincial provocations. That was there when I fell in love with sports. (Well, not the pamphleteers.)
But is somehow seems more insidious. Everything is accelerated and geared toward toxicity. The braying on ESPN. The fire hose of reactions online. The social media echo chamber. There’s barely space to take a breath. And as sports has absorbed and in some ways perfected this cynical, unpleasant system of cultural communication, it’s become… exhausting. And over the last two years, the LeBron saga has been the pinnacle of media bullshit.
It’s not worth rehashing 95 percent of what was said and predicted and speculated. It was a distraction, and it was almost entirely wrong. The Cleveland story was never meant for the hot take jackals. All that mattered was LeBron ending the drought.
A year ago, an undermanned Cavaliers team lurching through the Finals on fumes lost to Golden State. Injured and exhausted, the Cavs fell two wins short. The bad luck and circumstances were beyond maddening — and profoundly Cleveland. LeBron was back. The team had caught fire. They earned the first Finals wins in franchise history. They’d gotten to the brink… and they’d run into a whirring, terrifying basketball machine from Oakland.
The Warriors celebrated on the Cavaliers’ home floor. The victors crowed and strutted, like so many before them, and Cleveland’s sons and daughters were again left to ponder whether God was vicious or merely absent.
And a sickening thought occurred to me and others: We wasted LeBron, and he wasted us.
Oh, the fear was back. The fear was real. The superhuman, one-in-a-trillion basketball talent, having spent the prime of his prime winning championships for Cleveland’s antithesis — Miami, the urethra on America’s sun-dappled shmeckel — had returned to town with renewed purpose, prepared to deliver the title more than 50 years in the making. And, Cleveland being Cleveland, the possible best NBA team ever rose at the exact same moment on the other side of the country, a Bay Area behemoth that spun and won for a giddy audience of undeserving Silicon Valley plutocrats. At least that’s how it seemed.That smirking S.O.B. Steph Curry was the new Elway, the new Jordan, the new Death.
We might never win. Fuck.
It’s two weeks ago. The Cavaliers are up against it. Again. Cleveland is on the brink of disaster. Again. The Warriors are even better now, a historically sublime, barely beatable juggernaut. It’s clear: The window is shutting. After everything, Cleveland LeBron 2.0 is going to fail.
Bad luck and bad timing and now the chance has evaporated. There must be a German word for this, I think to myself. There is. Torschlusspanik, which, roughly translated, means “the fear that time is running out to accomplish something.” Sounds familiar. You start mentally preparing for the worst, because that’s what Clevelanders do.
It’s so clear to visualize what happens from here. It’s almost worth putting down a bet in Vegas, because I’ve seen the end of this particular movie so many times, I can hit the plot points by heart.
Steph Curry, that quicksilver demon, will rain down wrath from the arc, combustible but brilliant groin-gripper Draymond Green will flex and jaw, once-beloved Cavs flop moppet Anderson Varejao will follow in the footsteps of so many and claim a championship ring after leaving town. The tech billionaires will retreat across the Bay to their castles and their Soylent-swilling children, who will have cheered multiple championships in multiple sports in the sliver of time since Facebook went public. Cleveland's own children will be tucked in for the night disappointed, like their parents before them...
And then LeBron and Kyrie detonated Game 5, and nothing was ever the same.
There are no words.
I know I’ve already spent way, way too many words on stuff that really requires very few. But… I mean, what can anyone say? Nothing can sum up the last 52 years, or the last 52 days, or the last 52 hours. It’s too big an idea.
Sunday was incomprehensible. It was reality skewing. Yes, it was on one level “shocking” in terms of basketball games sometimes shocking. The game, the series, the season… they will be discussed forever. They were historic, not just for Cleveland but for the league, and specific moments — Kyrie’s shot, LeBron’s block — will be preserved in amber and replayed and replayed and replayed until they, not the hitherto inescapable Cleveland misery montage, are the country’s first visual association with the city’s sports.
But it wasn’t just sports shocking. It was shocking shocking. I remember Norm Macdonald once telling David Letterman a funny story about seeing a hypnotist at a theater as a kid. And during the performance, the hypnotist makes one audience member think he’s a chicken. He’s clucking and doing chicken things. And then Norm sees the guy in the parking lot after the show and asks him what it felt like. And the guy says something about how it was kind of weird. He’s nonchalant. And Norm is baffled. He tells Dave that if you really, truly believed you were a chicken — even if only for a minute — your brain would be shattered after the hypnosis ended. There should be no going back after that. It would smash to bits a basic tenet of your reality.
That was this.
This wasn’t an exciting NBA Finals. This wasn’t the stunning victory of an underdog over a favored foe. This wasn’t the Red Sox ending a drought to join the Celtics and the Patriots and the Bruins in the city’s well-trod winner’s circle. This wasn’t an upset or a cool story or even a resolution to all the all-time legacy narratives trumpeted by a galaxy of story-starved screamers from every corner of the opinion sphere.
This was a night when a city went insane and clucked as one.
It was a moment shot through with light, the slow-motion drip of the game’s final, agonizing seconds giving way to a light-speed rush of all that had been bottled for so long.
The moment broke the dam that had walled off our belief — not faith, not hope, not optimism, not sarcasm, not gallows humor, but actual, oh-my-God-this-is-actually-happening belief — for decades, and the resulting flood of euphoria cascaded down the streets, drowning the demons, washing away the cynicism and hurt and anger and anguish.
Anything could have happened in that moment. Unicorns could have galloped down Euclid. Gravity could have disappeared. No allegedly immutable law was safe.
It was, for one spectacular moment, for one out-of-body, mind-blowing, reality-obliterating moment, a reversal of everything everyone I knew had ever known. This was Sisyphus shoving the boulder into place atop the mountain. This was the 98-pound weakling throwing the perfect punch and flattening the sand-kicking beach bully. This was Charlie Brown kicking the football before Lucy yanks it away. This was Wile E. Coyote feasting on Road Runner.
This was an exorcism. This was release.
This was everyone hugging so hard the chips were finally knocked from their shoulders.
This was a guttural, collective tribal yell, built by the decades of Cleveland jokes and the default of the 1970s and the population loss of the 1980s and the false promises of the 1990s and the Cuyahoga catching on fire and the mayor’s hair catching on fire and everything else.
This was for those who didn’t live long enough to see it. This was for those now born into a Cleveland where the moment was possible.
For one night, for one shrieking-sobbing-cheering night, cynicism was stabbed right in its guts. Strangers held each other. The Internet snark machine briefly turned to sincerity, even from unexpected corners far from Cleveland. Everything was vulnerable. Everything was open.
And the peculiarities of fandom — its existence on both universal and subatomic planes — were exposed. I wanted to believe I was alone in that moment. I wanted to believe no one felt exactly what I felt. I wanted to own it. I wanted power over it.
But I wanted to believe I was surrounded in that moment. I wanted to believe everyone felt exactly what I felt. I wanted to share it. I wanted it to move me. And it did.
And I cried.
I cried thinking about the previous tears shed by so many for so long. The tears Julian Tavarez shed in the dugout after the 1995 World Series loss. The Browns players racing to the Dawg Pound at the final Municipal Stadium game just a couple months later, hugging grown men and women who couldn’t hold it together after Art’s evacuation. The tears of anger and shock after The Decision.
Everyone focuses on the big stuff. The Catch. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. The Move. Jose Mesa.
But I cried remembering the smaller stuff, the daily (and yearly) slog of being a fan. I thought about the hundreds and hundreds of guys — the bad, the good, the forgettable, and everyone else — who could not end the drought in the 18,000 or so previous days. Milt Palacio and Gerald Paddio. Chris Dudley and Chris Mihm. Todd Philcox and Tommy Vardell. Najee Mustafaa and Mohamed Massaquoi. Oddibe McDowell and Pio Sagapolutele and Jason Jacome and Lou Marson. Greg Swindell, Tim Couch, Darius Miles, Eric Plunk, Wali Rainer, Bobby Sura, Bip Roberts, Joe Jurevicius, Earl Boykins…. decades’ worth of big contributors and barely-there flashes. They were all there, at some point. They all wanted this. We did, too.
I thought about everyone in the Cleveland diaspora, the orbiting colonies of fandom where I reside, where I’ve lived for my entire adult life. (For too long, maybe.) My actual friends in New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, sure. But also the pear-shaped drunks in the Browns Backers bars I used to visit in Massachusetts, howling in pain and rage on another lost Sunday. The strangers in the block “C” caps smiling at each other in enemy territory at Yankee Stadium, bracing for hecklers. The guy who first told me how to stream Tom Hamilton’s voice in my dorm room. The only other person sitting at the bar in Paso Robles last year when we watched the Cavaliers close out the Hawks in near-silence, perhaps mutually terrified that striking up conversation would jinx a surreal blowout win.
I don’t know these people. I can’t pretend that our shared fandom is anything more than that. I won’t speak to their feelings about anything as lofty as civic pride or existential dread. I just know we were connected. The connecting tissue may have been reed-thin, but it was there. I know it’s the same for other towns, other teams, other fans. There’s no Cleveland monopoly on far-flung loyalty amid suffering. I’m sure there are Bills fans in Budapest and Cubs lifers in Cairo. I can just say, for myself, that seeing a Cavs jersey near the Great Wall of China was about as wondrous as the wonder itself.
One and a half million people filled Cleveland on Wednesday for a party 52 years in the making. Even from afar, it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
Even knowing it’s just a game. Even knowing it’s just a distraction. Even knowing nothing will change, really. The weather will still be mercurial, the politicians will still be incompetent and corrupt, and the police situation will still be tense. The lakefront will still be underutilized, the Plain Dealer will still underwhelm, and the roads will still be potholed. The problems that plague Cleveland, like the problems that plague most of the cities used to laughing at Cleveland, will remain. The people whose lives are undeservedly good and the people whose lives are undeservedly bad will not trade places. Even in this moment, there isn’t that much karmic magic.
But this week, at this moment of unreal realness, in this one respect… we can finally exhale.
All those years. All those losses. All that agony. All the ridicule. All the close calls. All the disasters. All the pain.
It was ours.
And it was all worth it.