by John Furgele
The Interception, 1981. The Drive, 1987. The Fumble, 1988. The Blown Save, 1997. In Cleveland and NE Ohio, those two word phrases/events resonate in every sports fan that was born in 1973 or before. Cleveland is one of those towns; a town that loves its sports teams, that roots hard for its sports teams. When they’re winning, the next day at work is a better one. When the Browns win on Sunday, the workweek is more pleasant. When the Indians are winning seven of ten, there is the so-called hop-in-ones-step. Even non-sports fans follow sports in Cleveland. They have to, because it’s part of the region’s culture. Not every city is like this. San Diego has never seen the Padres or Chargers win a championship. They lost their basketball team to Los Angeles decades ago. They have 75 degree, sunny days 345 times a year. Simply, they don’t care as much.
In Cleveland, sports are part of the DNA. It is woven into the fabric of society. Most Clevelanders were born and raised there. Cleveland isn’t Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, where young people flock to take a job. It’s a nice place to work, raise a family and enjoy, but it isn’t sexy. It’s Cleveland. Sports is part of the region’s identity; when they win, there is pride, when they lose, despair.
In 1995, the Cleveland Browns left town and headed to Baltimore. That season was a mournful one and many Clevelanders didn’t know what they would do without their football team. There were fans who went to all the games, naturally they were despondent, but even residents who never went to games and who only monitored the plight of Browns were hurt by the team’s move.
The NBA Finals was truly a “Tale of Two Cities.” Oakland, home of the Golden State Warriors, was the defending champion. But, in 2019, the “Oakland” Warriors will be heading to San Francisco to play in a new arena. It certainly isn’t a move from Cleveland to Baltimore proportions, but there is a sort of civic loss for Oakland as they move from gritty Oakland to glitzy San Francisco. Couple that with the Raiders and A’s threatening to move unless they get new playpens and the case could be made that both cities were feeling the pressure of civic pride.
Before the Cavs win, the last time Cleveland won a major professional sports championship was 1964 when the Browns won the NFL Championship Game, punishing the Baltimore Colts 27-0. As good as that title was it should be noted that this was before the Super Bowl and that the Buffalo Bills won the AFL Championship, so in effect, there were two football champions. If Buffalo and Cleveland would have played, do we know that Cleveland would have won?
As Game 7 unfolded, you know what was going through the minds of the Cleveland sports fan. Because of the history, much of the thought was negative. When will Curry hit a big three? When will LeBron have a key turnover? When will Kevin Love miss a crucial layup? It had to be agonizing as the game remained tied at 89 for seemingly 30 minutes. Then, it happened. Kyrie Irving hit the big three and the Cavs were on the brink of breaking a city’s 52-year old curse. But 51 seconds remained and if you were born after 1956 (I always contend one must be at least 8 to remember sporting events), the Clevelander had to be waiting for something bad to happen. With 10.8 seconds left and a four point lead, even the most pessimistic fan knew that the drought was over. That Cleveland, the City of Light and Magic that Randy Newman sang about in “Burn On,” which was written for the movie “Major League,” was going to get its long awaited championship.
I’m sure Clevelanders had it all planned out. Because they’ve never seen their team win, they likely had thought or even rehearsed how they would react when it would happen. You’ve heard the lines. “I’ll cry uncontrollably when it happens,” or “I’ll smile for weeks,” or I’ll hug every stranger I know in celebration.” Then it happens and all that rehearsing goes out the window. Being from Buffalo, I have visions of what I would do if the Sabres or Bills ever won that championship clinching game, but until it happens….
When Marreese Speights’ shot clanked off the rim and the clock read 000, it was all over and it was time for the Cleveland fan to react. Most jumped up and down, screamed and hugged every person that they could find. Many cried. Many thought of their fathers and mothers who took them to games at old, crummy Cleveland Stadium to see Duane Kuiper play second base, Andre Thornton first base with Toby Harrah at third. In the fall, they went to the same stadium to see Mike Phipps play quarterback for the Browns, and the Pruitts—Greg and Mike—run for touchdowns for the Art Modell owned team. They might have driven out to the old Richfield Coliseum to see the usually bad Cavaliers play and if they were truly Cleveland sports fans might have been part of a small congregation that saw the NHL Cleveland Barons glide up and down the Coliseum ice from 1976 to 1978.
That’s when the tears come. If you’re 48 like me, you think back to the mid-1970s when you were becoming a sports fan. Instead of using baseball cards on the spokes of your bike, you were saving them, trading them and studying them. You were asking your dad or mom to take you to a game or you were being conditioned by them to follow the local team. You know how it goes. It’s a Saturday, and dad or mom has the Indians game on the radio or TV, and you ask why they are Indians fans and the parent says, “I grew up here and have been a Cleveland sports fan all my life and if you’re going to live here kid, you best get on board.” Some kids rebel and pick another team to root for, but by high school, they have been so swept up by the regionalism that they too, become Cleveland fans and someday, will pass that on to their children.
Those are the fans that cried. Many of their parents have passed on and when they saw the Cavs bag the title, they thought of their childhood when mom and dad took them to games, watched games with them on a Sunday and they became sad because they didn’t get to see this. Sad, yes, but many looked to the sky, smiled and said thanks.
Cities like Cleveland feel it even more. As mentioned, most Clevelanders have been there since birth. Their parents and grandparents grew up here and now they live here and so too, do their kids. It is more ingrained than even Oakland and certainly cities like Miami, where LeBron James won two titles. James certainly gets it. He grew up in Akron and he knows the pain that Cleveland fans have suffered. In fact, he cited The Drive, the Fumble, Jordan’s Shot and even though he was merely a baby, he knows the history. Why? Because he’s from there.