Believeland: What Are We Witnessing?

Image credit: USA Today Sports

Five thousand to one.

That’s how England explained Leicester City’s championship run to America.

Throwaway preseason betting odds were used because as Dirk Gently once observed, “There is no point in using the word ‘impossible’ to describe something that has clearly happened.” You didn’t put Leicester City’s season into context because you hadn’t seen an event like it before, in or out of sports.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were not 5000-1 long shots to win the NBA Championship this year. LeBron James has probably never been a 5000-1 long shot to do anything.

But the story of the city of Cleveland winning a championship, especially this season’s NBA Championship, is improbable enough to join Leicester City in the “you couldn’t write this script” category.

And the amazing thing about the Cavaliers’ story? This is exactly how Hollywood would write the script.


Understanding Cleveland

Americans treat Cleveland in much the same way the English treat Hull. It’s a nondescript and unfashionable city in a flyover state.

Comedian and Clevelander Mike Polk Jr produced two “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism” videos during the economic recession. Are they a true window into the city? No, they’re satire. But the fact the videos are unmistakably Cleveland should give you an idea of the place.

Where things get tense is the Cleveland sports curse, which is real enough to have a well-sourced Wikipedia page. Despite being home to three major professional sports teams, Cleveland has not seen a championship since 1964.

Cleveland’s most significant sporting moment between 1964 and the arrival of LeBron was when the Browns, the city’s NFL team and the focal point of the city’s sports identity, moved to Baltimore due to a bitter stadium dispute. Imagine Everton moving to Bristol because the city of Liverpool wouldn’t chip in to rebuild Goodison Park.

A complete compilation of Cleveland sports heartbreak would be like watching a 10-minute long loop of Steven Gerrard slipping against Chelsea (for a Liverpool fan, anyway). There are so many layers to the city’s sports failures that ESPN produced a 30 for 30 documentary about Cleveland’s futility. Believeland premiered just over one month ago on May 14th.

A championship dry spell might not seem like a big deal when 13 of next season’s Premier League clubs have never won a First Division title, and even “Sky Six” member Tottenham have a longer drought, but it’s vital to remember that American sports all have measures in place to ensure some kind of parity. Every team has a legitimate chance to win.

That fundamental difference is ingrained in the character and nature of our respective fans. Where English football supporters will sing songs about relegation to the tune of “Que Sera, Sera”, American fans will pat each other on the back and say simply, “Wait ‘til next year.”

To get a true understanding of Cleveland sports misery, you need actually to talk to someone living through it. Few are better qualified and more eloquent on the topic than Cavs: The Blog Associate Editor Robert Attenweiler.

Somewhere along the way, in all of the near-misses, the chances quite literally fumbled away and the stretches of losing that must seem almost comical to fans of other teams, being a “Cleveland Sports Fan” took on a particular weight. The more the failure happened — be it “The Fumble” or “The Drive” for the Browns, “The Shot” or “The Decision” for the Cavs, or… well, Jose Mesa for the Indians — the more the idea took hold that failure was the inevitable end of any team that called Northeast Ohio home.

A whole industry has grown up around Cleveland’s pro sports failure, with books, documentaries, plays (I know, because I wrote one) and hundreds of thousands of words written on-line charting the psyche of Cleveland sports fans, studying us as we, somewhat quizzically if you looked at us from the outside, rush headlong into season after season of disappointment. Negative perceptions of the city of Cleveland combined with its bumbling sports franchises and finally trickled down to the people who live or grew up there creating the perception that “Cleveland” meant a bunch of not-so-lovable losers.



We’re not talking about all of this because LeBron was born and raised in Northeast Ohio. We’re talking about all of this because LeBron loves Northeast Ohio.

The Chosen One came back to Cleveland to lift up an entire region. Off the court he’s done that to an extent that it matters not one whit if he ever delivers a championship to the city.

To everyone outside of Ohio, however, a trophy for Cleveland is all that matters to his legacy.

They’re wrong, but they’re also right. Even I said it before the series began.

These Finals are turning into LeBron’s magnum opus. Because of how much he loves the region and its people, LeBron’s masterpiece had to be composed in Cleveland while playing for the Cavaliers.

Just how good has LeBron been so far? I asked Brian Geltzeiler of SiriusXM NBA Radio.

What we’re seeing from LeBron James are the best games he’s ever played in his career at a time where it’s needed most. He has some legendary performances on his resume. He saved the 2012 Miami Heat in game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a dominant game. He came up huge in game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals hitting most of the mid-range shots the Spurs gave him. He carried a huge load for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals and was the runner up MVP even though his team lost in six games.

Yet, what he’s done in Game 5 and Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals dwarfs it all. The combination of the greatest opponent he’s ever faced combined with the magnificent amalgam of efficiency and dominance makes this the crowning accomplishment of his career regardless of the result of Game 7.

I agree with Brian up to a point. The point at which I disagree is “…regardless of the result of Game 7.” On so many levels, LeBron needs Game 7. Cleveland needs Game 7. The average sports fan that just wants to believe in hope needs Game 7.

Like Leicester City, this is as close to a perfect sports story as we can get. LeBron James, The Chosen One, The Prodigal Son, returns to Cleveland, endures animosity, rallies back from being down three games to one to upset the best team in NBA history on the road in Game 7.

A win in Game 7 is the Disney ending, as ill fitting as that construct is for a place like Cleveland.

What would it mean to the city and its fans? I’ll leave that one to Attenweiler.

The Cavaliers being one game away from winning a championship — and doing it in epic fashion, having to come back from being down 3-1 to the buzzsaw that has been the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors — is huge. If they win, it would mean flipping the script… even if it’s just about how people talk about one of our teams. And it will mean needing to come up with a new script for ourselves, as well. In the end, it’s sports. It’s entertainment. But it sure will be nice to be entertained by a story where we’re not the ones who are always destined to fail in the end.


You can follow Robert Attenweiler on Twitter @Cadavalier and find his work at Brian Geltzeiler can be found @HoopsCritic and Mike Polk Jr, who graciously provided a quote that did not survive the last revision, is @MikePolkJr.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.