Cleveland, Je T'Aime

Fans at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland cheer as Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) takes the floor for Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals against the Detroit Pistons Saturday, June 2, 2007, in Cleveland.
Fans at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland cheer as Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) takes the floor for Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals against the Detroit Pistons Saturday, June 2, 2007, in Cleveland. (Amy Sancetta - AP )
By Dan Chaon
Sunday, June 10, 2007


Our town has its hopes up once again. We are in the NBA playoffs! Here we are: eager, wishful, eyes shining. I am, honestly, not much of a sports person, but living in a house with two teenage boys, I find this moment hard to ignore. Fifteen-year-old guys pace in and out of the house wearing over-sized Cavaliers jerseys the length of prom gowns, and all afternoon in the driveway there is that incessant dribbling. I come into my younger son's room, where he is supposed to be studying for a test, and find him looking at Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas's MySpace page instead. "Did you know," Paul says, "that Zydrunas has Michael Jordan in his top friends?"

He believes, very strongly, that Cleveland is going to win, and he is not alone. Everyone has the fever. My drycleaner has put an enormous balloon basketball player on the roof, and the Plain Dealer newspaper published some lady's recipe for "Cavalicious Pie." All over town, little children have taped sweet handmade "Go, Cavs" posters to their doorways, and grown men have strung banners and flags across their houses. All over town, people are lifting their heads like spring flowers, awaiting the shower of national glory that is surely about to pour down, and the urgency feels almost biblical. Today I opened the suburban Sun Press, and the editorial page had a prayerful ring to it. "Rise up, Cavs, and win," it resounded. "Rise up and put this city on the map and give us what we've been denied."

This worries me.

I really like living in Cleveland. I mean it. We live in a great neighborhood, with cool little coffee shops and restaurants, and a funky art-house movie theater down the block where my wife and I just saw "Paris, Je T'aime." Coming out of the air-conditioned darkness, sated with the popcorn they were giving away, I thought to myself, "Hey, I feel the exact same way about Cleveland! Cleveland, je t'aime!" I felt a rush of warmth for my city, even a kind of love as we made our way down our street with its tall maples and sycamores, as we came upon our big old house, which we bought so inexpensively that our friends in San Francisco and Boston couldn't believe it. Laugh if you like, but I'd venture that my quality of life here in Cleveland is much better than yours.

If that sounds defensive, I guess it's because it is. Defensiveness, shame, a brutal sense of inferiority: All of these are conditions of life here. When I go out of town and tell people I'm from Cleveland, I anticipate that momentary pause of pity, that repressed smirk of derision. If you're from Cleveland, you always have the vague sense that all the other cities are laughing at you. A comedian only has to mention the word "Cleveland" and the audience titters. Even overseas, we bear with us a cloud of humiliation. Last year, when my wife and I were in France, our hosts were concerned when they learned where we were from. "I have heard of this city," said M. Laporte. "That is where the river caught on fire!"

Naturally, this kind of thing can be hard on a person's self-esteem, and if you have lived in Cleveland for any length of time (almost 15 years for me), you begin to notice little knots in your psyche. Faced with national and international scorn, Clevelanders frequently harbor deep-seated fantasies of acclaim and honor. We can be unreasonably thrilled by even the vaguest contact with celebrity. (A teensy portion of "Spider-Man 3" filmed on downtown streets! Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus spotted at a Cavs game!) We are often overwhelmed by a desire to compare ourselves to other cities. (A recent front-page article in the Plain Dealer asked: "San Antonio or Cleveland? Which Is Better?") And we can even nurse irrational grudges. (When I told my son Paul that I was writing an essay for The Washington Post, he narrowed his eyes. "Make sure you write in there somewhere that the Wizards suck," he said, vengefully.)

All this intensity and longing -- it might not seem so personal if Cleveland could ever catch a break. But trailing alongside our urgent optimism is the nagging suspicion that the city is doomed, eternally luckless. "I'll tell you something," my friend Peggy says. "I don't think it's possible for Cleveland to win anything. Ever." She has never recovered from her beloved Indians' 1997 World Series loss to the Florida Marlins, the first time in history that a team has carried the lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of the seventh game and still lost. Peggy wept. "O Cleveland," she whispered. "O Cleveland, my Cleveland." And yet, here we are again. Another championship looms, and even though I'm not usually a fan, I feel a little anxious for our tender hearts.

When the Cavs beat the Detroit Pistons in double overtime, in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, it was a hot night, and I wasn't even watching. I admit, I expected my family to be disappointed. I was working in my upstairs study when I suddenly heard screams from outside. Up and down our block, people were running and yelling, and I hurried downstairs, where jubilation had commenced. My wife, who isn't particularly sportsy herself, was crying a little. "I don't know what's wrong with me," she said, rubbing a finger under her eyes. "It's just that -- all those sportscasters were so nasty, saying that we wouldn't win, how we always blow it in the third quarter . . . and there's something very noble about the Cavaliers this year. Not just LeBron, but all of them. They are a really likable group," she said.

And it's true, they are. They seem like nice guys, particularly when contrasted with the Pistons' theatrical arrogance: Rasheed Wallace stomping around like a baby, throwing his headband into the stands; Antonio McDyess hurling Anderson Varejao to the ground, clotheslining him.

Meanwhile, it's impossible not to be proud of LeBron James, who may be one of the most mature, self-possessed 22-year-olds in the world. He's not just an amazing player, he's also a model of sportsmanship, dignity and modesty. We feel like the good guys. "You know what I liked the most?" Paul said. "I liked the way they acted when they won, the way LeBron hugged Zydrunas, and the Cavs didn't seem like they were gloating or lording it over the Pistons. They were just happy. That was cool."

It would be nice if that were enough. Down the block from me, a church advertises its sermon: "How We Play the Game Really Does Matter!" And maybe that will be true. But then I see my son and his friends, avidly reading stats and comparing notes on players, all of them wearing that T-shirt with the Cav's Psalm-like motto: "Rise Up!" All of them waiting ardently, eagerly -- as if their hearts can never be broken.

Dan Chaon is the author, most recently,

of the novel "You Remind Me of Me."

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