Cleveland is a sports town. Through and through, from babies in Indians onesies to grey haired women in vintage Cavs gear, the city loves its sports. It is unified around an almost godlike reverence for the Cavaliers, genuine enthusiasm for the Tribe, and apologizing for the Browns the same way that boys complain about their moms (Yes they suck, but no, you can’t say so).
Lebron James is as much as part of Cleveland as the buildings that house its nearly 400,000 residents. (It doesn’t matter that he is from Akron— close enough). His likeness is plastered across the city— “James 23” emblazoned on the backs of Clevelanders almost like a bible verse, except there is no chapter 23 of James but if there were, it would be about hard work, loyalty and achieving greatness. More than once, I hear and see maybe Lebron’s most beloved quote— “nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” Beloved is a weird word to use for a quote from an athlete, but it’s the only one that fits. It’s a line from the last paragraph of an open letter Lebron wrote to the city announcing his return, explaining why he left, but stopping short of asking for forgiveness, because, as Lebron says, nothing is given. Everything is earned.
James is not Cleveland’s only hero, though he is certainly their biggest. On the banks of the Cuyahoga River in a rapidly gentrifying area of town, there is an iconic shot of teammate Kyrie Irving with the words “Take your Shots, I’ll Take Mine.” He is exhilarated, almost laughing as he shoots the ball, the crowd behind him frozen in anticipation, their blurred faces a mix of anguish and awe. I know nothing about basketball, but it strikes me. My friend tells me that it’s been called one of the greatest shots in NBA history (by whom, I don’t ask) and explains that it’s from Game 7 of the Cavs historic comeback from a 3-1 deficit against the winningest team in basketball.
A lot of Cleveland is like this; the city sees itself as an underdog on its way to greatness. Whether intentional or not, some of its biggest sports heroes espouse a mentality of determination and perseverance that strikes me, a born and raised West Coast girl, as distinctly Midwest. Work hard to make yourself the best you can be, don't give up, and you will succeed. The preface to that Lebron quote above? “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given…”
The Cavaliers existed for 46 years before they won a Finals.. The Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948, but they got pretty close last year. And the Browns? When they seemed doomed to a winless 2016 season, someone started a Browns Perfect Season Parade GoFundMe to commemorate a 0-16 season. For both the wins and losses, Cleveland turned out 1.3 million fans celebrated the Cavs win at a historic championship parade. When the Browns eventually blew their perfect season by beating the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers, the creator donated the money raised— an astonishing $10,000, to a Cleveland Food Bank. And the Browns matched it.
This is Cleveland— celebrating wins and enduring losses together. The struggles and victories of Cleveland’s teams are the struggles and victories of Cleveland’s people, a unique breed of men and women, working to earn their place in history— whether anyone outside of Ohio recognizes it or not.