I stood overlooking East Ninth Street on that strange, strange Wednesday, wondering.
A million others did the same.
My family and I had arrived before dawn and found a shaded spot on a raised veranda across from the Galleria at Erieview. To one side was a father and his 11-year-old son who’d parked in Ohio City and walked amid a mass of humanity across the Detroit-Superior Bridge. To the other was a young woman who’d clocked out from her job in Chicago the previous evening, told her boss she wouldn’t be in the next day and driven straight through the night. Across from us under the 850 WKNR canopy, I could see long-suffering morning host Tony Rizzo waving a fat cigar, grinning like it’s Christmas.
We talked. We all talked that day to everyone we saw. We agreed that we’d never seen the likes of this before, any of this. None of us could quite define the feeling, but all of us felt the same.
We had won. We knew that. We had ended a drought, a curse, a legendary reputation for loss and humiliation. And this day, as much as the Sunday of the victory, felt like history, freshly hatched.
What is the “The”?
I wondered it that day, and I’m still wondering, as all of this settles, the confetti swept away, the Champagne hangovers abated, the LeBron James statue (presumably) in mock-ups.
I’m just one of the million, and countless more, each with our own version of the same story to tell. I’m 52 years old, lived here all my life, well aware of the curse that had paralleled my own years. My first job was as a Cleveland Cavaliers ballboy in the former Richfield Coliseum, wiping up sweat and blood in the middle of Ted Stepien’s bad acid trip. My first Cleveland Browns game was Red Right 88, frozen and heartbroken. I spontaneously barfed when John Elway finished The Drive.
The Drive. Ugh. It still tastes the same.
We here in what’s become known as “The Land” live in a cultural encyclopedia of “The” ’s, singular moments imprinted as they happened and remaining forever after on the collective psyche, each a tragic live-action icon. (The Fumble, Drive, Shot, Decision, et al.)
But this one, perhaps appropriately, can’t be pinned down to a single image, a single act. There’s James’ meltdown glare and cryptic comment to Curry late in Game 6. There’s LeBron James screaming down from behind to block Andre Iguodala’s shot in Game 7. There’s Kyrie Irving following with an ice water 3-pointer over Steph Curry.
Then there’s the general history-shattering nature of the comeback itself, the Cavaliers down 3-1 against the winningest regular season team in NBA history, a deficit that had never been overcome, achieved by the team whose city had endured a longer championship drought than any American sports town, led by a man who had grown up amid all this, in neighboring Akron, and who had returned home to get it done. Fifty-two years of The’s, now smacked down and buried.
If I had to choose, I might opt for a less spectacular statement, which I’ll call The Response, tweeted by a guy named Jim Tews after Steph Curry’s wife claimed the NBA was “rigged” because her mouthguard-flinging MVP husband got ejected and his team lost a game.
“Sorry Ayesha Curry, nothing in the history of time and space has been rigged in favor of Cleveland.”
Hard times. Bred-in-the-bone toughness. Anti-glamour. Gallows humor. For all the dramatic losses and near-wins, these are the real truths that have defined us.
That’s the Cleveland that broke the back of an old, old curse, the Cleveland that won the hard way, which ultimately seemed the only way. Count us out, and we become our best. And sometimes it seems like we can’t be our best until we’re all the way down.
It’s no coincidence that our homegrown cultural icons have tended to manifest their images in down-and-out style. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins used to begin his act by rising from a coffin — back from the dead, night after night, to howl at the moon. Ghoulardi was Ernie Anderson’s junkyard rebellion against authority. Harvey Pekar lived his days expecting the worst and spent his years embracing it. Even the lovable Dick Goddard knew the best he could hope for was to be right half of the time.
Glamour holds little capital here. The thrill of defeat has always been our wry stamp of pride. As long as we were the longest-suffering sports city in America, we had a distinction all our own. We weren’t losers. We were the ones who always came so close, and that kept us believing.
A few years ago, I ran across a quote in the Akron Beacon Journal after another Browns loss. It was uttered by kick returner Josh Cribbs, a Kent State University product and undrafted free agent who’d become a star on a miserable team. Someone who understood.
“We almost won,” he said. “We almost always almost win.”
I borrowed those words as an epigraph in a book I wrote about growing up here called The Hard Way on Purpose, whose title now has new meaning for me, thanks to this team and its homegrown MVP, who together seem to have willed themselves to prove something more than just victory.
The way they won, the myriad long odds they faced, the adversity that became their trademark, the refusal to bend, to break — I believe that came as much from us as from them. They played this season in an arena whose cheers issued from darkness and suffering, a blues of our own.
In the cheap seats, they saw generations of families who carried a collective saga — not just of sports but of a general regional spirit of hard times endured.
We waited a long time for this. We deserved an epic. They delivered.
The parade was a long time coming, in both the macro and micro sense, as its start was delayed and staggered because of the massive crowd. We stood there on East Ninth, watching as law officers marched on foot and pushed through with cars and motorcycles and teams of horses, trying to clear a route that constantly clogged with bodies. (There were no barriers along the sidewalk, which seemed oddly charming, as though Cleveland didn’t quite know yet how to celebrate such a thing.)
But that gave us more time to tell stories, to put meaning to this experience, to add our own pieces. As more people crowded onto the veranda and we recounted our tales not just as sports fans and not just of this playoff run, but rather as Northeast Ohioans — citizens of The Land — I was struck by how the largest mass of people I’d ever seen also seemed so unified.
What I came to realize that day and since is that there probably won’t be a “The.” This one contains all the others, everything we’ve endured, good and bad. It’s not a moment or an image or an action. It’s us.
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