Something happened last night I thought I’d plausibly never see in my life. Cleveland, my home city, won its first professional sports championship in 52 years.
What’s left to say? Well, I can finally say from experience that this does not suck. In fact, it’s even better than I imagined.
As I’ve aged, I’ve grown less attached to professional sports. Something about balancing my emotions on the shoulders of men younger than myself started to feel odd. I remember vividly when that was not the case.
In 2007, I stormed off in a huff back to my bedroom after the Cleveland Indians failed to take out the Boston Red Sox in a year when most saw the National League’s Colorado Rockies as merely a speed bump to a World Series championship. I consistently visited the local Browns backer bar in Chicago during my time there despite their inability to field a team worthy of the brunch and beer I’d purchase as my admission. Then, LeBron James left the Cavs and that undying faith ceased to be.
I always believed there was a right way for him to come back — and he nailed it with The Letter. Still, my interests have generally spawned away from professional sports as I’ve gotten older. I made no effort to watch any Cleveland Browns games last year (why would I?), and I attend baseball games more for the ambiance than to sit still for almost four hours of what we can all agree isn’t exactly the fastest sport.
My hopes for the Cavs this year were exceptionally better than any other team, but I won’t pretend I had them winning the championship. I assumed they’d win their conference, get to The Finals, and promptly lose as I had become accustomed to. Playing against the team with the best regular season record fit the Cleveland narrative. Of course, in this brief moment of history when we have our best team, we’d have to beat a team with a better record than Michael Jordan’s legendary 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.
Then something very un-Cleveland started to happen. We started winning. Not just winning, but winning when we weren’t supposed to.
YE HAVE LITTLE FAITH
I was in the Twin Cities during the middle of The Finals, finishing up a book project. Neither my brother (who lives in Minneapolis) or myself had great faith in these Cavs, I’m afraid to say. After winning game three, I opined that the best we could hope for was a game seven we could lose in Oakland.
Watching game six at a bar in Minneapolis, my more optimistic sister-in-law, Holly, challenged us on our negativity.
“Why can’t they win?” she’d ask to our dead, hopeless expressions. “I remember you trying to convince me how much this would mean for Cleveland.”
She was right. Before LeBron left, Holly was the dubious one on what a championship would mean for Cleveland. We borrowed the example presented by the film Invictus that had recently released about South Africa’s Rugby World Cup victory shortly after Nelson Mandela’s historic election following decades of an apartheid government. Sport hardly solved South Africa’s problems, but it appeared to play a real role in bringing together a country that could have just as easily plunged into chaos.
Of course we were quick to de-escalate the analogy. Cleveland is not apartheid South Africa, but it does suffer from real problems that many, much wealthier cities in the United States simply do not have. Would a sports championship solve them? Of course not, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt and it could very well change the mindset of a historically pessimistic region.
I don’t know about you, but I always do a little better at my work when I’m thinking positively. Northeast Ohio has not traditionally been the most positive corner of the globe and for plenty of good reasons.
After a game six win, I felt oddly confident despite the fact that no NBA team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit and that the road team winning game seven was a rarity in and of itself. I even suggested to my brother that this could be Cleveland’s historic moment. The Red Sox had their curse that required a four game sweep of the New York Yankees to bury it, perhaps this was Cleveland’s path. I mean, it’s Cleveland. Why would it be easy?
My wife Melanie and I opted to watch game seven at a bar in our neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio City. We had been out in the suburbs for a family thing, leaving just in time to catch a train packed with Cavs fans heading to the city. Sure, there were open containers and even a whiff of someone smoking a joint, but there was also a gravitas I’ve never seen before in a collection of Clevelanders. A sense that, “We got this,” like we actually belong on the big kid’s stage.
(For the record, It’s entirely possible I’m over-analyzing people wanting to get buzzed on a train before a big game.)
Back in Ohio City, we hightailed it over to Jukebox — something off the main strip where we’d have a reasonable shot of getting our eyes on a television. We watched on their back patio with the game played over a large projector screen. Melanie’s parents joined us near the start of the second quarter.
Most agreed that it would be close, but history told us to keep our optimism in check. Yet I had this odd sense that they were going to do it. They would win. Sure enough, Kyrie hit that three, LeBron stretched the lead to four with a free throw, and the defense held on the final play of the game.
“Holy shit! Is this happening?” I screamed as the final seconds ticked off.
It was over and I was a kid again, my emotions firmly attached to the success of a professional sports team.
— Joe Baur (@BaurJoe) June 20, 2016
I loved every moment of it, and though I’m still very much in the post-coital glow of the moment, it feels like that may have been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life — watching the kid from Akron bring a title to a city that really does deserve nice things.
People hugged, cried, danced, and screamed. Everything I’ve seen other cities enjoy was happening right in front of me. Melanie and I hustled back toward our apartment in the heart of the neighborhood where people had all but taken over the streets. Folks from all walks of life were celebrating together, even hugging.
There are those who love to point out the futility of sports. No, this won’t directly impact Cleveland’s disturbing infant mortality rate or improve funding for public transportation.
Then there are those who really want you to know that they don’t care about professional sports, so much so that they’ll know when a big game is on so they can post about not caring.
I get it. It’s silly how much energy we put into sports. But if it’s what gets everyone together, celebrating, and again, hugging — I’m all for it. It certainly can’t hurt anything. Hell, last night’s the safest I felt as a pedestrian on West 25th in a long time! I’ll take it.
Melanie and I wandered about the neighborhood a bit, unsure of what to do. I mean, it’s not like we have experience with this kind of thing. Eventually we decided to go home and watch the celebration from our window, the screams and honking horns lasting well into the night. Even as I write this, fans continue to celebrate outside my apartment as if it’s possible this might not happen again for another 52 years.
This is what it feels like to live in a championship city. The mood really does seem to have changed overnight. I sincerely do hope this attitude will go beyond sports and seep into things that actually do impact the everyday lives of Clevelanders, because the people here really do deserve the best.
For now, I’m happy to bask in the indescribable joy of the moment.
See you at the parade on Wednesday, Cleveland.