I was walking up and down Larchmere Road on the Cleveland/Shaker Heights line—pacing, really—under a full moon. It was late in game 7 of the NBA championship, and I couldn’t bear to watch, couldn’t stand the pain of one more disappointment. Still I dared to wonder how my life might change and how the whole city might transform if they—a Cleveland team—actually won.
As I walked, I could see blue light emanating from living rooms, bars and restaurants, could hear cheers and groans, and could almost feel the held breath along with dreams deferred for more than half a century. Basketball was my third sport, the Cavs my third team beyond the Browns (hopeless) and the Indians (a tease). Still, the combination of a deep-pocketed owner and the best player in the league –- who just happened to be from nearby Akron, and who therefore understood our collective pain –- had us on the brink of victory, or more likely, another bracing defeat.
I looked in a small window at the Academy Tavern, which hadn’t changed much since I lived in that same neighborhood 35 years before, and saw the Cavs were down by 4, and then by 1. Finally I gathered up my courage and walked in. The place was steamy as a locker room, all eyes focused on two TVs, each at one end of the bar. By now the score was 89 all, and then, in the span of a few minutes, our collective fate would play out. I could hardly stand to watch, but like a rubber-necker at an accident scene, I couldn’t look away.
I blamed my parents, who had chosen to stay in Cleveland, and particularly my dad, who took me to my first Indians game (against the Minnesota Twins in 1965, and I’m pretty sure the Tribe lost), and to the Browns NFL Championship game in 1964, when I was 7 years old. I saw those title banners, heard the roar of men with cigars, whiskey, beer, and felt old Cleveland Municipal Stadium shake beneath the stomps of 80,000 fans on steel and concrete. That 27-0 victory, with Jim Brown slashing through an overmatched Baltimore defense set me up for more titles, more cheers, the pride of winning teams in a vibrant city.
But after 1964, and for the rest of my childhood and beyond, there were only losses, both on and off the field: the Hough and Glenville riots of the ‘60s, the slide into bankruptcy in the late ‘70s, the comedians’ jokes about our burning river and “the mistake on the lake,” followed by fifty years of futility. After a modest revival in the 1990s with the opening of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Indians’ near miss (thanks again, Jose Mesa), I felt, on return visits, Cleveland seem to fold into itself, as the steel mills closed, Sohio became BP, which decamped for Chicago, and National City Bank was bought out (the ultimate indignity) by Pittsburgh-based PNC.
Personally, I have spent more than 50 of my 59 years rooting for my teams, (and my city,) until I became so intertwined with them that their identity became my own. Like any good Cleveland fan, I could trace the near misses— Red Right 88 and the Kardiac Kids’ demise in a December 1980 snowstorm at the icebox on the Lake; the Drive and Fumble in the late ‘80s, just after I’d left Ohio for graduate school in Boston; Jose Mesa’s meltdown in the 7th game of the ’97 World Series against the Florida Marlins; the Browns’ betrayal of the city that created them in ’95 (otherwise knows as “the move”), Michael Jordan’s shot to take the Cavs out of playoff contention, and to add salt to the wound, Lebron James’ “decision” to take his talents to South Beach in 2010.
Meanwhile, I finished graduate school and took a series of staff jobs at Boston-area universities. While I navigated the maze-like streets, and tried to keep up with the fast-paced edgy locals (who could learn something we practice in the Midwest, called civility or “manners”), I watched as the Red Sox broke the curse, the Patriots became a dynasty, and the Celtics and Bruins won championships. Still, I avoided their parades, and felt nothing but envy, wondering when it would be our turn.
My brother, who has lived in New England since he went off to college at 18, suggested I adopt the Red Sox and Patriots (neither of us liked the Celtics) as my “second teams,” since Boston was my home. But the concept never took; I could no more imagine a second team than I could a second husband. Besides, I find Boston fans obnoxious and entitled; a bit like the Dog Pound crowd if they actually had a few Super Bowls to bark about.
For the first half of my life, I rooted for the Browns, Indians, and when they arrived on the scene in 1970, the Cavaliers, from my home in suburban Cleveland, and then after college, from my new home in Columbus. By the time I left town in 1981, I was infected with the virus, could no more forget my hometown than I could renounce my other tribe –- the Jews — who seemed to have an equally troubled history.
Now, back at Academy Tavern after an absence of 35 years, there was ‘the block’ ‘the shot’ ‘the foul’ and when Lebron hit his second free throw with ten seconds left, the Cavs suddenly had a four point lead and the fat lady was about to sing.
Ten seconds, a foul against the Warriors—the clock down to five seconds and then another miss by Golden State, and it was over as the bar erupted and I was high-fiving, hugging sweaty men I didn’t know, and we had won—not just the Cavs but every individual in that bar and in the city beyond them. After all, we – those who stayed in Cleveland and the hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands who left for school or jobs beyond Northeast Ohio – but who remained faithful to our Cleveland teams as I did, were winners, too.
Suddenly they, and by extension we, were all witnesses who felt like champions. After all, we come from Cleveland, the championship city.
Judah Leblang is a freelance writer based in Boston.