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Long-suffering Cleveland fans dare to imagine first title in 45 years

This story appears in the May 25, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated.

What are two things you will never see in Cleveland?A victory parade and the sky.

Halftime at the Q, and Frisbee Dog has dropped two Frisbees in a row, now three, four, yes, five in a row. Tension builds. Blood rushes to the face of Frisbee-throwing Guy, and he looks for a surefire connection, something to build his partner's confidence, but even the old dog-climbs-up-and-takes-Frisbee-out-of-hands trick ends in shame. The Frisbee rattles in the dog's teeth and flutters away. Six misses in a row.

It isn't the show I'm interested in. It is Cleveland. It is us. We are nervous. For 24 blissful minutes, we had been sitting in Quicken Loans Arena watching perfection. We watched the Cavaliers dominate the Hawks in a playoff game, watched LeBron James rise to the stratosphere and take us with him. And now we're back in Cleveland, back in a building named after an online lending company, and we're watching Frisbee Dog, who can't catch Frisbees.

"This is so Cleveland," Zev says. Zev is Zev Weiss, the tallest kid in my elementary school class year after year, now the CEO of American Greetings, one of about 20 Fortune 1000 companies still in Cleveland. I have not seen Zev in almost 30 years, but as we watch the hapless trials of Frisbee Dog, time melts away, and we are back in seventh grade feeling the same old anxieties: Please catch a damned Frisbee. Please don't turn this whole night into a joke.

So Cleveland. My hometown. Again and again, I try to explain Cleveland to people. It isn't easy. They say, "Oh, yeah, Rust Belt city, lots of snow, factories, it's just like Pittsburgh." But it isn't. In January, I went to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh, and the halftime act was the Kittanning Firemen's Band, whose members all wore clothes that didn't match one another's, and everyone loved it. That is Pittsburgh.

Cleveland's different. Here it is, halftime of a playoff game, and the Cavs have the best and coolest basketball player in the world (sorry, Kobe), they have this lovable and workmanlike team that grinds on defense and tears away rebounds and gobbles up loose balls. The Cavaliers really (don't say it), truly (knock on wood) have a chance (stop before someone gets hurt) to bring Cleveland its first major sports championship in 45 years­...­ and we are worried because there is a dog on the court dropping Frisbees.

"Hey, he caught one," Zev says. And sure enough, he did. Then Frisbee Dog catches a second, much to the appreciative and relieved cheers of the crowd. Then, not wanting to push things, Frisbee-throwing Guy makes his exit, bloodied but unbowed, embarrassed but not entirely disgraced, ready to throw Frisbees another day in a supermarket parking lot. A couple of minutes later King James is back on the floor, ready once again to lift us higher.

"Please," Zev says to me, "please, please do not put Cleveland on the cover of Sports Illustrated."

This is the archetypal Cleveland joke. It doesn't have to be Leavenworth, of course -- that's what makes it archetypal. It can be the Titanic, Siberia, a junkyard, Attica, the Hindenburg and, tellingly, hell. That version of the joke begins, "This Cleveland guy ends up in hell..." The laughter begins immediately, before you even get to what the difference is.

The jokes come back to me every time I do what I'm doing now -- driving through my hometown, around construction on Mayfield, through the staid old neighborhoods in Shaker Heights, over bumpy pavement in Mentor and South Euclid and Brook Park, Cleveland Heights and Brooklyn and Chardon, past the Thistledown Horse Track, in and out of Parma and Solon and Garfield Heights.

No city in America has had to endure more jokes than Cleveland. Detroit? Please. Milwaukee? Not even close. Ballplayers used to say that if they had to be in a plane crash, they hoped it was on the way into Cleveland. Rich Little said that they should rename Poland "Cleveland," because then the Russians wouldn't invade -- nobody wants to go to Cleveland. When President Bush held a town-hall meeting in Cleveland just last year, Conan O'Brien talked about two key objectives for the President: one, getting out of Iraq; and two, getting out of Cleveland.

Yes. Cleveland jokes. I have collected them for decades, ever since I was a nine-year-old sitting on my favorite train ride at my favorite Ohio amusement park, Cedar Point, in Sandusky, about 60 miles west of Cleveland. The train rumbled through Boneville, an old Western-looking place with skeletons doing surprisingly mundane tasks like cooking hot dogs over an open fire and buying tickets at the train depot. Suddenly our train was attacked by a band of Indians. Gunfire sounded. Arrows flew. Danger.

"Don't worry, folks," the conductor said, "those are Cleveland Indians. And everyone knows that the Cleveland Indians can't hit anything."

By then Cleveland was America's punch line. That was not long after the Cuyahoga River caught fire, not long after Mayor Ralph Perk's hair also caught fire at some ribbon-cutting ceremony. This was when Lake Erie was so polluted that people talked about walking across it to Canada, when Mayor Dennis Kucinich had to wear a wee bulletproof vest to throw out the first pitch at an Indians game because of death threats, when Cleveland became the first city since the Depression to default on loans. The efforts to save Cleveland then were earnest and touchingly misguided. I remember when the city's image makers decided on a new slogan: "New York's the Big Apple, but Cleveland's a plum." Tourism, as far as I know, did not skyrocket. Most people referred to Cleveland as they always had: the Mistake by the Lake.

Then, for a burst in the late 1980s and early '90s, Cleveland had a renaissance. America's comeback city. Construction. New restaurants. New sports stadiums. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened. People were flocking to downtown, the scene on the Flats -- a bar and restaurant district on the Cuyahoga -- was hopping, the Indians were winning, Cleveland comedian Drew Carey was starring in one of the biggest shows on television. Cleveland rocked.

Now things have turned again. Downtown fights for breath. The Flats are dead -- "A Scooby Doo ghost town," according to a gag "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video" you can find on YouTube. Cleveland, like many other cities in these times, is being ravaged by foreclosures and unemployment. Sure, there are positive things happening too, things that Cleveland people want me to emphasize: Cleveland is becoming an important medical center, there are plans to make the city one of the nation's centers for wind technology, air quality has improved and so on.

I have no doubt those things are true. But they are hard to see while driving through all the familiar places, staring at boarded-up buildings where my childhood used to be.

"The Cleveland Browns' name is perfect. Everything in Cleveland is brown. The grass is brown. The sky is brown. The snow is brown." -- Tom Hanks, who worked in Cleveland as a young stage actor

Zev was not the only one to ask us not to put Cleveland on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The best man at my wedding asked. The concierge at my hotel asked. The guy sitting next to me at the ice cream place asked. The Cavaliers are playing otherworldly basketball and are one series away from the NBA Finals. LeBron James is unstoppable. Mo Williams is making open threes. Anderson Varejão is blocking shots. Delonte West moves mountains with his hustle and intensity. It's beautiful. And nobody wants to wake the ghosts.

The ghosts are everywhere in Cleveland, of course -- it always makes me laugh to hear fans from any other city claim sports heartbreak. What do they know about it? The Indians have not won a World Series since 1948; they have the second-longest frustration streak in baseball, behind the Cubs. The Browns have never reached a Super Bowl, and you might recall they bolted town for a while. The Cavaliers have never won an NBA championship and were once the joke of all sports. No city can touch that heartbreak trilogy.

I drive to the spot where Municipal Stadium towered over Lake Erie and my life. It's a parking lot now. The out-of-town papers always called it "cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium," and it was cavernous; it could hold 80,000 people and often did for Browns games and baseball on July 4. It also could hold 4,000, as it usually did for Indians games not on Independence Day. Municipal was uniquely designed so that no matter how many people attended, every person had a view blocked by a steel beam. The lake effects made it 25° to 60° colder in the stadium than it was anywhere else in the world. You could always tell the out-of-town fans; they were the ones who didn't bring a coat and blanket to baseball games in summer.

And heartbreak? It was leaking from the Municipal roof. The list of Browns failures, topped by John Elway's Drive in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, could fill two phone books. The Indians, meanwhile, were not good enough to provide much heartbreak. The most prominent Indians moment of my childhood, without a doubt, was on June 4, 1974, when more than 25,000 people showed up for Ten Cent Beer Night. It was a brilliant promotion: The idea was to allow desperate Clevelanders to drink as many cups of Stroh's as felt right, at a dime apiece. After two streakers ran on the field, and a father and son got into the outfield and mooned the bleachers, and more fans ran on the field, and people threw hot dogs, and someone tried to steal Texas outfielder Jeff Burroughs's cap -- there was this vague sense that things were not going well. That's about when the fans rioted, and the Indians forfeited. "That's Indians baseball," Drew Carey told me once.

For me Indians baseball was 1977, when the team was so cheap and so broke, it actually refused to put air conditioners in the home clubhouse. Pitcher Wayne Garland -- over the angry objections of management -- bought the air conditioners himself. His reasoning: "It was [bleeping] hot."

But there have been moments of heartbreak here at old Municipal Stadium too. The worst was 1987, when we had been led to believe that the Indians were the best team in the American League. Who led us to believe this?

Right. Sports Illustrated. The cover line read BELIEVE IT! CLEVELAND IS THE BEST TEAM IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE.

We did believe it. Unfortunately, it failed to persuade any other teams in the American League. The Indians lost 101 games and finished dead last.

"Is Cleveland going to be on the cover?" David Hertz asked me. David does work on behalf of an advocacy group called Cleveland+, which is trying to rebrand the Cleveland area -- the website Trip Advisor named Cleveland one of the 10 most underrated destinations! -- and tell people all the good things happening. Getting Cleveland on the cover of Sports Illustrated would be a huge boon. But still... David grew up in Cleveland.

"I'll be honest with you," he said. "I don't know how I feel about it all."

"Every year we played there, Cleveland led the nation in stolen cars. And half of them came out of our parking lot."-- Former Cavs coach Bill Fitch on Cleveland Arena.

On this visit everybody told me a different story about Richfield Coliseum, the arena where the Cavaliers played when I was young. Some thought it had been turned into a flea market. Others thought it had become a retirement home. Zev had heard it was a jail.

It turns out Richfield Coliseum is gone -- it was torn down in 1999. I drive by where it used to be, and there's no hint that anything was ever there. All around is parkland. I would not even know where I am except, down the road, they still have the Country Maid Ice Cream and Orchard, where they have been making Northeast Ohio's (and the world's) best ice cream since '48.

I so vividly remember those Cavs games at Richfield. The team showed up to Cleveland more or less uninvited in 1970. Bill Fitch used basketball cards to make the team's first draft. At first the Cavaliers played at old Cleveland Arena -- the place was so dumpy that visiting players would dress at the Midtown Sheraton and walk across Euclid Avenue in their sweats. The Cavs moved out to Richfield in '74, and while it was the middle of nowhere, the arena was beautiful, new. "It was like going to a mall," says Plain Dealer columnist and Cleveland leading light Terry Pluto.

The Cavaliers won their first playoff series, in 1976, and it so stunned us that, to this day, that team is known as the Miracle of Richfield. But the teams that stick with me most followed the Miracle. Those teams, from '80 to '83, were owned by an advertising guy named Ted Stepien, who was so patently insane that at some point the NBA literally forbade him from making any more trades without league approval. Even now, teams are not allowed to trade their first-round picks in back-to-back years because of what is known as the Stepien Rule.

The Cavs in those years were, of course, comically bad. Every year they traded for hopeless players like Richard Washington or Jerome Whitehead, and every year they seemed on the verge of folding or moving to some place like Toronto. Mostly, I remember the halftime shows. My favorite was the appropriately named, "Fat guy eating beer cans." The show was a fat guy who ate beer cans.

Yes. Frisbee Dog brought back memories.

Then Stepien sold the Cavaliers, and in the mid- to late 1980s, the team got good. This led to the most famous moment ever at Richfield Coliseum: when Michael Jordan hit his last-second shot over Craig Ehlo in '89 to beat the Cavaliers in the playoffs. Yes. So Cleveland.

I pull my car off to the side of the road and look out at the empty spaces where Richfield Coliseum used to be. The sky is Cleveland gray -- even now, I find that I feel happiest on gray days -- and rain falls on the windshield. Cleveland has never been a basketball town. Even as the playoffs rage, the talk-radio shows go on and on about Browns quarterback Brady Quinn and Indians manager Eric Wedge.

Still, there's something perfect and different about this Cavaliers team, with so many likable and selfless basketball players surrounding the star of stars, LeBron James, the Akron kid who can beat any defender, toss the perfect pass, crash to the basket....

"LeBron is God's reward to Cleveland for the suffering," Pluto says, and he's only half-serious, but he is also absolutely half-serious. Sure, our Cleveland paranoia tingles, and even as I write these words I worry about Cleveland curses and calamities and catastrophes. Even now, I can't help but feel a bit like my Cleveland friend, magazine writer Scott Raab, who says, "I have no doubt this will end in sorrow. I don't know how. I just know I'll be watching how on ESPN Classic for the rest of my life."

But maybe not -- maybe not this time. I think about the Hawks game, when LeBron had the ball on the baseline. He looked at his defender, and his face had this beautiful expression. It looked as if he was saying: "How do you want me to do this?" Then he looked left, cut right, spun, found himself under the basket, came out on the other side, scored.

Let them tell their Cleveland jokes. Right now, we are Hemingway's Paris, we are Shakespeare's London, we are Caesar's Rome. James runs back up the court to cheers that sound like rock and roll.

Note to editor: Please put Cleveland on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That's exactly where my hometown belongs.

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