For most of my life, I could not understand why anyone would hitch his or her identity to the win-loss record of a professional sports team.
Sports fans, you’d call them.
Fanatics, I’d say. Lunatics, I’d say after a glass of wine, but only if my dad wasn’t within earshot.
“Those players don’t care about us,” I’d tell friends and relatives. “They don’t know our names. They don’t care how much money we have to spend on tickets to see them. And even if they win everything, we will get up the next morning to the same old life we had before we cheered them on to victory.”
I was so superior. So above it all.
So beside the point, my husband likes to say. A lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, he has a personal email address that begins with “damnyankees.” Make of that what you will.
I grew up in northeast Ohio, and I live in Cleveland. No one was going to catch me sobbing in my beer as we racked up decade after decade without a single professional sports championship.
Then I lost my mind.
I can give you the exact date: July 11, 2014. That’s when LeBron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. You would have thought I was personally welcoming home the prodigal son.
Two days later, the Republicans announced that they would be bringing their 2016 national convention to Cleveland. Overnight, news coverage across the country was all about Cleveland, Cleveland, Cleveland…
And it was: All. Good. News.
We weren’t used to this, but there were plenty of us who thought it was way past time for it.
Most every city in a major metropolitan area is struggling to define itself as something other than what it used to be. Cleveland is no different, and our five decades without a professional championship — basketball, baseball, or football — had come to define us. Sports are everything in this country, and we could lay claim to nothing but heartache.
In November, we made national news again after a white Cleveland police officer killed a 12-year-old black boy carrying an air gun. In December, more headlines after then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder visited our city just long enough to roll out a report chronicling a pattern of excessive force by Cleveland police.
“The trust between the Cleveland Division of Police and many of the communities it serves is broken,” the report read.
This weighs on us, as do multiple other bad-news stories illustrating the racial tensions we’ve tried for too long to ignore. The rooster is crowing at our door.
No sports team can fix these problems. We know that. The Cavs’ glorious season was not so much a distraction as it was an affirmation that there’s a lot more to us than what’s broken.
On Tuesday night, we lost the championship to the Golden State Warriors. Heartbreaking, yes, but we are so proud of this team, which suffered injury after injury and still made it to Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Minutes before the final game ended, my friend Jackie turned to me and said, “My God, they just never give up.”
She’s right. We never do.
The following morning, The Plain Dealer‘s front page ran a full-length photo of an exhausted LeBron James under an unfortunate headline, “NOT ENOUGH GRIT.”
If you had seen me in the moments after I first laid eyes on that, you might have thought, “Hmm. I wonder what’s up with that woman who has storm clouds around her head and is firing lightning bolts from her fingertips.”
Fans’ tempers exploded. If there was one thing our Cleveland Cavaliers had demonstrated, it was grit.
A little past noon, Plain Dealer Editor George Rodrigue demonstrated another version of Cleveland grit by posting a column online agreeing with us.
“I wish we had said, ‘Grit was not enough,'” he wrote. “That’s what the editor who wrote the headline meant to say.”
This Clevelander — this fellow human — is ready to forgive.
We are a city like so many other cities, full of problems that were years in the making and will take many more years to solve. We are on the brink of something big or something irreversibly bad, depending on where we go from here. We are living the question of what comes next.
We’re all that. But we are also the city with a basketball team that only a year ago was so bad it got the No. 1 draft pick. A team that lost three of its star players this season to injuries. A team that just six months ago most thought would barely survive the regular season.
In the final series, we came this close to winning it all.
And on Wednesday, we couldn’t wait to welcome them home.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including …and His Lovely Wife, which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: Keith Allison via Flickr