CLEVELAND – Three years ago, when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday, an estimated 500,000 people lined Superior Avenue, soaking up the sun and 77-degree temperatures that warmed downtown Cleveland. The record high for that day also drew a record crowd on a perfect day for a parade.
Michael Snow was among the half-million partying that afternoon between East 22nd Street and Public Square. Last week, he recalled a conversation with friends in which they tried to envision a better atmosphere. It was Cleveland at its shiny best, a side of the city that most of the world didn’t know or chose to ignore.
“It was so cramped downtown that day,” said Snow, a 36-year-old computer programmer from Lakewood, Ohio. “Everybody was saying, ‘This is St. Patrick’s Day on a nice day. What would downtown look like if we won a championship?’ It would be insane. It would be crazy. We’re just waiting for it.”
Fifty-one years have passed since Cleveland won a title in a major sport, so long that the last one practically doesn’t count to the current generation of fans. The Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964, three years before the first Super Bowl. Only the 70-over crowd remembers the Indians winning the World Series in 1948.
“I’m 30,” said Ted Estep, who owns B&E Window Cleaning. “I’ve never seen a championship. What do you even do? You don’t have a blueprint for how you react. It’s never happened. What do you do?”
This is new territory for the Cavaliers, who with native son LeBron James have taken Cleveland fans on an exhilarating playoff ride that its cousin 200 miles northeast knows all too well. The Cavs had never won a game in the NBA Finals before beating the Warriors in consecutive games, including on the road.
Buffalo knows the euphoria that swept up Cleveland, and the emotional roller-coaster that comes with playing for a championship, all too well. Last week, Cleveland looked and sounded the way Buffalo did when the Bills and Sabres went deep into the postseason, with unbridled optimism interrupted by irrepressible nervousness.
To be sure, nothing beats the vibrancy of an excited sports town.
The Cavaliers and Warriors are tied through four games of the NBA Finals with Game Five tonight in Oracle Arena. If Cleveland steals another game in Oakland tonight, it could win an NBA championship at home. It’s a tall order, indeed, but the depleted Cavs proved it could be done last week.
Obviously, fans are excited.
And, of course, they’re absolutely terrified.
Clevelanders are so smitten that Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavs’ home, will be filled tonight even though Game Five will be played on the road. Thousands of people who cannot get inside the “Q” will be just outside its doors, watching on big-screen televisions set up in the street just to be around the action.
“In a town like Cleveland or Buffalo, which is really blue-collar, it’s an expense for people to go to these things and participate in them,” said former Browns center David Wohlabaugh, who grew up in Hamburg and settled in Cleveland after his NFL career. “They have been so starved for so long. They’ve been close, but haven’t been able to pull it home. Everyone is really hanging on pins and needles right now.”
It has been years, many years, since a professional sports team was an extension of its city like the Cavs and Cleveland. The Cavaliers are a resilient team that was kicked around for years. Since joining the NBA in 1970, they made only 19 playoff appearances. In 2007, their first trip to the Finals, they were swept by the Spurs.
Even this seemed like a transition year with James returning home and the organization building around him under a rookie coach. They seemed on the verge of implosion early in the season and were 19-20 nearing the midpoint.
But much like Cleveland, which has been thrown to the ground and left for dead numerous times, they refused to fall victim to a knockout punch. They came together and kept battling. They have been battered and bloodied, but like their city the competitive underdogs are still fighting.
And that’s why fans love this team. The romance intensified with each playoff round and took another step while they were diving after loose balls in the NBA Finals. A city starving for a title finally had an equally hungry team providing maximum effort and paying the price to win one.
The latest example was James, the lone healthy superstar, who needed stitches to repair a gash in the shape of a circle after slamming his head into a television camera in Game Four. The Cavs already lost Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the other two members of the Big Three, to injuries earlier in the postseason.
You could hear the oxygen sucked out of Cleveland when he tumbled into the photographer, just as you could hear sighs of relief when he remained in the game. Only seven players get substantial playing time. LeBron is the one player they cannot lose if they’re going to win this series.
If James is the soul of this team, Matthew Dellavedova is the heart. The undrafted Australian from St. Mary’s College of California has come to personify the resourcefulness of his team and this town. He played inspired defense against MVP Stephen Curry, scored 20 points in Game Three and effectively ran the offense to help Cleveland win consecutive games.
Undersized but smart, tough and relentless, he injected hope and helped Cleveland win Game Three. Fans couldn’t get enough of him after he left the arena on a stretcher while suffering from cramps and dehydration. He and James were exhausted and ineffective in Game Four, but they should not be counted out.
“That’s this town – scrappers,” said Eastlake’s Sue Kochman, who last week was found kissing a storefront poster of Dellavedova outside the arena. “But we’re still waiting for the shoe to drop. That’s what happens to our sports teams. We’re starving for something. We’re dying for a winner because people think we’re a joke.”
James, born and raised in nearby Akron, returned after abandoning his people and embarrassing his region with the nationally televised “Decision” in which he left for Miami. In 2010, fans burned his jersey and hanged him in effigy. Street vendors outside Quicken Loans and Progressive Field sold derogatory T-shirts damning him.
At the time, fans were so insulted and infuriated over his departure that they actually cried. The same people he alienated five years ago embraced him when he returned home last summer. It was about righting a wrong and winning a championship. T-shirts that read “Lyin’ King” have been replaced by others that now say, “All In.”
Cleveland is all in. All has been forgiven.
“It was like your high school girlfriend leaving you, she goes to college and takes you back,” Snow said. “You look like a loser, but you take him back. I can’t explain it, but that’s one indicator of how desperate we are for a winner.”
Buffalo and Cleveland always had a soft spot for one another. When former Browns owner Art Modell took his team to Baltimore – and angry fans slipped inside Cleveland Clinic and threw eggs at a sign of the hospital wing bearing his name – late Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson was one of two owners who voted against the move.
The two Rust Belt cities share the same values, have suffered through similar financial crises and experienced more heartbreak in sports than they deserve. Both have been the butt of jokes on late-night television, punchlines that have become cliché and tiresome, but with them comes an unbreakable spirit.
Deep down, we knew jewels hidden underneath an unsightly exterior were the hearty, hard-working and humble people who live there. Cleveland isn’t just a small city by the lake. Like Buffalo, it’s a state of mind. For years, I’ve said nursing homes would empty out if a Buffalo team ever won a title. The same applies to Cleveland.
“People would believe in their city again,” said Mark “Munch” Bishop, who hosts “Munch on Sports” on ESPN Radio in Cleveland. “Even though they want to, they’re still not sure. This might sound crazy, but people who have been hanging on would die with smiles on their faces.”
Nobody knows sports droughts like Cleveland and Buffalo. Sad chapters are broken down in phrases. Buffalo has Wide Right and No Goal. Cleveland has The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot. The Indians were two outs from winning the 1997 World Series before losing to the Marlins in the 11th inning of Game Seven.
(San Diego hasn’t won anything, either, but they’re getting what they deserve for stealing the Buffalo Braves.)
The Red Sox had the Curse of the Bambino, but Boston’s other teams won championships. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908, but the Bulls, Blackhawks and Bears won titles. The Warriors haven’t won a title in 40 years, but the A’s and Raiders did. Cleveland needs this one.
“We’ve always been on the edge, but it never happened,” said Doniella Ligon, an executive assistant with the Greater Cleveland Partnership. “This is like a kid yearning to go to Disney World for the first time. We’re finally on the plane. This would mean the world to us. And you can quote me. We’re going to win.”
Cleveland, which will host the Republican National Convention next year, has enjoyed its own resurgence. New businesses have reshaped the landscape. High-rent apartment buildings have waiting lists. People are moving from the suburbs to the city, reversing previous trends and pouring money into downtown. It began years ago, but James’ return and the Cavs’ success reportedly pumped $5 million into the local businesses.
The town has been buzzing since last summer. It was evident last week along East 4th Street, closed off between Prospect and Euclid avenues and the hub of hoops for Cleveland during the NBA Finals. ESPN constructed a makeshift set so viewers could see fans bar-hopping in the background and enjoying the hoopla. Maybe this is the year everything snaps into place.
And maybe it will not.
St. Patrick drew 500,000 people to downtown Cleveland because the sun was shining. King James shined the light on a desperate sports town. It would be fitting if this glorious ride continued with another parade down Superior Avenue.
“If the Cavs win, the parade and the party is going to be ri-dic-ulous,” Wohlabaugh said. “The first team that brings back that championship, it’s going to be one crazy party. Everything will shut down.”