Long-suffering Cleveland fans dare to imagine first title in 45 years
No city in America has had to endure more jokes than Cleveland
Cleveland sports fans have experienced heartbreak after heartbreak
There's something perfect and different about this Cavaliers team
This story appears in the May 25, 2009, issue of Sports Illustrated.
What are two things you will never see in Cleveland?
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.
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