The floor is shaking.
The thunder of 20,562 people on their feet sends vibrations throughout The Q during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Atlanta Hawks. It's a nail-biting overtime, and the Cavaliers lead 112-111 with 31.3 seconds left.
Like an orchestra conductor, LeBron James controls the tempo of this game. As the shot clock winds down, James drives to the left side of the lane ... and rises and floats. A brief hush settles in as the crowd gasps. The ball kisses off the backboard. Swish!
Fans explode with euphoria. Strangers high-five and hug each other. In this moment, we aren't East Siders, West Siders, whites, blacks, poor, wealthy, we are one Cleveland. This is our win. Our team. Our city. Our hero. We're #ALLinCLE.
And given what had transpired earlier that weekend in late May, it was what we needed.
On Saturday morning, Judge John O'Donnell announced his verdict in the trial of white officer Michael Brelo in the Nov. 29, 2012, police chase that resulted in the shooting deaths of two unarmed black people, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. The trial had concluded two weeks earlier, and almost every day since, city officials, community leaders and the media prepared for the worst: Violent protests and riots like those in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
It took more than 45 emotional minutes for O'Donnell to explain his 34-page verdict: Not guilty on all counts.
We exhaled. What now?
Outside protestors were already waiting with "Ignorance is Murder" and "Black Lives Matter" scrolled across signs that painted the police as enemies. "No truth, no justice, no peace," they chanted as they met with law enforcement in riot gear. "Don't shoot!" they yelped, also driven by anger from the November police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and a scathing December Justice Department report that found a pattern of excessive force by the Cleveland police.
Passive demonstrations escalated into aggressive skirmishes. As the incidents mounted and the sun dropped in the sky, officers geared up in helmets, clear shields and batons, turning the scene to an us vs. them faceoff. By the night's end, 71 people were arrested.
But it wasn't like other parts of the country. Ohio Gov. John Kasich lauded us for our calm response and even went as far as offering Cleveland as a model for the nation.
As odd as it sounds, maybe James deserves a small bit of credit for that too — speaking out after practice on that Saturday afternoon.
"Let's use our excitement or whatever passion that we have for our sport tomorrow," he said. "Sports is the biggest healers in helping the city out. You just feel a certain way about rooting for a team that you love, get your mind off some of the hardships that may be going on."
James had been vocal about the Ferguson and the Rice cases too. He even wore a hoodie with former Miami Heat teammates to show solidarity for Trayvon Martin and sported an "I Can't Breathe" shirt, along with Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving, for the Eric Garner case in New York.
An athlete taking a stance on such things may seem like a knee-jerk reaction — some criticized James for his comments.
For much of the last half century only a dozen athletes — such as Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali — spoke out, says Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. In recent years, however, players such as Chris Paul and Derrick Rose have been more vocal. "They can bring prominence to social justice issues and attention to them that very few other people can," he says.
The assertion that a game can have a part in bandaging wounds may seem juvenile. But ever since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued the "Green Light Letter" urging baseball to go on after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the nation has used sports as a way to return to normalcy after tragedy.
Kevin Becker, program director of the Massachusetts Resiliency Center, which was created for Boston Marathon bombing survivors, says a community event is key to coping. "Sport teams allow us to come together regardless of our other differences," he says.
Sports became a double-edge sword of tragedy and hope when the Boston Marathon bombing killed three people and injured more than 260 in 2013.
It was David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox who created a rallying cry for a wounded city. Five days after the bombing, the team returned to Fenway Park. Wearing a "B Strong" baseball cap and with a fist pumped in the air, Big Papi famously declared over a mic: "This is our f---ing city. And nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong."
"That really galvanized the city in a way that I think was very helpful to helping the city heal," says Dave Wedge, co-author of Boston Strong: A City's Triumph over Tragedy. "Sports can't solve society's problems but they are an escape, a place we can feel good about life and society."
Sports are not our cure-all. It won't bring back Russell, Williams or Rice. It won't deliver justice. It won't solve the issues between citizens and police. But we can use that #ALLinCLE togetherness we showed during the NBA Finals to help us move forward. Whether we are facing victory or defeat, the oneness we found with each other needs to come out of the arena and onto the streets.
Having a slogan helps that communal energy endure. #BostonStrong emerged on T-shirts and buildings following the massacre. "Boston Strong has become an emotion, a feeling, an attitude," Wedge says. "It's about preserving and overcoming. It's definitely a part of our culture now."
With the Rice case still unresolved — despite the June release of the sheriff's department report and a judge finding probable cause to charge two officers with murder and other charges — our obstacles are immense.
The consent decree, signed by the city of Cleveland and Justice Department just days after the Brelo verdict, maps out a long road of reform. Advocating for community policing, reduced force, increased de-escalating training and bias-free policing is a good start. But those changes will not come quickly or easily. They are victories that must be earned. But that is part of who we are.
So with our next national stage, the Republican National Convention, a year out, we must work together. If we can give everything we have to our basketball team, we can take small steps to bridge our divisions. We can earn the unity we've seen is possible here. We have to reclaim our city from fear and hostility. As we've seen from LeBron, we can set the tempo of this place.
12:00 AM EST
June 17, 2015