My father was 14 years old when the city of Cleveland last won a championship in 1964. He has lived in Cleveland his entire life, he has seen Cleveland teams as well as the city itself go through enormous heartbreak and disappointment. He experienced the 52-year drought first-hand, and he can still recall the Browns’ victory over the Colts in 1964 vividly in his mind. The morning of Game 7 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors he told me, “If I knew it would be the last championship the city ever won, I would have celebrated it a lot more.”
By Sunday night, he was partying like it was 1964. The Cleveland Cavaliers had capped off the improbable, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the GSW 93-89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
Only two other teams before the Cavaliers had come back from a 3-1 deficit to force a game 7, and no team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. That all changed last Sunday.
With both teams tied 89-89 for what seemed to be an eternity, Andre Iguodola ran up the court with 1:54 remaining in the game. He had one man to beat and it seemed like the Warriors were going to break the tie. In a sequence probably only possible if you are LeBron James, James came from halfcourt in under two seconds and blocked Iguodola’s layup against the glass. With one block, LeBron James was swatting away 52-years of heartbreak.
But there was still 1:49 left in the game, and the scoreboard still showed 89-89. The Cavaliers were visibly winded, and it showed on James’ next attempt. Clank of the front of the rim. Draymond Green grabbed the rebound and on the ensuing possession Curry fired up a three pointer and he missed. Badly. Tyronn Lue called timeout after Love grabbed the rebound. Kyrie Irving was visibly upset at his coach for calling a timeout, but he certainly wasn’t complaining at the end of the next possession. After all, he lives for these kinds of moments. His ever-growing list of game winning shots is a testament to that.
Out of the timeout, J.R. Smith set a screen for Irving, and the Cavaliers got the matchup they wanted. Irving vs. Curry. Irving danced with the ball, as he does better than anyone else in the NBA. Step-back. Money. Three-pointer drained in Curry’s face. That had to feel good not only for Cleveland fans, but for Irving most. Throughout the entire spring, he had to hear about how he wasn’t a good enough passer. About how he wasn’t a “traditional” point guard. About how he wasn’t as good of a number two as Dwyane Wade was for LeBron. These NBA Finals were the real coming out party for Irving, and if it weren’t for a man named LeBron James he most likely would have been Finals MVP.
On the next possession, Kevin Love had the opportunity to prove every single one of his doubters wrong. Love had to deal with his own scrutiny, much like Irving. Questions about his defense and fit in Cleveland were always there. With 45 seconds left in the game, Love stuck to Curry like glue. In a year where the NBA’s unanimous MVP seemed to make every shot he threw up, he missed arguably the biggest shot of his career, all thanks to Kevin Love’s defense.
The rest of the game was pretty much history. With 12 seconds left on the clock, Irving passed to James. LeBron tried with all of his might to dunk the game away, as well as the infamous “Cleveland curse.” He’d have to earn his points, as well as the title, at the line. He made one-of-two, sealing the Cavs’ victory as the new NBA champions. The Cavaliers held the Warriors scoreless in the final 4:39, the final score being 93-89.
Putting winning a championship aside for a moment, to say sports mean everything to this city would be underselling it. They mean more than everything. For decades, as Cleveland lost jobs, lost population and lost revenue, people turned to the city’s sports teams as a way to get away from the reality that is everyday life. After so much losing between the Browns, Cavs and Indians, it began to seem like the sports teams reflected the city pretty well. The popular Mike Polk Jr. video even says that Cleveland’s “economy is based on LeBron James.” When James chose to come back in 2014, a study showed that James provides an economic boost worth nearly $500 million to the city of Cleveland. Sports are big freaking deal in Cleveland.
You could see it at the parade on Wednesday, when the city celebrated their first title in 52-years. LeBron said it would be the “biggest party that Cleveland has ever seen ever,” and boy was he right. An estimated 1.2 million people showed up, some scaling the sides of tall parking garages to get a chance to see the parade of a lifetime. A man even went as far as eating horse feces while walking the parade route. While I don’t recommend doing that to show your elation, it truly was a surreal day for all. I think LeBron himself put it best when he said, “It still hasn't hit me what actually happened, and for some crazy a-- reason I believe like I'm going to wake up, and it's going to be like Game 4 all over again. I'll be like, s---, we're down 2-1 still.”
Who knows what the next few months will bring. The Republican National Convention will be sure to provide drama and entertainment, depending on who you ask. The general election will once again thrust Cleveland into the spotlight as a general election swing-state. “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation,” the popular saying goes. With Cleveland riding high after capping off the unthinkable, you have to think things are looking up for the city of Cleveland.
Cleveland vs. the world is a popular axiom around town. You may see people wearing t-shirts donning the phrase if you walk the streets of Cleveland. By winning a title, Cleveland became the center of attention. It is no longer Cleveland vs. the world, Cleveland IS the world. World champions, that is. It only took 145 seasons to finally claim that title again.