Witness to an anticlimax

Amid the pomp and circumstance of LeBron's return, Cleveland happened

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CLEVELAND – Hope is stuck on East 4th Street. We’re all stuck on East 4th Street, not just Hope, who is wearing a red-wine-colored LeBron James “I’m Coming Home!” T-shirt with an outline of the state of Ohio. The street is lined with bars, and it overflows with people, many of them wearing “Forgiveness” shirts. At the end of East 4th, like the castle of Oz, is Quicken Loans Arena, the Q, where, in three hours, LeBron himself will play basketball wearing a Cleveland Cavaliers jersey.

Hope happens to be right in front of me, and she puts her hands on her boyfriend’s shoulders and tries jumping up and down so she can see over the motionless mass of people.

“Hope, stop, we’ll get there,” her boyfriend says.

Sometimes in Cleveland, metaphors just grab you by the throat.

* * *

Hope in 1977: Cleveland Indians sign Wayne Garland

In 1976, the Cleveland Indians — with exciting young homegrown players like Rick Manning, Duane Kuiper, Dennis Eckersley and Rick Waits — finished three games over .500 and very briefly in July acted like contenders. This inspired a generally tapped-out Cleveland ownership team to be bold. Later that year they signed 20-game winner Wayne Garland to what at the time was a jaw-dropping free-agent contract: Five years, $1.2 million.

“We are going to be a contender,” Garland said. “We can win it all.”

“We are 20 to 25 victories better than we were,” manager Frank Robinson said.

What happened: Garland led the league in losses, then blew out his arm. The Indians fell apart and did not finish better than fifth for the next decade. Frank Robinson was fired 57 games into the 1977 season.

* * *

Emotions build over 50 years. A lot of emotions. Anger is one of them. Indignation is another. Then there’s hope. For a half-century, Cleveland’s sports teams have lost — inevitably, inherently, inescapably. Red Right 88. The Cover. The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. The Error. The Decision. These are all Cleveland things. Each of the heart-wrenching losses needs its own name just to separate it from the mass.

My hometown’s Charlie Brown story has been told enough times that, around the country, I sense all sorts of fatigue about it. I get that. Hey, we all have problems, you know? There are truths in this world. Nobody really cares about YOUR golf game. Nobody really cares about YOUR fantasy football team.  And nobody really cares that YOUR hometown team loses. Outside Cleveland, the story largely has played out.

In Cleveland, though, the half-century of sports heartbreak penetrates and permeates everything. The city has lost about half its population the last 45 years – roughly 23 people a day, every day, since 1970 according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer – and there have been a million stories written about how a great American city tries to adapt to a new world. All the while, the sports teams have lost.

In Cleveland, metaphors grab you by the throat.

This is a hard thing to explain to a New York friend at The Q an hour before game time. He has just made it past the throng at East 4th Street, and he looked at all these Cleveland fans in their wine and gold T-shirts and jackets, and he listened as sporadic “LeBron … James! LeBron … James!” chants flared up in different parts of the crowd, and he thought: “Wait a minute. These are the same people who DESPISED LeBron James, who wore similarly colored shirts that read, “Traitor!” and “Quitness” and “Born here. Raised here. Played here. HATED here.”

“In Cleveland, the half-century of sports heartbreak penetrates and permeates everything”

“So Cleveland hated LeBron because he left and now they love him again because he came back?” my friend asks.

“Well,” I say, “not exactly, but it’s hard to explain.”

* * *

Hope in 1985: Cleveland Browns draft Bernie Kosar in supplemental draft

When quarterback Bernie Kosar manipulated the draft system so he could play for his hometown team, it struck deep emotions in us. Nobody wanted to play for Cleveland then. In any sport. Take football. The Browns played in a dump of a stadium on a field of dirt and slush as the wind howled in from Lake Erie. Players ENDED UP in Cleveland. True, they often found that they loved it because Cleveland – like Baltimore and Detroit and Milwaukee and Atlanta and Houston and Kansas City and five hundred other places in America – is a better place to live than visit.

Bernie Kosar had lived here – well, in Boardman, about 80 miles Southeast – and he chose the Browns. He was tall and gangly and awkward and impossibly accurate. He could throw a football through a keyhole. With Kosar throwing precise passes to go with an already powerful running game and defense, the Browns clearly had a chance to do something they had never done: Go to a Super Bowl. We thought so, anyway.

What happened: The Browns reached the AFC Championship Game in 1987 and lost when John Elway drove the Broncos 98-yards to a tying touchdown. The Browns reached the AFC Championship Game in 1988 and lost when star running back Earnest Byner fumbled just as it appeared he was scoring the game-tying touchdown. The Browns reached the AFC Championship Game in 1990 and lost to the Broncos once more. Kosar was unceremoniously released in 1993. The Browns officially left Cleveland three years after that.

* * *

The Q features a new video board that that the team, somewhat modestly, calls “Humongotron.” According to the three-page press release, Humongotron has “5,550 total square feet of LED technology, aka, the largest HD scoreboard in any arena in the country!” Humongotron also has flaming sabers, meaning fire comes out of all four corners, which could be useful should the arena be attacked by Godzilla.

It is on Humongotron that the world premier of LeBron James’ new Nike commercial plays. The commercial is called, “Together.” Like “Casablanca,” it is filmed in black and white. The fans in the arena watch in quiet awe.

“Bring it all in,” LeBron James says as he gathers his teammates together into a huddle on Humongotron.

“It’s our city! We’ve got to do it for them, dawgs!” James says. “We’ve got to do it for Cleveland! They’re waiting on us!”

Music begins to play. The camera turns on to show – people. Cleveland people. Big and small, white and black, women and men. They are on the screen, moving together as one, crowded together exactly the way they like they were East 4th Street moments before. Only now, the Clevelanders put their arms around each other, and they bow their heads, like they are going into a giant sports huddle themselves.

“Every single night, every single practice, every single game, we’ve got to give it all we’ve got,” James says on Humongotron, and inside the real arena you can begin to hear cheers building. “They’re going to ride with us.”

The film cuts to the outside of The Q, and the people huddling around it, and James’ voice continues: “Everything that we do on this floor is because of this city. We owe them.”

People huddled in a Cleveland alley. 

“We owe them,” James says.

A shot of the Terminal Tower, once an iconic American building.

“We’re going to grind for this city.”

A shot of the Cuyahoga River with a “Cleveland” sign in the background.

They’re going to support us, man, but we’ve got to give it all back to them.”

A shot from above of East 4th Street.

“The toughness that we have on the court is gonna come from this city.”

Closeups of Clevelanders nodding, full of optimism.

“The whole city of Cleveland. That’s what it’s all about. It’s time to bring them something special.”

And that’s when the arena, the real arena, explodes in cheers and goose bumps and tears. Manipulative? Damn right, it is manipulative. But it’s been fifty years, man. Fifty years.

“Cleveland on three!” LeBron James shouts on Humongotron. “One-two-three!”

“Cleveland!” the black-and-white people shout on the video screen.

“Cleveland!” the full-color people shout from their seats in the arena.

The real LeBron James gets introduced for this first game against the New York Knicks, and he hugs his teammates. He walks over to halfcourt and chalks up his hands and throws the chalk into the air. The crazy sound in the arena is like wailing. It sounds something like a prayer.

* * *

Hope in 1987: Cleveland Indians make cover of Sports Illustrated

“Indian Uprising!” the SI cover read. There was a giant photograph of Chief Wahoo, that red-faced cartoon character that had represented little but defeat and mostly unintended racism. Below Wahoo was Joe Carter and Cory Snyder in their batting stances — Carter and Snyder were two young power-hitting right-handed batters who expressed Cleveland’s best opportunity for a title of any kind in nearly a quarter century.

“Believe it!” Sports Illustrated crowed. “Cleveland is the best team in the American League.”

We believed it. More than 64,000 people showed up for the home opener against Baltimore. Many more of us began a scrapbook for what was to be a memorable year.

What happened: The Indians lost that home opener to Baltimore in 10 innings. To make sure there was no misunderstanding, Cleveland lost its next seven games in a row. My scrapbook ends there. In the end, Cleveland lost 101 games and were, by several games, the worst team in the American League.

* * *

LeBron James looks out of sorts. It is strange. Even in warm-ups before this game against the New York Knicks, he misses shot after shot after shot. Of course, warm-ups convey nothing, but then the game begins and James not only misses shots, the ball keeps jumping away from him, like a rebellious puppy.

“He’s one of the best players who ever played this game, and he’s fully mature now,” says Campy Russell, an old Cavaliers hero, and current employee, says of James. “We have to be patient … but this is such an exciting team.”

At first, James’ odd ineffectiveness does not matter at all. The Knicks are not a good team when healthy, and they are not healthy. And the Cavaliers have gone crazy loading up on talent to assure that the LeBron James’ return is not some sort of one-man show. They re-signed All-Star guard Kyrie Irving; they traded for one of the NBA’s best scorers and rebounders, Kevin Love; they kept Cleveland’s favorite wild thing, Anderson Varejao; and they brought in talents from out of LeBron’s and the NBA’s past such as Shawn Marion and Mike Miller and James Jones.

Even with James wobbling, the new Cavaliers — led by Love’s aggression — have the Knicks down by double-digits early. This is the least everyone expected. The crowd applauds Usher (who sang the national anthem) and boos Justin Bieber (who popped up on the screen) and gives one of the loudest cheers of the night when the Humongotron catches Bernie Kosar in the crowd.

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“LeBron James is better than ever,” says Jim Chones, an old Cavaliers hero who now serves as a team broadcaster. “Even when he commits a turnover, he is trying to do the right thing. He’s playing on another level.”

Then, all of a sudden, as if the power has gone out, the Cavaliers stop doing anything well. Their offense stalls and sputters — nobody’s moving out there. The defense leaves Knicks wide open. New York cuts into the lead, then erases it, and the crowd at The Q does not seem to know how to react. The fans try to build the wall of noise to match the sound when James threw chalk in the air, but each missed shot and turnover takes the heart out of them, like body blows.

James plays as if underwater. He stands in the corner, and the offense drifts without him, and his efforts to get into the flow of the game are clumsy and inept. In the first half he scores four points and commits four turnovers. Cleveland leads by two at halftime. LeBron James tells the national audience on TNT that it is good to get out the nerves and get back to basketball and he jogs into the locker room

“Sometimes,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt would say, “even he needs some help.”

* * *

Hope in 1999: Cleveland Indians sign Roberto Alomar

The Cleveland Indians were one of the best teams in baseball in the mid 1990s, reaching the World Series in 1995 and ’97. Both of those teams were offensive forces with hitters like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle and so on. But they could not quite win that first Cleveland championship since 1964.

When they signed 31-year-old Roberto Alomar – who was already well on his way to the Hall of Fame – in the winter of 1998, it seemed like the final piece, the singular player who would make Cleveland almost unbeatable. And, sure enough, the 1999 Indians became the first team since 1950 to score 1,000 runs in a season.

What happened: Those high-scoring Indians also lost to the Red Sox 3-2 in the Division Series. In the decisive fifth game, Cleveland scored eight runs in the first three innings and then ran into vintage Pedro Martinez on two days’ rest. He shut them out the rest of the way. Alomar would have three great individual seasons for Cleveland, but the team never got out of the Division Series. The Indians then traded him to the Mets and fell apart once again.

* * *

The second half of the game goes no better than the first. James looks entirely at a loss of what to do and turns the ball over with regularity. The confused fans can only sporadically get interested, even though a Cavaliers barker walking the court during breaks screams into a microphone that it is their responsibility to “protect this house” and, even more, to “make some NOOOOOOOOOOOOISE!”

In other words, this crazy celebration of Cleveland devolves into a regular season NBA game — with the pumped-in noise and flying T-shirts and leggy dancers and general insignificance that comes with such games. When James hits a 3-pointer and pumps his fist in the fourth quarter, there seems a sense that maybe something crucial has changed, that the fog has lifted, but then the Cavaliers return to their plodding nature. The Knicks maintain their lead, and it is Carmelo Anthony who hits the dagger that ices the game for New York.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie “Brian’s Song” where Gale Sayers and the Chicago Bears dedicate a game ball to running back Brian Piccolo, who is in the hospital dying of cancer. The whole team is in Piccolo’s hospital room after the game.

“Fantastic!” Piccolo says. “Can you believe it? Sayers, you’ve got some moves on the field but in the locker room you are one big klutz. Now listen to me – listen now – when you dedicate a game to someone you are then supposed to go out and win it, idiot.”

The Bears had lost the game to the Colts, 24-21.

That is more or less the prevailing emotion in the moments after the game. Fans slowly shuffle to the exit, unsure what the loss meant, what the night meant, what any of it meant. The Cavaliers, to prove a point not easily deciphered, decide to have James speak at his locker rather than bringing him into the large interview room a few yards away, which leads to a comical scene where hundreds of reporters and camera crews jam together in a small room to catch a fragment of James’ postgame thoughts. “I didn’t press,” James says.

“Clevelanders know that no matter the hype, this WAS only one game, and not even a meaningful one”

“I had some great looks out there,” James says.

“The fans were excited,” James says.

Later, outside the locker room, James will go into somewhat greater detail with some friends. A couple of reporters stand off in the distance, perhaps to get a little better understanding for what James is feeling. A Cavaliers public relations man shoos them off.

* * *

Hope in 2003: Cleveland Cavaliers draft LeBron James

He was a local kid, from a few miles away in Akron. People who saw him play in high school were already calling him the most talented young basketball player the world had ever seen. The Cavs had been a dreadful team for five years, and before that they had a decade or so of being good but not quite good enough. Michael Jordan had made the NBA his personal domain. He began that journey making a shot over Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo that will be replayed forever.

James was the next Jordan. Everybody said so. He was bigger, stronger, faster. And he grew up in Northeast Ohio. It was fate, and it was karma, and it was 40 years of losing finally coming to an end.

What happened: James, almost singlehandedly, turned the Cavaliers from losers to winners and, in just his fourth year, he dragged and pulled and carried and lugged an otherwise inconsiderable team to the NBA Finals. They lost to San Antonio in four straight. The Cavaliers then tried to build a winner around James, chasing down various former stars and reassuring role players, and the Cavaliers won a lot in the regular season but could not win in the playoffs. James began to show signs of weakening under the expectations – he talked about spoiling the fans, and then he took his talents to South Beach, where his better-proportioned teams won two championships and reached two more NBA Finals.

The Cavaliers, meanwhile, soaked in bitterness and futility for four years.

Then he came back.

* * *

In the darkness after the game, East 4th Street is strewn with beer cups and cigarette butts and the various aftereffects of a giant party. A few stragglers hang around the television stand, where the final recap of the game has just been given. In the offices of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, they are putting the finishing touches on their special section, with the headline: “Housebroken.”

“The best thing you can say is this was only one game,” wrote Terry Pluto, a Plain Dealer columnist and lifelong Northern Ohio guy who naturally feels what Clevelanders feel. “But what a way to wreck a homecoming! As for James, this was as bad a game as he’s played in a long time.”

Pluto knows: Clevelanders are not naïve. Clevelanders are not vapid either. Clevelanders know that no matter the hype, this WAS only one game, and not even a meaningful one. This was just the first game in a long regular season that isn’t the important season. The Miami Heat, in James’ first year, started 9-8, and they ended in the NBA Finals, and one has nothing to do with the other. The story of LeBron James’ return will not be written on one game or one week or one month or even six months. Thursday’s appalling letdown game meant no more and no less than Friday’s overtime victory at Chicago, when an inspired James led Cleveland past the one team in the East with the best shot to block the Cavaliers path to glory.

It meant nothing – that’s often the overriding sentiment in the moments after anything. I email my friend Scott Raab, Clevelander, writer, optimist, pessimist, author of the aptly named “The Whore of Akron” about James. He had brought his son to the game. He had cried during the Nike commercial.

He wrote: “Looking back — and I’ve said and written this a thousand times — it was never fair for Cleveland fans, including me, to expect one athlete, however brilliant, to redeem Northeast Ohio’s suffering. Now, the whole effing planet is expecting him to do just that.”

And his very next sentence: “I think Kyrie and LeBron will make beautiful music together.”

East 4th Street grows ghostly as the night stretches to morning, and it is easy for a Clevelander’s mind to fall back to all those shattered hopes, to all those times through 50 years we believed that this time it would be Cleveland’s sports turn, this time for sure. Will LeBron’s return become the latest chapter in a half century of sports sadness? A part of me says yes.

Will Kyrie and LeBron make beautiful music together? Another part of me says yes.

Hope is not among those walking on East 4th Street now – the game is over, and the night is gone, and Hope is undoubtedly asleep along with most of Cleveland. She will wake up tomorrow. Hope always does.