As some of you may have heard, the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors on Sunday, June 19 to win the NBA Championship, making the Cavs the first Cleveland team to win a major sports championship since Jim Brown and Frank Ryan and Gary Collins and the rest of the Cleveland Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts to win the NFL Championship in 1964. Since the Cavs’ victory, much has happened in the rest of the world, including Britain’s historic vote to leave the EU. But the focus here in Cleveland has been intensely parochial, and it’s been wonderful. The celebration that began after Steph Curry and Mo Speights missed two desperate, last second 3 point shots has continued, and strangers are still talking to each other about the Cavs and what this championship means to the city they love.
Viewed solely as an athletic accomplishment, the Cavs’ win was remarkable. After Game 4, the Cavs were down 3 games to 1 to the Warriors. 32 NBA teams had been down 3 to 1 in the Finals before: none had ever come back to win the Championship, and only two had even succeeded in forcing a Game 7, the last time in 1966. To win the championship, the Cavs were going to need to beat the Warriors three games in a row, twice on their home court, and win Game 7 on the road. The Warriors had not lost two games in a row at home all season and had not lost three games in a row since November 2013. Indeed, the Warriors had compiled the best regular season record in the history of the NBA and were led by Curry, the league’s MVP two years in a row. The last time any team had won Game 7 on the road was in 1978. Even before the Cavs fell behind 3 games to 1, the overwhelming majority of NBA commentators were picking the Warriors to win. But the Cavs did win, prevailing in a very exciting Game 7 marked by many terrific plays, including LeBron James’ amazing block on Andre Iguodala’s attempted layup that would have put the Warriors ahead with a little more than a minute left to play. James was remarkable throughout the series, leading all players on both teams in points scored, rebounds, assists, blocked shots, and steals, the first time one player has ever led all statistical categories for both teams in any NBA playoff series.
But people weren’t setting off fireworks and celebrating in the streets of Greater Cleveland merely because a Cleveland team had just won a championship in impressive fashion. They were celebrating because they shared a love of place—a deep love of this place—a love that has persisted despite years of ill-deserved national ridicule. They were celebrating because they had seen so many Cleveland teams come up short for so long, often in heart-breaking fashion, a story told well in ESPN’s fine documentary film, Believeland. And they had experienced those prior heartbreaks, or heard about them from their fathers and grandfathers, because most people who live here have lived here their whole lives, whether their family first came here as part of the original settlement from New England, or with the Irish and Germans who came here just before and after the Civil War, or with the many Central, Southern, and Eastern Europeans (including the Piataks) who came here starting in the 1880s, or as part of the great black migration from the South that brought the family of LeBron James to nearby Akron, where James was born in 1984.
Descendants of all these diasporas came together in downtown Cleveland to celebrate on Wednesday, when the Cavs held their victory parade. There were 1,000,000 or so people jamming the streets, and the crowds were 25 or so deep on each side of E. 9th. The size of the crowd was impressive in its own right, and even more impressive when considered in light of Cleveland’s population—less than 500,000 in the city proper, a little over 2,000,000 in the metropolitan area defined by the Census Bureau, and 3,000,000 or so in the broadest definition of the metropolitan area, which includes Akron. In my experience, the parade was wholly positive, and a neighbor who is a Cleveland policewoman tells me there were many instances of people helping each other when the heat became too much. On that day, all of us—black and white, rich and poor, young and old—came together as Clevelanders.
I suspect that everyone in this area will remember where he was and who was with when the Cavs finally ended a championship drought that seemed poised to last forever, and that everyone who attended the parade will also long remember that amazing day of celebration. My own plan of driving my friend Paul to a Regional Transit Authority rapid transit station and taking the train downtown was thwarted by the mile long backup on the road leading to the first rapid station we went to and the completely full parking lots at the airport, where we saw people who had parked away from the airport walking to its rapid station. So, instead, we drove down Pearl Road, where we honked the horn and exchanged greetings with those waiting to go to the parade at bus stops, and then down Fulton, past the neighborhood where my Grandma and Grandpa Piatak lived when I was young, and then to a parking spot on the street directly behind St. Ignatius High School, where Paul and I met. We then joined hundreds of jubilant people walking across the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, which passes the neighborhood where my Dad grew up and whose imposing Art Deco statues are among my first memories, first seen on a bus ride downtown with my Mom and my Grandma Piatak over 45 years ago. Paul was the perfect person to celebrate the end of the drought with. He is now a scientist for NASA, but he is also a Cleveland sports fan par excellence: a former Indians batboy, a former Dawg Pound season ticket holder with me, and a companion in watching or discussing numerous Browns, Indians, and Cavs games over decades.
There was another, newer diaspora in attendance at the parade: former Clevelanders who came from all over the country because they felt the need to return to a place that remains, in some sense, home. Most of these people had left Cleveland for economic reasons, either because the job that supported their family was gone or because they felt there were more opportunities elsewhere. The best single piece I’ve seen about the championship and what it means to Clevelanders was written by a member of that diaspora, sportswriter Joe Posnanski, whose prose approaches the level of poetry. This whole week or so has been about home, and its enduring importance. For me, the best moment in the parade was seeing LeBron James preceded by the Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary marching band. James played for the St. Vincent-St. Mary Fighting Irish, and his loyalty to his alma mater has never wavered.
Of course, James’ televised announcement of his decision to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat produced far different feelings than the ones enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of Clevelanders last Wednesday. But James’ triumphant homecoming, after such a rocky departure, shows that you can go home again. James showed great courage in coming back to the Cavs, in telling Cavs’ fans that he had come back to win a championship for northeast Ohio, in doing all the hard work necessary to pursue a championship, and in fulfilling his promise. James won two championships in Miami, but there is no doubt that this one was special to him: he fell to the floor and cried after the Cavs won. James has said that he expected to cry when he won championships for Miami, but he never did. When asked by ABC’s Doris Burke why this championship was different, James did not hesitate: this one was different because northeast Ohio is home. LeBron James is happy that he came home. Hopefully, many of those former Clevelanders who found themselves moved by the Cavs’ championship will decide to come home, too. There are times when it is necessary to leave home, but last week also shows that coming home can be exquisitely sweet.