Winning transforms Clevelanders, even if only for a minute
A championship really can change how people see themselves and their city
It was weird being in Cleveland this week.
It wasn’t the city I was used to living in. While the civic boosters like to trot out how friendly Cleveland is, its citizenry can be as mean and nasty and aloof as any American city – sometimes even more so – especially if it is in one of its moods. Like Cleveland’s normal mood of feeling disrespected and feeling that jobs have been shipped overseas and the media labeling us a loser city because our sports teams lose. You feel that most of the time.
But Cleveland was happy this week – really, really happy – and it wasn’t a hey-look-at-us-aren’t-we-great vibe going on. It was more of a wide-eyed shock and awe combined with a soothing peace of mind, knowing that we weren’t what we were last week. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship Sunday night, 52 years since the last time, when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL championship in 1964.
I was 5 years old back then. To put in perspective how long ago that was, the Browns-Baltimore Colts championship game wasn’t on local TV in Cleveland in 1964 because the game hadn’t sold out in time. Yes, the last time Cleveland won a championship, people in Northeast Ohio listened to it on the radio. The only visual from that game I remember is my dad pacing around the living room.
It was almost as if we didn’t know what to do Monday. All that pent-up frustration and anger and feeling that no one likes us went away with that Kyrie Irving 3-pointer. What moved into that vacuum of longtime disillusion was sheer joy that had been walled off for so many years that we didn’t know what to do with it.
And it played out in odd ways. I was riding on the Red Line train midmorning Monday, and the people heading downtown were actually talking to each other. Some white hipster millennial dudes were talking to some old black guys about the intricacies of LeBron James’ block of Andre Iguodala’s shot, and the old brothers related how they saw a guy down at the Cedar/Central projects knock his head against the backboard while blocking a shot in the ’70s. The millennial dudes were impressed; one showed an old guy how to get his text messages better on his flip phone.
Normally this train is full of tattoo-faced meth heads shaking down people for change and others who yell on their phones about the latest hospital or jail emergency they are dealing with. One young kid saw I had the morning paper with a big picture of James on the front and asked if he could look at it. Usually, I would say no or stare out the window and ignore him. But we were all happy on this train, so I gave him the paper to keep. He said, “Thank you.” I said, “You’re welcome.”
My nephew, Tom McGraw, 24, a recent graduate of Ohio State, was buying doughnuts for the office on his way to work at 7 a.m. Monday. “The guy in line in front of me saw I had a Cavs shirt on, and he turned around and hugged me,” Tom told me with some amazement. “Didn’t say anything to me. Just looked at me and smiled. After he hugged me, he turned back to the counter and gave his order.
“It was like the whole city had finally calmed down about losing this thing they had on their backs for all these years,” my nephew said. “I was talking to my friends at halftime. Some of us wondered if we would cry if we won or lost. We all agreed we would certainly cry if we won, but none of us would if we lost. Because who gets emotional over something that happens all the time?”
Cleveland got to experience a winning “sports cry” for the first time. It comes at a time when some people think sports is only about billionaire owners fleecing the taxpayers, millionaire players beating their wives or girlfriends and sports fans more concerned about salary caps than the triangle offense. But the effect sports teams have on their communities should not be dismissed or downplayed as inconsequential.
“Sports can matter to a community, because events like Cleveland is going through this week can have a big effect on the soul of the city,” said Daniel Wann, a psychologist at Murray State University who studies fan behavior.
“It’s different in Cleveland than it would be anywhere else,” Wann continued. “Cleveland has had the camaraderie of losing, and that can be unifying in many respects, but the camaraderie of winning is much more overt and causes people to embrace and share the experience with people they don’t know.”
Wann is right in that respect. Losing tends to get buried deeper within the soul, while winning makes one want to reach out. After the Browns left for Baltimore in 1996, I lost the emotional attachment of being a Cleveland sports fan. It was anger at first, but then it became a year-by-year beatdown that produced apathy. I figured I was done. Because by not caring, I was not losing, in a way being undefeated by avoidance.
The decline in Cleveland’s population and the sports championship drought mirrored each other almost to the exact dates. In 1964, Cleveland had about 850,000 people and was the ninth-largest city in America. This year, the population is 388,000, making Cleveland the 51st largest. Pittsburgh has seen a similar population drop, but at least it had those six Super Bowl wins to alleviate the Rust Belt reality.
This combination of angst and apathy built up over time, and the sports fandom in Northeast Ohio became a little disjointed. Were we cheering for them because we felt we had to, because it was deeply embedded in the identity? Or were we cheering for them because it was all we had left, and if we didn’t support them, they might leave, too?
Not to say any community should be defined solely by its sports teams, but to say they don’t matter much ignores basic human interaction tendencies. We want positive reasons to interact and share and be nice to one another. The Cavaliers gave that gift to Clevelanders Sunday night.
That’s why there were no burning of cars or looting in Cleveland Sunday night after the championship had been won. That’s why about 1 million people of every race and ethnicity and economic demographic group jammed into downtown Cleveland on Wednesday without incident. That’s why the dude-bros were crying and the woo-girls were screaming and the old folks were hugging as The Chosen One from Akron, Ohio, held that big gold trophy high for all to look at.
“You can see how sports lights up a city,” Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, a member of the 1964 Browns’ championship team, said on TV as the parade started.
Will the happiness last? Probably not. People will go back to being their ornery selves. But they will remember how they were so happy individually this week, and more happy for those around them. That’s what winning does for a city. At least for the first time around, anyway.