Diehard Cleveland sports fans get their reason to celebrate

Justice B. Hill

CLEVELAND – We don’t throw tickertape parades on the streets around Public Square, the epicenter of this Rust Belt city. Why? We’ve had no reason for one. We had waited most of our lives for some success worthy of tickertape, but we won’t need to wait a minute longer.

Our Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James, their top-shelf talent, did Sunday night what no Cleveland franchise since Jim Brown and the Browns had done back in 1964: They won a title.

Not that we didn’t think LeBron would end that title drought – all 52 years of it. We had hoped from the moment he re-signed with the Cavs before last season that he would come bearing gifts, and the gift we longed for most was an NBA championship.

In our minds, we had earned a championship. We had sat and sulked over the disappointments that had cursed our city. They were baggage that kept us from being the city we should be. We had grown envious of our neighbors in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cincinnati, cities that had celebrated titles and paraded their successes down their Main Streets.

For month after month, for season after season, for decade after excruciating decade, we had piled on memory atop memory of failures as if each were a rugby scrum since the December day in 1964 when our Browns reigned as NFL champions.

But us Baby Boomers from ’64 – political militants, really — have given way to Generation Xers and now the damn Millennials. They have lived none of what we have lived; they recall none of the highlights of Brown and of the Browns holding Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts scoreless.

We do. We remember Frank Ryan and his pinpoint passes to wide receivers Gary Collins and Paul Warfield, and we remember best your childhood hero: Jim Brown.

Now, five decades later, we know that kind of joy again. For the Cavaliers and LeBron, this millennium’s Jim Brown, treated all of the generations to what this city had been waiting for, what it needed to be the big league city it pretended to be.

Sports teams, of course, don’t make a city livable, but they do shape how people outside and even inside the city think about it. Success on the arena floor spells success in other aspects of city living. Success in sports imbues the place with pride, and even the most diehard of Clevelanders hasn’t had much to take pride in here. We have been ever oh-so close over the years, tantalizingly close, too, with just one more game to win, just one more obstacle to get over Sunday night, just one more …

Yet this isn’t the old Cleveland, you know? Its downtown is robust, flush with college students and single professionals with bankrolls big enough to afford $2,500-a-month rents. Though the city’s schools remain a hot mess, its people have paused to pound their chests, to go to the top floor of Terminal Tower and scream: ’Cause we are the champions – of the world.

For some of us, any outcome other than defeat surprises us. It’s what we had come to expect. We’d been chastened by the realities of rooting for hometown teams that break our spirits, and we’d made peace with the fact that their postseasons end in losses.

As we watched the last seconds of that Game 7 road win against the Golden State Warriors wind toward zeroes, we sat awed in front of our flat screens, our hearts in overdrive, ready to brag about LeBron and his greatness, about the first-place Indians, about next season for the Browns with the memory of how warm that Dec. 27, 1964, victory against the Colts still feels.

Now, we can store ’64 under the category of yesteryear’s memories, replacing it with fresh reflections of what happened Sunday.

I suspect this latest memory — this delicious, 92-89 victory against Stephen Curry and the Warriors — will not lead to some sort of label. It won’t stand alongside all the nicknamed defeats that have hung over Clevelanders like me since 1964: The Fumble, The Drive, The Shot … and Jose Mesa’s blown save and second baseman Tony Fernandez’s fielding error in the 1997 World Series that made a city weep. And who in Cleveland can ever let go of the pain from “Red Right 88”? We had held on to those disappointments long enough.

We woke up Monday morning aglow, every detail of the victory in Technicolor, each LeBron dunk, each Tristan Thompson rebound, each Kyrie Irving jumper replayed over and over again in our minds.

Someday we will have another championship to take the place of the one from Sunday night. Maybe the Indians will do this fall what the Kansas City Royals did a season ago: shock the baseball world.

Yeah, maybe.

We don’t have to cling to maybes anymore – not in this city. For we have peace of mind now; we don’t need to sift through the disappointments and wonder aloud when we can celebrate a title.

How we have remained optimists is proof of our pluck, of our hardheadedness. Either that or we have thrived on what might destroy lesser folks: those endless failures.

We know now, however, that “Believeland” won’t require a sequel, a film that dissects our city’s string of defeats as the “30 for 30” documentary did those others with their ignoble nicknames.

Without belief, we had little on our side, even if relying too much on it might wear on a sports fan’s psyche. But as a Cleveland fan, we knew what just being in the arena meant – the blood, the sweat and toil that come with competition at its highest.

And when that competition brings you victory, well … you’ve deserved that tickertape parade, awkward as putting one on might be.

In the next few days, if not later today, we will hear how preparations for that parade are going. We’ll join LeBron, Kyrie and an army of Cavaliers fans on Public Square, a gathering that ought to trump what we’ll see when the GOP convention visits town next month.

We’ll reconstruct what the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers who followed them did in the winter of ’64: salute a franchise that has thrust our city into the national spotlight.

Justice B. Hill, an assistant professor at Ohio University, is a former editor and sportswriter, and lifelong follower of sports teams in Cleveland.

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