CLEVELAND — In the middle of a hallucinatory Tuesday night, a man once scorned and now sanctified in this city walked to the center of Quicken Loans Arena. LeBron James, a Northeast Ohioan by birth and by choice, slid a Titleist-size diamond championship ring over his left middle finger and grabbed the microphone.
“This night,” James said, “none of us will ever forget.”
More than 20,000 fans unleashed another deafening roar. Outside, hordes flowed around down East 6th toward Progressive Field, where the Cleveland Indians prepared to start Game 1 of the 112th World Series against the Chicago Cubs. Inside, James emceed the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship ceremony a few strides from center court, where the Larry O’Brien Trophy rested on a pedestal.
James called the title a testament to hard work, something the people filling the seats and the streets in this city know all about. He told them it would not have been possible without them.
“None of us will ever forget,” James repeated. “Anybody in this building. Anybody in this community. Anybody in this state. Anybody that has any ties to Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, from this building to next door, where our boys are opening the World Series.”
Screams nearly drowned out James’s voice, screams 52 years in the making, not heard since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964.
“At this point, if you’re not from here, live here, play here, dedicate yourself to Cleveland, then it makes no sense for you to live,” James said. “Cleveland against the world.”
It would have felt like madness to bet against Cleveland. It would be difficult for any city, on any given day, to feel better about itself than Cleveland on Tuesday. In the morning, the front page of the Plain Dealer blared, “Are You Ready To Believe Again?” At night, the Cavs raised a banner and beat the New York Knicks , and the Indians began their bid to win their first World Series since 1948 with a 6-0 victory over the Chicago Cubs.
All day, a city that for so long absorbed mockery celebrated itself. At Corner Alley on East 4th, patrons sipped beers on a sidewalk bar as big screens showed “Major League 2.” Fans packed the streets in Cavs gear and Indians caps and even the odd Ricky Vaughn jersey. ESPN, TNT and Fox had studios erected around the yard and the arena.
“The energy in the city is amazing,” Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin said. “It’s so different from anything this city has ever experienced before. The day of the parade was one sort of energy. But this is an optimism and a joy at the same time. It’s optimism for, the Indians are gonna do it, too. It’s joy for the realization we really did it. Being part of this, and being part of the city’s changing perception of itself, is really a big deal. Because there was a time when during the Boston series, all the Indians fans would have been finding a way to explain how they’re going to lose. And now every Indians fan explains to you how they’re gonna win.”
The Cavaliers’ banner rose to the ceiling at 7:17 p.m., 53 minutes before Corey Kluber fired the first pitch of the World Series. Fans trickled to the exits, joining the masses marching down East 6th to the left field gate, or to the plaza between Progressive Field and The Q where two giant monitors would show Indians-Cubs.
David, a 48-year-old who declined to give his last name, wore the Cavaliers championship T-shirt that had been draped over each chair at Quicken Loans Arena and a Chief Wahoo stocking cap. He paid $1,000 for his seat at Progressive Field and $100 to get into the Cavs game. It felt like a bargain, even if he never saw a single shot.
“Epic,” he said. “It’s awesome. That’s all there is to say. Lived here for 48 years, and we’ve taken a lot of abuse. Seeing LeBron leave and come back and raise a championship banner, it’s neat. The whole city in general, not just sports, we’ve come a long way.”
Barry Gabel headed to the exits, too, after the Cavs’ ceremony ended and headed to the ballpark. He has lived in Cleveland for 37 years and owns season tickets to both the Cavs and the Tribe. On the three-minute walk, Gabel reached into the inside pocket of his leather Indians jacket and pulled out a ticket stub from the 1999 Division Series. He had just left it there. For 17 years.
“You can’t fake that,” Gabel said. “Fifty dollars, too. I wish that’s what I paid for the tickets tonight.”
So how much did Tuesday’s set him back?
“I don’t want to tell you,” Gabel said. “Because my wife will not be happy with me.”
Behind Gabel walked 43-year-old Kelly O’Keefe, flanked by two friends who left for Game 1 after the ring ceremony. “This is as big as it could be right now,” O’Keefe said. “I was born and raised here. It’s like nothing you could ever imagine.”
For fans, emotions flooded back from June. For the players, it brought a new feeling. In each Cavalier’s locker sat a magnum of Moet & Chandon Nectar Imperial. The night allowed them to savor the title in a way they could not in the immediate aftermath, or even in the parade through downtown that drew more than 1 million people.
“All those first moments are surreal,” Griffin said. “You’re so numb almost, you don’t have the emotional wherewithal to experience and enjoy it. You’re so spent from the pursuit. I think this is the first time for most of us where we’re really giving into the joy of the moment.
“We don’t tend to let our guard down very much. When we started camp, the whole idea was: If you’re not here to repeat, let me know, and we’ll get you the hell out of here. But this is the moment when we get to really appreciate what we’ve done and not grip about what we have left to do.”
When Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert addressed the crowd, he finished a short speech by looking ahead. “When that banner goes up, I guess there’s only thing left to do,” Gilbert said. “Repeat. Go Tribe!”
The whole city, really could pause and reflect. For years, Clevelanders listened to outsiders poke fun of them with shrugs and smiles. They heard about a burning river and how much their teams stunk. It was fine, because they loved the place.
“There’s a reason so many people stay here their whole lives,” Griffin said. “People love it here. It’s not at all a transient city. It’s a very provincial place, and people love it here. But it means a lot to them now that people realize how special it is.”
O’Keefe could not remember a day Cleveland felt so good about itself. “Not even close,” O’Keefe said. “Born and raised here. Not even close.”
He disappeared among a sea of bodies heading into the ballpark, into the World Series, taking small steps during a night they would always remember.