Snapping a 52-year championship drought that had loomed like a hex over this sports-mad metropolis of 2 million people, the Cleveland Cavaliers toppled the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors in what sports fans will doubtless call "one for the ages."
No, the series wasn't pretty -- the first six games all ended in double-digit wins dictated by home-court advantage -- but those who tuned in for Game 7 got a treat
. And judging from footage of elated or slack-jawed fans running through the streets, it appeared the whole city of Cleveland tuned in.
The fans -- many of them rocking James' No. 23 -- ran, danced, pumped fists, jumped, embraced, cried and gave high fives. They held up shirts that said, "Defend Cleveland" and twirled towels saying, "Cleveland Against the World." At Gateway Plaza, adjacent to the arena, an undulating mass of people with hands raised sang and cheered for their hometown hoopsters.
"Believe It!" cried the front page of The Plain Dealer
, above a broadsheet-long photo of star LeBron James weeping and holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy like an infant.
"It's over," read the caption. "OK, Cleveland sports fans, take a deep breath, then say those two words -- it's over."
Long, sad road to glory
For decades Cleveland sports teams had come oh-so-close, only to see daggers thrust through their hearts.
Many of the plays that have sunk the city's hopes over the years go by two-word nicknames that might not mean much to casual sports fans. But to a Clevelander, they can incite heartbreak:
-- "The Drive"
: In the 1986 AFC Championship game, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway marched his team 98 yards in five minutes to erase a seven-point Cleveland Browns lead with just seconds left in the game. To overtime they went, where Denver prevailed on a field goal, 23-20.
-- "The Fumble"
: The following year, the Browns came so close again. With just over a minute left in the 1987 AFC Championship game, Bernie Kosar handed off to running back Earnest Byner, who seemed destined for the end zone as he barreled through a hole off left tackle. Yards shy of paydirt, Denver's Jeremiah Castille got a hand on the rock and it tumbled to the ground. The Broncos recovered for the 38-33 win and their second-straight Super Bowl berth.
-- "The shot"
: Michael Jordan ended many a championship dream, but his snuffing of the Cavaliers' hopes in the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs was where he first made a name for buzzer beaters. The Cavs had owned the Bulls all season and were the third seed in the playoffs. Down 100-99 in Game 1 with mere seconds left, Jordan did what he would do time and again. Double-teamed by Craig Ehlo and Larry Nance, he rose for a jumper and hung there like a scene out of "The Matrix." As gravity took its toll on Ehlo, Jordan released the game winner. The Bulls went on to win the series 4-1.
-- "The catch":
OK, sure, there have been lots of momentous catches, but for our purposes, Dwight Clark and Odell Beckham Jr. can go away. In 1954, the Cleveland Indians were facing the New York Giants in Game 1 of the World Series. It was 2-2 in the eighth inning when Vic Wertz hammered one to the wall with two runners on base. Historians say it would've been a home run in many parks, but not the Polo Grounds. Willie Mays hauled butt to the warning track and made an over-the-shoulder breadbasket catch, before hurling the ball back to the infield to stop the runner on second from making it home. The Giants scored three runs in the tenth en route to sweeping the Indians.
(There's also "The Move," "The Decision"
and "The Curse of Rocky Colavito,"
but if we keep detailing how Cleveland fans have had their hearts crushed, we might run out of Internet.)
Not just any win
The way in which the Cavaliers won the title served only to stoke the faithful's glee. The Cavs didn't just win: They beat a juggernaut that had set a franchise record with 73 regular-season wins; they smothered back-to-back league MVP Stephen Curry, holding him to 40% shooting; they came back from a 3-to-1 series deficit, the 11th team ever to do so and the first to do it in the NBA Finals; and they took Game 7 in Golden State's house -- the first road Game 7 Finals win since the Washington Bullets' 1978 win over the Seattle Supersonics.
The win came after several minutes of clumsy basketball by both teams. The game had gone back-and-forth for the first 47 minutes, with neither team establishing any dominance. But when the Cavs' Kyrie Irving let a three-pointer fly in Curry's face, it rang true, breaking an 89-89 tie with 53 seconds remaining.
You knew it was going to be a big deal as soon as Curry hoisted up a brick with seconds left. It clanked off the rim, as so many of his shots in the series had.
Even with Marreese Speights collecting the rebound and floating to the corner for another three-point try, you could see the Cavs' bench standing -- teeming, giddy -- waiting to rush the floor for this historic moment. Speights' shot was long, and within seconds, the court was covered in Cleveland faithful.
"Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what's been going on, no matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs and so on, and all other sports teams," James told reporters. "They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it. And it was for them."
In the streets of Cleveland, it was evident that any lingering bad blood over James abandoning the city in 2010 for the Miami Heat was long gone. James was born in nearby Akron and had been a hero in Cleveland until he announced live on ESPN six years ago that he was "taking my talents to South Beach." Spurned Cavs fans took to the streets to burn James' jersey in effigy. They decried him as "LeBum" -- actually, they put "Le" before a litany of pejoratives
-- and owner Dan Gilbert changed the price of James Fathead decals to $17.41 (the year traitor Benedict Arnold was born).
'Cleveland needs nice things'
But now, no Clevelander appears to remember any of that.
"It's wonderful!" said one fan.
Another crowed, "Finally, we did it! My city, Cleveland, is finally champions!"
Echoing James, another said, "Cleveland deserves this. We've waited so long. Cleveland needs nice things."
Former Cleveland Brown and Hall of Famer James Brown, who ran for 114 yards in the city's last championship -- a 27-0 win over the Baltimore Colts in 1964, three years before the first Super Bowl -- dished out accolades as well.
"What a great night and moment for the city of Cleveland. Congratulations to the entire @cavs organization for bringing it home," he tweeted.