Three cathedrals stand as testament to Cleveland's obsession with sports. The FirstEnergy Stadium, the home ground of NFL side Cleveland Browns, lies on the edge of Lake Erie barely a mile north of Progressive Field, where the Cleveland Indians play their Major League Baseball home games. A wall separates Progressive Field from the Quicken Loans Arena, where just over 20,000 believers are sitting hoping for a miracle on a cold Friday night.
With the NBA Finals almost slipping out of their grasp — they are 3-0 down against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals — that's what it will take for the Cleveland Cavaliers to win tonight: a miracle. For the first three games of the Finals, the Cavs have had to taste defeat despite coming agonisingly close. The closest they came was in Game 1, where George Hill's missed free throw and JR Smith's inexplicable brainfade led to overtime. The Warriors closed out Game 1 with a 10-point gap before sweeping aside the deflated Cavs in Game 2 and 3. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA Finals. As the clock ticks down to Game 4, the outcome seems sealed. Almost inevitable.
Yet, with Game 4 just minutes away from tip-off, hope wafts through the Quicken Loans Arena.
Cleveland is a city with three patron saints: Superman, born from the imagination of two college kids, was invented here while the Nazi-defying Olympic gold medallist Jesse Owens called this city a home for a large part of his life.
The city's third patron saint is basketball star LeBron James, the man who delivered the city its first sporting success after a 52-year drought in 2016.
Just as the Cleveland of June 2018 knows that no team has overhauled a 3-0 deficit in the NBA Finals, the Cleveland of 2016 knew that no team had rallied back from being 1-3 down in the NBA Finals until their team won the 2016 Championships by doing just that.
As it waits for Game 4 of the 2018 NBA Finals to begin, Cleveland remembers Game 5 against Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 2018 Playoffs, where James chased down Victor Oladipo to block his shot before scoring a buzzer-beater to clinch victory.
Cleveland recollects Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semi-final against the Toronto Raptors, where, with just under five minutes left on the clock, James nailed a three-pointer to bring Cavs within a point of the Toronto team at 99-100. In a game where the Cavs had been trailing all night, it would be James whose jump shot then levelled the scores with just 30 seconds left on the clock at 105-105. The Cavs emerged from the street brawl victorious at 113-112.
Cleveland still cannot forget the night of Game 3 against the Raptors when James ran the entire court in eight seconds before nailing a buzzer-beater.
Cleveland knows that it was James who played all 48 minutes of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston Celtics, scoring 35 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists to hand the Celtics, who were on a 10-game postseason unbeaten run at home, a seemingly impossible defeat.
James in a clutch situation is a man unshackled. A team onto himself.
Cleveland knows this. Cleveland counts on it. The city or its fans do not bother themselves with the opinions of naysayers or the cold calculations of the Last Vegas bookmakers, who have projected the Warriors as a -1000 favourite to win the 2018 Championship.
As the world harps about the All Stars in the Warriors ranks and no-chancers in the Cavs roster, Cleveland remembers the hammer-dropping, fadeaway-jumper-nailing, 34-points-a-night-averaging, no-look-pass-throwing, dizzying, buzzer-beater scoring, hero-ball playing version of James, who broke down the Pacers in seven games, brushed aside the Raptors in four, overcame the Celtics in another seven-game thriller and then dropped 51 points in Game 1 against the Warriors.
It's why fans from Los Angeles to Toronto have spent the season putting up billboards in their cities wooing James. It's why Cleveland is counting on a 33-year-old, who is about to play in his 104th game of the season (with a broken hand, as it would later transpire), to carry what has been branded as the worst support cast in his career to victory in Game 4.
As the two teams warm up for Game 4 in the cauldron of energy that is the Quicken Loans Arena, only two things rival James' stature in Cleveland.
Cleveland is a city with three patron saints: Superman, Jesse Owens and LeBron James
The first is a 10-storey banner showing James during his pre-game ritual which hangs at the Sherwin-Williams headquarters opposite the Quicken Loans Arena. In 2016, when Sherwin-Williams reportedly wanted to take down that banner to put up a different one to commemorate their 150-year anniversary, around 23,000 Cavs fans signed an online petition urging the company to not do so. The petition noted that the banner had become a "symbol of persistence, promise and pride in the Cleveland Cavaliers and northeast Ohio".
The second thing rivalling James' stature in Cleveland is a question: If the Cavaliers lose the Finals, will James leave?
It's a question that has grown in import as the postseason has progressed and one that has the potential to change the future of not just the Cavs, but also the Golden State Warriors — who are firmly on course to establish a dynasty much like the Chicago Bulls of yore — and the league itself. Should he go to LA Lakers the face of the Western Conference will never be the same. Should he move to Philadelphia 76ers, a new powerhouse will emerge in the East.
It's a loaded question — one that not even James purportedly knows the answer to.
It's a crossroads that the Cavs and James have been at many years before, when James, frustrated with the lack of titles at the Cavs "decided to take his talents" to Miami in 2010. That move, titled as The Decision, brought him two titles, but also hatred like he had never experienced before.
In Cleveland, fans took to the streets to burn his jerseys while people in Akron, where he was born and brought up, condemned the move. James' relationship with Cleveland, the Cavaliers — who had chosen James as the first draft pick in 2003 — and seemingly the state of Ohio was strained.
The reason for the hatred was the way James handled his exit, points out Andy Billman, who has worked on multiple ESPN documentaries including The Two Escobars and Playing for the Mob.
In 2016, Billman, a self-confessed fan of all three Cleveland teams, directed an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary called Believeland chronicling the sporting ups, and mostly downs, of Cleveland and the importance of the 2016 Championship for the city.
Billman states the example of Cleveland Indians pitcher CC Sabathia to explain the ire James got. In 2008, Cleveland's baseball franchise traded Sabathia to the Brewers. When he left, he took out an ad in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said to cost over $12,000, thanking the fans for eight great years.
By contrast, James' way of announcing his move — on a 75-minute ESPN special called The Decision, where he said that he was "taking his talents to South Beach" — chafed.
"It wasn't that he left. It was how he left that rankled. Forget Cleveland, even those folks in Akron roasted him pretty good. That bit he said that he was taking his talents to South Beach was what really got under our skins," adds Cleveland native Crystal Williams, who confesses that she is not a basketball fan, but adds that the Cavs are an inescapable part of life in Cleveland.
When it happened, The Decision joined Cleveland lexicon which stood for sporting misery along with The Move (when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell shifted the franchise to Baltimore in 1995), The Shot (when Michael Jordan hit a buzzer-beater in the 1989 Playoffs against the Cavs) and The Fumble (when Cleveland Browns' Earnest Byner fumbled 10 yards out to hand the Broncos the 1988 Championship).
New York is known for banking, Texas for its oil, Napa Valley for technology and Cleveland for its sports
"When you do a television show to announce that you're leaving and one of the lines you use is that you're 'taking your talents to South Beach', it stings. Especially for people from a town where the imagery is nothing close to South Beach. But now all is forgiven. He admitted his mistake, and he won us that Championship," says Billman, who confesses that he was so upset with the decision that he shut himself in the basement of his house and did not want to talk to anyone for hours.
"Sports plays a major role in this city. New York is known for banking, Texas for its oil, Napa Valley for technology and Cleveland for its sports, among a lot of other things. We're a very passionate sports town. I won't say that Cleveland is the best or the only city in terms of fandom, but it's one of the best. Cleveland really lives and dies with its teams. That's why in 2016 there was a major explosion (of emotion from fans), not just the night of the win but also during the parade afterwards," Billman says.
Having returned to the franchise in 2014, James has rebuilt his bridges with the city, leading the Cavaliers to four NBA Finals in four years, the icing on the cake being the 2016 Championship after trailing 1-3. That championship was a cathartic moment for a city which had been reeling under a sporting drought for 52 years.
So many people turned up for the Cavaliers' parade to celebrate their 2016 Championship, in fact, that in August 2017 Donald Trump's supporters tried to pass off pictures of that parade as those from a rally the US President held in Phoenix.
"It shows how big that moment was that others tried to steal that spotlight and pass off as their own," Billman says.
Williams remembers the scene in the city when the Cavs won the title like it was yesterday. "Everyone was on the streets. People climbed up on their cars. Hell, some even clambered atop police vehicles that day and not one soul minded," says Williams, the self-confessed sports agnostic.
Even now, two years on, that Championship finds its way into conversations in Cleveland all the time.
One of the reasons why the city went ga-ga over the victory, besides the fact that it ended 52 years of collective sporting misery, are the performances of the Browns and the Indians.
The Indians last won the World Series in 1948 while the Browns used to be a force to be reckoned with decades ago, but last won a Championship in 1964. The following two decades — the 1960s and 70s — saw states like Ohio, Michigan Illinois and Indiana (collectively called the Rustbelt) experience major economic downturn.
In such times, Clevelanders could not even seek comfort in the performance of their sports teams.
"The 52-year drought became a weird thing for us. At some point, losing became a badge of honour. When other fans said their teams were losing, we'd just say 'you have seen defeats! Let us show you what losses truly look like.' It became our identity for a while. For better or worse, it became part of our blood. That's why that Championship in 2016 can never be valued," says Billman.
Even two years on, the 2016 Championship finds its way into conversations in Cleveland all the time
Just earlier this year, just over 3,000 fans turned up for a parade in near-freezing temperatures to 'celebrate' the Browns' 0-16 record in the 2017 season. The parade, whose route snaked around the FirstEnergy Stadium to form a perfect zero, even got funding from sponsors who helped fans raise nearly $10,000.
All of those decades of collective sporting misery are now behind them. And Cleveland recognises the role James played in that.
Asked what James means to the city, Billman says, "You cannot put it into words. He is pure economic dollars at times. Let's focus on just the off-the-court stuff. He brings the city life through businesses. He brings the city its energy and positivity. He brings this city the spotlight nationally. Dan Gilbert is the owner of the team, but James is the ruler of the team. The city is a great place economically, and a lot of that is because of the money James brings in."
Billman doesn't just mean the jerseys or the seats James helps the Cavaliers sell. The downtown Cleveland area which also has the Progressive Field, the FirstEnergy Stadium and the Quicken Loans Arena, not to mention the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has grown swankier since James first played here.
In a 2017 study, Harvard Kennedy School professor Daniel Shoag and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Stan Veuger found that James' presence in a city increased the number of restaurants in a 1-mile radius of the franchise's stadium by 12.8 percent while the number of eating and drinking establishments spiked by 13.7 percent. More importantly, they found that employment went up by 23.5 percent in these establishments.
On the day of Game 4, despite their team on the brink of losing the 2018 Championship, James is almost ubiquitous in Cleveland — his future is discussed on sports radio shows, his face beams out of shop fronts, while every jersey bears just his name.
Glaringly though, there are no streets named after him. Nor are there statues of him yet.
"When James' playing career is done years from now, you're going to see a better understanding of what he means to the city. You're going to see statues, you're going to see streets named after him. He deserves all of this and more," says Billman who also says that should James leave again as a free agent this month, the anger may be much more muted. (Billman spoke to Firstpost after Game 3)
"You may see some outrage, as is natural given that he's from this area. But it won't be of the same level," says Billman. "I'd wish him good if he does leave. I may even cheer for him. Unless he joins the Celtics. I can't cheer for the Celtics."
Billman pauses for a while then says, "But the important question is, if he leaves, will the economic boom still continue."
As it turns out, the Cavaliers lose Game 4 and the spotlight turns on James' future.
As the fans start streaming out of The Q, the anxiety of the city is palpable.
James, meanwhile, walks into the press conference area deep into the bowels of The Q with a black soft cast on his right hand. He confesses that he inflicted the injury upon himself in frustration after Game 1. But even that revelation is brushed aside by journalists who probe for a hint of what's coming next. Is he staying?
James for his part refuses to bite — he ducks, evades and stonewalls — only letting out the fact that his next decision will be based on what's best for his family.
A month later, James tells the Cavs that he will not take up his option on the final year of his contract and chooses to become an unrestricted free agent. While he can still theoretically re-sign with the Cavs on a new deal, it appears increasingly unlikely.
Cleveland’s survived The Fumble, The Shot, The Drive, and The Decision. It’ll endure The Departure.
The writer was in Cleveland at the invitation of NBA India