By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
They don't know exactly what to do or how to act in Cleveland these days. They haven't had much practice with a winner, not that the Cavaliers have won it all yet. In fact, LeBron James and the Cavaliers are just close enough to break Cleveland's heart again -- for only the millionth time since a professional team last won there, which was 1964.
That's why so many took to the streets and blew their horns until the wee hours on Saturday after the Cavaliers finished off the Pistons to reach the NBA Finals.
After every crushing disappointment over the last 20-plus years, whether it was the Browns, the Indians or the Cavaliers, I'd call my uncle, Cecil King, who has lived in Cleveland his entire adult life, and console him after "The Drive" or "The Fumble" or Michael Jordan shooting over Craig Ehlo. This time, it felt good to call him after Cleveland had won something, and even better to hear him, alternately laughing and choked up, say: "It's been a long time since Jim Brown. I'm turning 70 and I was getting worried I wouldn't see us get close to winning anything again. I don't think most of us expected LeBron to break through and carry us this far this year. The place is so high in spirit. It's such a beautiful time to be in Cleveland."
Don't look here for any Cleveland jokes. If any American city is deserving of the lift in civic spirit that only a sporting championship can deliver, it's Cleveland. The dearth of team championships mirrors, as longtime residents know, Cleveland's demise as a city, which began just after the Browns won the 1964 NFL championship.
"Every kind of sports disappointment you can have in sports, Cleveland has had it," my friend Brian Dunmore, born and raised in Cleveland, told me the other day. "Buzzer-beating losses in the NBA playoffs, one-out-to-go loss in the World Series, the Browns leaving town, Ernie Davis dying of leukemia without ever getting to play a snap, John Elway leading 'The Drive.' . . . Maybe LeBron delivering the Cavaliers is the sports gods finally saying, 'Enough is enough.' "
Even worse, the city's teams and the city's incredible misfortunes are inseparable.
Cleveland didn't just shrink during the last 50-plus years, it shriveled. It was the nation's fifth-largest city in 1920 and remained in the top 10 through the 1970 census, but after a decades-long exodus it was the 39th-largest city in America in 2005, down from almost 915,000 residents in 1950 to 452,208. Nearly 180,000 people left in the 1970s alone, and the city reportedly lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs. Now, the median household income is 97th among the top 100 cities. The exodus, the 1968 riots and the city defaulting in 1978 led to a heap of ridicule, to the moniker "Mistake by the Lake." In 1972, as local legend has it, Mayor Ralph Perk's wife declined a dinner with President Richard M. Nixon because it interfered with her bowling night.
When the city was going strong, so were its teams. The Browns, filling a vacancy created by the Rams moving from Cleveland to Los Angeles, joined the NFL in 1950 and easily were the team of the decade. They won the title in their inaugural NFL season, and reached seven of the next eight championship games. They had the league's best and most famous player, Jim Brown. Their coach, Paul Brown, essentially invented the modern pro game and begat Bill Walsh, who reinvented it.
The Indians won the World Series in 1948, and six years later won 111 games and made it back to the Fall Classic. Of course, Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz with his famous over-the-shoulder catch in that '54 Series, in which the New York Giants swept Cleveland. Maybe that was a bit of foreshadowing. The week before the NFL's "Greatest Game Ever Played" in 1958 between the Giants and Colts, the Giants beat the Browns to advance to the championship game. About a year and a half after the Browns won in 1964, Jim Brown retired, and the Indians fell into serious hard times that would last 30 years, until they came back strong in a new stadium in the 1990s. However, they lost to the Atlanta Braves in the '95 World Series and then in 1997 to the expansion Florida Marlins in the 11th inning of Game 7.
The Cavaliers, who arrived through NBA expansion in 1970, nearly had a shining moment in 1976 when they upset the defending conference champion Washington Bullets, but then lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The next time the Cavaliers appeared on the cusp of something big was 1989. Magic Johnson took a long look at the roster of young players (Mark Price, Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, Hot Rod Williams, Craig Ehlo, Larry Nance) and pronounced them the "team of the '90s." That was fine, except Michael Jordan hit that series-winning shot over Ehlo in Game 5 of the 1989 East quarterfinals, which propelled Jordan and the Bulls and seemed to destroy the young Cavaliers. They succumbed to the Bulls in the 1992 conference finals, were felled by a massive wave of injuries after that and never get close . . . until now.
"Seeing the Cavaliers lose like that actually hurt me more than the Browns losing to Elway," Uncle Cecil said. "At least I'd seen the Browns win, and there was a tradition there that suggested they could get back."
Then, of course, the Browns left for Baltimore after the 1995 season and won a Super Bowl after the 2000 season for another city, where they were assembled by a Browns Hall of Famer, Ozzie Newsome.
The disappointments are so massive and so numerous, I asked Dunmore, now a retail licensing executive for the PGA Tour, to rank them. "Number one has to be 'The Drive,' " he said. "Nothing else comes close. We had the game, we were playing at home, we were going to the Super Bowl and John Elway is 98 yards away. Number two has to be 'The Fumble,' " when Earnest Byner was stripped of the ball by the Broncos' Jeremiah Castille near the goal line in Denver in the AFC championship game in 1988.
"I would say number three was the Indians' World Series loss to the Marlins in '97. South Florida has three teams that have won championships [Dolphins, Heat and Marlins], none of which even existed when Cleveland won its last championship. I'd put Jordan-over-Ehlo further down because that was more about Chicago's ascension than anything else."
So, even if the Cavaliers lose to the Spurs, it's unlikely to trump so many other Cleveland losses.
"It's phenomenal to have a kid from Akron, which is a peg below Cleveland, lead a Cleveland team to a championship," Dunmore said. "We've had a lot of terrific players, guys like Leroy Kelly, Ozzie Newsome, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper. Manny Ramirez was on those Indians teams that reached the World Series. But this is the first time since Jim Brown that people throughout the country are looking at Cleveland and seeing that supernova player. It does incredible things for civic pride. Look at what Michael Jordan did to define Chicago and how that city feels about itself. LeBron James is from us. He's from right down the road. He put us on the map again. We're the center of sports in America, which happens so infrequently. You'll see those aerial views of Cleveland, the shots of the arena and downtown Cleveland, which is coming back. It's been 40 years since Jim Brown retired, 40 years since Cleveland has had 'The Man.' "