I've Waited 52 Years for This Cleveland Championship

I can’t believe it’s real. I watched all of Game 7 and witnessed the Cavs winning the NBA Finals on Sunday night, becoming the first team to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win the championship. I stayed up and watched the post-game coverage until I finally fell asleep at 3:00 a.m. Now I’m watching the team’s arrival home in Cleveland, where an estimated 10,000 fans greeted the team at the airport, and in interview after interview I heard fans saying the same thing: “I can’t believe it’s real.” It’s been 52 years since long-suffering Cleveland fans had a sports championship to celebrate and we can’t wrap our minds around what just happened. Many of us who have endured decades of devastating disappointments, on some level, keep waiting for some cosmic shoe to drop. Something bad is going to happen, right? Deep in our hearts we’re afraid that somewhere in a backroom of the NBA offices there’s a group of officials going over game tapes, looking for something the Cavs really screwed up—something so egregious that it would result in the Cavs having to forfeit Game 7, and thus the championship, to the Golden State Warriors.

Crazy, I know, but that’s what it’s like to be a Cleveland sports fan today.

After Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Kyle, my 22-year-old son, came home and said, “Mom, we need to watch ‘Believeland’ —tonight.” He was talking about ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary about the 52-year championship drought in Cleveland. “I had tears in my eyes when I watched the part about Art Modell moving the Browns to Baltimore,” he said. “He literally just picked up the entire team and moved it to Baltimore! How could somebody do that??”

He was, understandably outraged to learn the ugly details about how that all went down in 1995, when he was a year old. He had grown up hearing about the legendary Cleveland Curse—Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, and Jose Mesa choking during Game 7 of the World Series in 1997, the year he was two, but it wasn’t until he watched “Believeland” that he felt those devastating losses deep in his soul. “We have to win this game, Mom. We just have to.”

I thought maybe I was starting to get through to him when he quipped, “We’ll probably lose Game 7 at the buzzer with a Steph Curry full court 3-point shot.” Still, I could tell he was getting his hopes up when he invited a bunch of his friends over, thinking the night would end in a celebration.

I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm, but I had been through this so many times before. You hope for the best, but you never really expect them to win. It’s too emotionally devastating to be disappointed like that. 

When LeBron James announced “The Decision” to take his talents to South Beach in 2010, I wasn’t surprised. “Of course he’s leaving without getting us a championship,” I said at the time. “It’s Cleveland. That’s what happens here. We can’t have nice things.” Or at least we can’t keep them for very long. I wrote at the time of his return::

It was a painful episode in a long history of Cleveland sports disappointments. No Cleveland team has won a championship in half a century, not since the 1964 Browns won a (pre-Super Bowl) NFL title. The last time the Indians won a World Series was 1948 and the city has never won an NBA title. So perhaps it’s not difficult to understand, just a little, why LeBron found himself the repository of fifty years worth of pent-up frustration.

But LeBron explained why he left, owned up to handling his departure poorly, and demonstrated that he understood what a championship would mean to Cleveland fans:

He said his “calling” in Northeast Ohio goes beyond basketball. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.” He said he wants kids in the area to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. “Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.” He added that “in Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”

LeBron James demonstrated today that he never really left Ohio. He still remembers what it’s like to be a poor inner city kid dreaming about championship teams in Cleveland and imagining a future outside of the hood. Obviously, LeBron is just a man and basketball is just a game. But his return will boost the Cleveland economy and bring back some of the excitement that’s been missing on the Cleveland sports scene since he left. LeBron has been a thrill to watch on the court since he was in high school and even when I hated him for leaving, I couldn’t resist copping a peek at his amazing dunk shot anytime I caught a Miami Heat game while channel surfing.

I still hate that he left Cleveland for the quick bling of a big-market championship team in Miami. But now that he’s gotten that out of his system, perhaps a more mature LeBron is ready to do what no other Cavaliers player in history has done: lead the battle-hardened city of Cleveland to a basketball championship. I’ve been around this town long enough that I don’t get my hopes up about our sports teams anymore. But (lacking any other feasible options) I’m at least willing to keep an open mind about LeBron and see if he’s willing to put his talent where his mouth is.

With two minutes left in the game last night I told my husband that it wasn’t going to happen. Even though the score had been close all night, it seemed the momentum had shifted in Golden State’s favor. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing. We had a basement full of our son’s friends here and we kept hearing cheers and groans coming from downstairs, but I could hardly watch. I think I probably had my hands over my eyes during those final minutes.

Cavs Win Championship After 52-Year Cleveland Drought

LeBron James celebrates with the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy after beating the Golden State Warriors in game seven of the NBA Finals Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

When LeBron hit the floor, clutching his wrist, my husband said, “‘The Fall.’ That’s what we’re going to call this loss.” We headed down to the basement so we could share the final moments with our son and his friends.

When Curry missed his final 3-point shot I waited for the whistle, but it never came. And suddenly, it was over. I kept staring at the score and the timer, sure that there was some mistake.

But then our house erupted in cheers. Everyone hugged and jumped up and down and screamed. Phones started blowing up. I called my mom and dad; our son called his brother. I can’t explain it, exactly, but everyone who grew up around here wanted—needed—to share this moment with loved ones. I’m barely old enough to remember when our astronauts landed on the moon, but I suspect there was a similar feeling in the air. Something historic—probably once in a lifetime—had just occurred and we needed to experience it together.

LeBron James wept—cried like a baby—during his postgame interview. So did several other Cavs players. I cried with them. It’s as if we were purging 52 years of pent-up frustrations and disappointments.

More than 25,000 fans had watched the game at the Quicken Loans Arena and at 2:30 a.m. they were still celebrating (peacefully) in the streets of Cleveland. Another 200-300 watched in Akron, at LeBron’s alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. There were also celebrations in the streets of Akron after the game, where news crews caught up with one of LeBron’s first coaches, who had tears in his eyes. It seemed everywhere the cameras pointed they found fans with tears streaming down their faces. It was an intensely emotional night. 

LeBron never promised Cleveland a championship. In interviews leading up to Game 7 he told fans that he was going to continue to play his game and do his best, as he always does. After winning the championship he told reporters that he felt he didn’t play well in the first two games in Oakland. He said that after studying film he saw things he needed to tighten up in his game and he made the necessary adjustments. He sure did, turning in a stellar performance, with 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assist, becoming only the third player in NBA history to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It was a performance for the ages.

That’s the LeBron we know here in Cleveland. A disciplined man with an incredible work ethic who never showboats. He would have deserved the MVP award based on his stats, even if Cleveland hadn’t pulled off a Game 7 victory. He knew what this championship meant to Cleveland fans. We’ve waited 52 years for it—18,802 days…2,686 weeks…451,248 hours…27 million minutes (we’ve had a lot of time on our hands to work out the math on this). Cleveland fans are arguably the most loyal in all of sports, sticking with their teams even through decades of losing seasons, turning out for games in sleet and snow, and remaining faithful through terrible adversity.

“I came back for a reason,” James said. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to — when I came back — I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about.”

“Our city,” LeBron called it. This win was personal. A grateful city is celebrating today, even if we still don’t completely believe what we just witnessed.