CLEVELAND -- OK, I am sitting here in traffic wearing a CleveWin hat -- that would be CleveWin, one word, don’t ask -- and I’m listening to two guys on the radio calmly explain that if the Cavaliers do not get Kevin Love in a trade the world will come to a BLEEPIN’ END, and on my left is the ice cream stand our coach would take us to every time our Little League team won. The ice cream stand was called Cream-O-Freeze then. It’s called Dairy King now. So much has changed in my hometown.
People surrounding the Dairy King look happy, which is no surprise because ice cream stands are happy places and the ice cream here (chocolate on chocolate in a sugar cone!) remains one of Cleveland’s great secrets. But here’s the point: Everybody in Cleveland looks happy. No, really, everyone. People look happy wandering around the shops at Legacy Village, and people look happy bouncing around the West Side Market, and people look happy milling outside “The Thinker” statue at the Cleveland Museum of Art. That statue was damaged by a political group bombing in 1970. Cleveland was decidedly unhappier that year.
People just look so absurdly happy.
Or maybe that’s just how it looks through the eyes of a Clevelander.
It is only a few days after Cleveland had one of its most successful weeks in recent years. The GOP announced that it would have the Republican National Convention in Cleveland -- the first time a political convention will come to town since 1936. And then, with even more fanfare, LeBron James announced he was coming home to play for the Cavaliers in a Cleveland love letter. On top of that, the Browns’ rookie quarterback, Johnny Manziel, well, he keeps popping up in the news. Sure, it’s for partying, which isn’t necessarily great news but, the point is he’s not boring. And the Browns have been SO boring.
The Cleveland good news comes flying in so fast -- and from so many directions -- that it just seems to be a constant drumbeat. Is this really it? Is Cleveland really about to break out and win?
“LeBron James is coming home!” says my 89-year-old grandmother, who is from Poland and has never watched even one second of a basketball game in her entire life. “What do you think of that?”
* * *
I am 47 years old. Cleveland has not won a championship in 50 years. Those two thoughts depress me in different ways. Together, they mean that every time I go back to my hometown, memories of heartbreaking sports moments haunt every turn. Well, there have been plenty of those moments.
There’s our old house, looking about the size of a college refrigerator, and it was inside there that I wept after Brian Sipe threw the interception to lose a playoff game to the Raiders. Red Right 88 was the name of the play. Everyone in town knows that.
Twenty minutes away, there’s where the old stadium used to be. We called it Cleveland Municipal Stadium long after the city pulled the “Municipal” from the name. Cleveland Municipal Stadium was ancient and massive, like an old Scooby Doo haunted house, and when the wind howled through there you could hear your bones freeze. That was where the nemesis John Elway drove his Broncos 98 yards through the wind and prayers and knocked the Cleveland Browns out of the only Super Bowl they came close to reaching. That was also where people threw everything but their flasks on the field in the last game before the Browns moved to Baltimore.
Of course, there’s a new Cleveland Browns stadium here now. It’s nice. The new Cleveland Stadium -- called FirstEnergy last I checked -- doesn’t have many ghost stories because the new Browns have not even been good enough to break hearts. But I did once see the Browns lose here when a defender decided to throw his helmet as time expired, costing Cleveland a 15-yard penalty and the game.
I drive out to Richfield, where the old Coliseum used to be … I like to come out here. It is not particularly close to anything -- nobody was ever really sure why they put an arena here. There’s no sign of the Richfield Coliseum now. It’s all trees and grass. Still, I have no trouble at all remembering how it looked, especially on the inside, when the Cavaliers wore wine and gold and management was brain-dead enough to force the NBA to veto its stupid trades, and courtside entertainment included the literally-named “Fat Guy Eating Beer Cans.” And of course, again and again, I see the shot, when Michael Jordan began his legend by hitting a game-winning shot over a gravity-laden Craig Ehlo to knock the Cavaliers out of the playoffs and permanently out of the championship picture.
Downtown, there’s Jacobs Field, now called Progressive, a great stadium, and it was here that some of the best hitting teams of the last quarter-century slugged their way to two World Series. The Indians lost the first one to Atlanta -- the only World Series victory for that great but star-crossed Braves team. The Indians lost the second one to a Miami rent-a-team by collapsing in the late innings.
And, around the corner, is the Q, Quicken Loans Arena, where LeBron James captivated the city before taking his talents to South Beach.
I came back to Cleveland shortly after James made that famous decision, and everything in town seemed gray and deflated and angry. Again, maybe that was just how it looked through the eyes of a Clevelander, but it is also true that when I got to my hotel room there was a letter waiting for me from the manager basically expressing unhappiness over LeBron’s decision. When I went out into the city to talk with people -- friends, relatives, strangers -- no one seemed happy. I couldn’t help but notice that I was spending a lot of my time on Chagrin Boulevard. Well, the whole city seemed to me like Chagrin Boulevard.
But there’s something wonderful about sports fans, something that isn’t any truer for Cleveland than for Baltimore or Chicago or San Francisco or Dallas or anyplace else, but certainly not less true either: Sports fans are resilient. Sports fans hope again. Sports fans believe again. Young sports fans infuse energy into old ones. And LeBron is back.
* * *
“No, I definitely think you’re on to something,” says Len Komoroski. “I think people here are definitely puffing their chests out a little bit.”
We are talking about a happy Cleveland. Of course, Len Komoroski is even more inclined to see it that way than I am … he’s not only CEO of the Cavaliers, he’s also one of the board of directors for the Greater Cleveland Partnership. Still, it’s energizing to hear him talk about all the good that’s happening in Cleveland. People are moving downtown. Stuff is getting built. Neighborhoods are coming back.
“I think,” Komoroski says, “we might see the week that Cleveland got the Republican convention and LeBron announcing he was coming home as a tipping point. It has been going in the right direction for a while now, but I think that might be what will make everyone see what’s happening here.”
Numerous times in my life, Cleveland has tried to turn around a stubborn image seared into America’s consciousness many decades ago when the Cuyahoga River caught fire and the city declared bankruptcy and a drunken lot of Cleveland Indians fans stormed the field on 10 cent beer night.
There was the “Cleveland’s a Great Place to Live” song.
I remember the “Plum” promotional campaign -- the slogan was “New York City may be The Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a plum!” Surprisingly, that one didn’t take off.
There’s the Comeback City bit in the early 1990s when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was built and Jacobs Field was built and the Flats -- a collection of bars and restaurants along the Cuyahoga River -- were cool and alive and had a beat that people danced to. That seemed like the real thing, but it just didn’t stick for a variety of reasons that are too boring and depressing to include in a sports story.
Komoroski says the Cleveland renaissance happening now is real -- and he has various numbers and statistics about income growth and new investments to prove his point. But I tell him that what I’m interested in is more subtle than that. With all the things happening -- particularly the return of LeBron James -- are Clevelanders hopeful again?
“I’ve had the fortune to live in a lot of places,” he says. “There are certain cities -- Cleveland is certainly among them -- where the identification people feel toward the city and toward the pro teams is one in the same. As the teams go, in a lot of respects, goes the mood of the city. I feel that in Cleveland.
“It just speaks to the passion people feel here. We are more of a parochial market; it’s not like certain Southern cities where everyone is from everywhere. We certainly have people who come in from different parts of the country … but for the most part Cleveland has an indelible link with its team. There’s a multigenerational bond that the teams provide for children, parents, grandparents. So, yes, I do think that Clevelanders connect with their teams a little bit more strongly.”
“In other words,” I say, “It’s going to be one heck of a party when the Cavaliers win the championship next year. Right? Right?”
Actually, I don’t say that. A Clevelander would NEVER say that.
* * *
The Kevin Love trade stuff bothers me a little. Hard to explain. It doesn’t bother me so much as a basketball fan -- Love is obviously a fantastic player, and the idea of Love and LeBron on the same team is tantalizing. But … I don’t know … it feels a little bit like overkill. It feels a little bit like desperation. It feels a little bit like an overreaction to the 50-year drought.
I go around Cleveland and ask strangers what they think about the Love trade. Well, I don’t have to ask. I just say: “Kevin Love?” Two answers set the argument. One comes from an employee at a sports store who says, and I quote, “F--- yeah!”
Another comes from a guy eating ice cream at the Dairy King. He says: “No way. They already got their team. (Andrew) Wiggins is going to be big time. (Kyrie) Irving can ball. They don’t need Kevin Love, man. They’ve got the team. Just give it time.”
I mostly agree with the guy at the Dairy King -- the Cavaliers seem to me to be building a cool team in the spirit of the San Antonio Spurs. Wiggins can develop into their Kawhi Leonard. Irving can develop into their Tony Parker. I even have visions -- blurry as they might be -- of rookie bust Anthony Bennett refocusing and becoming their Boris Diaw. They’ve got a coach, David Blatt, who coached a blend of Princeton and European basketball and led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague Championship.
And they’ve got the best basketball player on earth. They’ve got the team. Just give it time. Don’t panic. That’s my sensible side.
But, yeah, a part of me is with the kid in the sports store, the one who says that this is as good a chance as Cleveland has had at winning a championship in a long time, and they need to seize the day. Fifty years! All those heartbreaks! This is it. Don’t blow it. This is the time. Get Kevin Love. Don’t blow it. Build a super-team. Don’t blow it!
And that’s my Cleveland side.
* * *
In the end, of course, you cannot really gauge the mood of an entire city, even the city where you grew up. A city is too big a thing with too many people going in too many directions. Some people are giddy. Some people are mildly happy. Some people don’t care at all. LeBron returning … the Republican National Convention coming … Johnny Manziel making the Browns a national story for at least a little while … these things are nice but they don’t make traffic move any faster, and they don’t make the boss any more reasonable, and they don’t fill up your car with gasoline.
But, as I drive through my old neighborhood, all those miniature houses with their neatly-trimmed front yards and sprinklers splashing, I think back to that Brian Sipe Browns team again. Only I don’t think about the interception. No, I think about the way everything felt in the weeks leading up to it. The thing about Cleveland -- and Detroit and Pittsburgh and Buffalo and Chicago and Milwaukee and all those other rust belt cities with excessively harsh winters and lingering factory smoke -- is that it’s not an easy place to live. There’s pride in that. You have to be tough to live in Cleveland.
And in that winter when Brian Sipe led the team to the playoffs, Cleveland Browns songs played on the radio. Everybody wore orange. Strangers talked to each other in the frozen food section at the grocery store and across restaurant tables about how this was the year. This was the team. One neighbor on our block, for some reason, bought a football and wanted to throw it around with us kids. Another started a snowball fight. Everybody believed in that Browns team.
That was right around Christmas, 1980. I was 13 years old. And that’s when I really fell in love with my city. That’s when I really fell in love with sports. Nobody knows how Johnny Manziel will actually play quarterback. Nobody knows how the LeBron thing will turn out. But, that hope, it’s back. Yes, there has been a lot of heartbreak in Cleveland. But, you know, there has been a lot of putting hearts back together again too.