Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 23, 2016

Decades Of Anguish Erased By Days Of Joy

This week everyone but the most devoted fans of the Golden State Warriors has to feel good for sports fans in Cleveland. For the better part of two centuries locals have used the toponym “The Forest City” to describe their home. For just over two decades Cleveland’s North Coast Harbor district has been home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a museum that has brought millions of visitors to the shores of Lake Erie. But neither a bucolic nickname nor a major tourist attraction has ever really made residents forget that in other parts of the country their city was long ago dubbed “The Mistake on the Lake.”

Like many hubs in America’s industrial heartland Cleveland over the years has been a victim of suburbanization, white flight, and the loss of core businesses. Once the nation’s fifth largest metropolis the city’s population peaked at more than 900,000 seven decades ago. Today’s census of 388,000 is barely forty percent of that number.

Racial unrest in the 60s and a financial default in the 70s tarnished Cleveland’s image, as did the spectacle of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire in 1969. But sports fans know that what has damaged Cleveland the most over the years is losing. In 1964, on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s, the seven-point underdog Browns upset the visiting Baltimore Colts 27-0 to win the NFL championship. Gary Collins caught three touchdown passes, Lou Groza kicked a pair of field goals, and running back Jim Brown raced for 114 yards on 27 carries. On defense the Browns limited Baltimore’s Johnny Unitas to just a dozen completions for 95 yards. Almost 80,000 fans packed Cleveland Stadium to watch in person the first NFL title game to be broadcast nationally by CBS, the network that would become virtually synonymous with football.

That grand moment of sporting civic pride was followed by nothing. In 1964 Cleveland was represented in the four major team sports by the Browns and by baseball’s Indians. Six years later the NBA awarded the city an expansion franchise, known as the Cavaliers. Local fans supported their teams with pride and passion. Starting in 1995 Progressive Field sold out for 455 consecutive baseball games. That was the same year Art Modell tore out the city’s heart by announcing his intent to move the Browns to Baltimore. But when an expansion NFL franchise with the same name first took the field four seasons later fans were back in the stands, as loyal as ever.

All of that commitment by the citizens of Cleveland and the surrounding area was rewarded with not a single championship run. No trophy named for Lombardi or O’Brien or the Commissioner was paraded up East Ninth Street or down East Lakeside Avenue. No roster of triumphant heroes rode in open vehicles, the better to be seen by hundreds of thousands of joyous supporters screaming their names. No Cleveland mayor passed out keys to the city to the members of a football or baseball or basketball franchise. With no titles for more than half a century, fully fifty-two years from 1964 to 2016, Cleveland suffered through a sporting drought that led fans both there and elsewhere to see the city as the very symbol of futility.

That changed this week, as surely the whole world must know. Down three games to one to the defending champion Warriors, winners of a record 73 regular season games, the Cavaliers stormed back to end their city’s drought by claiming the NBA title. With Golden State set to clinch the championship at home in Game Five, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving each netted 41 points in a 112-97 Cleveland shocker. It was the first game in NBA Finals history in which a pair of teammates each scored 40 or more points. At home three nights later the Cavaliers tallied the game’s first eight points and never trailed, winning 115-101; with James again dropping 41 points on the Warriors. Then in a dramatic Game Seven that featured twenty lead changes and eleven ties, Irving’s three-pointer gave Cleveland the decisive lead with fifty-three seconds remaining. Golden State, the team that was said to be reinventing the game during the regular season with its offensive prowess and the three-point skill of “Splash Brothers” Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, failed to net a single field goal over the final four and a half minutes of the contest.

So the great weight was lifted. Cleveland fans celebrated in Quicken Loans Arena Sunday night, where thousands came to watch the game on the big screens above the vacant court. The party continued Monday afternoon when thousands more turned out near the airport to welcome their new champions home. Then it came to a frenzied climax on Wednesday, when 1.3 million fans from near and far thronged downtown Cleveland for a victory parade that took hours longer than planned because happy celebrants were clogging the streets, making it impossible for the parade units to proceed.

The cheers were loudest for the 31-year old James, the unanimous Finals MVP who wept when the title was won. The native of nearby Akron was hailed as a hero when drafted by Cleveland right out of high school in 2003. He was scorned as a pariah seven years later after announcing in a self-indulgent prime time ESPN special that he was leaving for Miami. All was forgiven two summers ago when he decided to return home, determined to bring a title to Cleveland. Now he has done it, and his legacy, both locally and in the annals of the NBA, is secure.

They will probably party right through the weekend in Cleveland, and deservedly so. Seeing fans get the ultimate reward after decades of steadfast devotion is a happy reminder that even in the age of unimaginable free agent contracts and ridiculous ticket prices, we still follow sports for the joy and the fun.

While the celebrations continue attention will pass to some other city, deep in the throes of a long championship drought. Perhaps Buffalo, where the Bills claimed the AFL title in 1965, just one year after that long-ago Browns championship. Since then the NFL franchise managed to make it to the Super Bowl four straight years and lose every time. Things haven’t gotten better of late. The Bills now have the longest streak without a playoff appearance of any major North American sports team, and the Sabres have never won a Stanley Cup. Plus Buffalo has the advantage of also being on Lake Erie, making the transfer of “The Mistake on the Lake” a seamless process. Just don’t use that phrase to describe Cleveland anymore. The new nickname there is “Titletown.”

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