Walking out of Tower City Center Train station in downtown Cleveland early Sunday morning, luggage in hand from a redeye flight via Los Angeles, I didn’t really know what to expect – this was my first trip to the state of Ohio ever, so, even before I booked the trip, all I knew about the city was it has a generally poor reputation in terms of aesthetics, is always in the news for the wrong reasons, and their sports teams have tortured the citizens for upwards of the past half century.
It was 7:30 AM on a Father’s Day Sunday morning ~12 hours before arguably the single-biggest sporting event in the city’s history – Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. As you would expect, the streets were completely vacant with tangible objects, but, saturated with anticipation, anxiety, and a similar feeling soldiers feel preparing for battle.
Little did I know the storm that was hours away from making landfall to engulf this peaceful serenity.
After checking in to the hotel at Playhouse Square, I decided to meander around Euclid Ave./4th street, the epicenter of the downtown area, and get a feel for my new surroundings. I was always told that the people of Cleveland were super-passionate loyalists to the point of social cannibalism, amongst many other things, so, I took it upon myself to prove these hypotheses true or false.
The first piece of evidence I stumbled upon supporting this theory was a pro-propaganda mural featuring some of Cleveland’s most recognizable Cavaliers.
You’ll notice how the entire corner of the rendering featuring Kevin Love, the team’s highly-scrutinized starting power forward, had been ripped off – likely as a result of one person’s radical displeasure with the underachieving big man’s performance. While petty on the surface, it brings light to a bigger ideology within the city – the rabid, blood-thirsty fan base and their notoriously quick ability to exile one of their own when things go wrong.
Can you blame them? It had been 52 years since the city had won a professional sports championship in any sport.
Sure, there are cities and fan bases out there that have and currently experience equivalent levels of futility, but, the difference is that Cleveland doesn’t just lose – they “Cleveland” – rock-bottom embarrassment or unfathomably devastating defeat when they are within reach of eternal glory, there is no in-between.
As I continued my stroll, a valet at The Kimpton Schofield Hotel named Thomas told me “Watching sports in this city is like seeing a car accident coming from 100 feet away,” you want to shield your eyes because you know the carnage that is coming, but, you can’t help but peek through the cracks in your fingers to catch a glimpse out of curiosity.
When asked to comment on the picture I took of the mural with Kevin Love’s name eviscerated from existence, Thomas said “They missed a couple of letters, someone should go finish the job.”
I had learned within minutes just how ruthless this town could be. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the people expect ‘greatness’ from every single human to don a Browns, Cavaliers, or Indians jersey – but, they do expect their passion, dedication, and vicious sense of desperation to be reciprocated – and when the city’s basketball franchise trades one of the most highly-touted #1 draft picks in recent memory (Andrew Wiggins) in exchange for a highly-compensated star (Love) who is not only playing poorly, but is not passing the proverbial “effort eye test” during the Finals: Cleveland’s fangs come out in unison.
Fast-forward to 1PM, and the only way to relieve the unrelenting apprehension surrounding the 8PM tipoff was to walk over to Progressive Field and distract myself through the majesty of baseball as the Indians hosted the Chicago White Sox. To be completely honest, I thought the consensus sentiment amongst the fans was going to feel like a graveyard – as this was the home of the team who single-handedly re-defined the term “choke” in the 90’s and early 2000’s…
So, combine this with the curse that had plagued the city’s sports teams since the 1960’s and I figured the reek of pessimism would be so overpowering it could possibly supersede the delicious smell of the stadium’s hot dogs.
Boy was I wrong. If the party from the movie Project X could be transplanted into a sports venue, Sunday at Progressive Field was just that. Deafening chants of “LET’S-GO-CAVS” and “2-1-6” boomed throughout the stadium for almost the entirety of the game, and I am inclined to think that somehow, someway … the city of Cleveland was optimistic about their chances later that evening?
After Jose Ramirez hit a hard chopper over the head of White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu to score the game-winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning, Stockholm Syndrome had officially blinded Northeast Ohio. Again. These poor people were setting themselves up for a doom that even the most battle-tested of fans couldn’t recover from. The last time a road team won a Game 7 in the NBA Finals? The Washington Bullets in 1978. Road teams’ record in Game 7s of the NBA Finals? 3-15. The last time a team overcame a 3-1 series deficit to win an NBA title? Never. The odds were stacked against Cleveland as if they had one spin of a roulette wheel to hit their one lucky number.
You can make the case that the odds have been like this, regardless of the sport or situation, since 1964.
It didn’t matter. The fans were “All in”.
As tipoff approached, the once vacant Euclid/4th street intersection was now approaching Bourbon Street Mardi Gras levels of intensity.
Every bar within the city limits was packed like a New York City subway during rush hour:
The parking deck adjacent to Quicken Loans Arena was overflowing with tailgaters as if the Super Bowl was about to be played across the street:
and the urban density + extremeness of the situation forced the police to close all major highways into the metropolis.
Despite a valiant effort to find a safe and clear view of the game at a public venue, I retreated to a conveniently-located apartment with Michael Johanns, Founder & CEO of the popular Cleveland-centric blog BottleGate.
“Personally, there’s not one sporting event that’s even remotely half as big as tonight is. ” he said. “I’ve never been married and I don’t have a kid so I think I can confidently say that this game is the one of if not the most important thing that has ever happened in my life.”.
Danny Crawford tosses the ball in the air at Oracle Arena – signifying the beginning of Game 7.
Watching the drama unfold amongst die-hard Cleveland sports fans was nothing short of surreal. Every point …. every possession … every dribble … was life-or-death. For two and a half hours, I watched beyond-nervous grown men & women shiver and convulse as if they were diabetes-riddled patients without access to insulin.
These passionate fans were essentially dogs chasing cars – they wouldn’t know what to do if they actually caught one – as they, along with the majority of Cleveland’s population, have never witnessed a professional sports championship victory.
With the score tied at 89 for what felt like an eternity at the end of the fourth quarter, the anxiety had reach impalpable levels. It didn’t matter who you were, how much you did or didn’t like the Cavaliers (or even the sport of basketball for that matter) – if you associated yourself with Cleveland, I feel safe saying that the result of this game would validate either the city’s return to relevancy or forever haunt the citizens to an unprecedented extent in any city ever.
When Warriors forward Mo Speights missed a last-second heave down four points, the final buzzer sounded – and what ensued outside was pure, uncut euphoria.
It truly was one of those divine moments
After hours of celebration and organized chaos, the sun rose and the corner of Euclid & 4th street looked just the way it had a mere 24 hours before – uninhabited and tranquil – as if the most triumphant night in the city’s history was just a dream.
Had it just settled in that their team … a team from Cleveland, Ohio … is now the Champion of the basketball world – and the awe of the moment was too overwhelming to act on?
Maybe, maybe not. Maybe Cleveland just got tired. Not like they have any training on how to celebrate world championships.
Walking back to the train station later that day: the jubilation, while severely toned down from the festivities of the night before, could be seen seeping out of the pores of every pedestrian’s face.
Ecstatic, deafening “LET’S-GO-CAVS” chants were replaced with educated reaction to the game…
Jerseys were replaced with work uniforms…
Tears of joy were replaced with drops of sweat as the blue-collar community returned to the same occupations that have defined the city since its establishment…
…but nothing will ever replace what happened on Sunday night: a legacy-defining achievement that was not only a perfect representation of who Cleveland is and what they stand for – but a mural that can never be ripped down.