This Is Not Cleveland's Year

LeBron James might have brought the Cavs to the brink of glory, but the city of Cleveland is still hurting. 
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LeBron James might have brought the Cavs to the brink of glory, but the city of Cleveland is still hurting. 
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The official motto of the Cleveland Cavaliers during these playoffs is “ALL IN,” meant to suggest that the team, fans, and city are all a part of the Cavs’ journey to the Finals. It hearkens back to the team’s season-opening Nike commercial, “Together,” in which LeBron James stands at the center of a city-wide huddle. "Everything that we do on this floor is because of this city,” he says before leading a chant of “1, 2, 3, hard work. 4, 5, 6, together.” However, if you have spent any time in Cleveland recently, you would be forgiven for thinking the slogan is actually “We need this.” The city hasn't won it all since the Browns claimed the NFLChampionship in 1964, two seasons before Super Bowl I. Needless to say, fans are desperate. But, as LeBron would be quick to admit, “We need this” is about much more than a trophy.

An Akron native, LeBron is well aware of the area’s disappointing sports history. He mentioned it in his Sports Illustrated homecoming essay, saying, “My goal is still to win as many titles as possible, no question. But what’s most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio.” One trophy — just one! James, who left Cleveland for Miami in 2010 before returning this season, repeated the sentiment in January after watching Ohio State, located in Columbus, win the College Football Playoff National Championship. James was in attendance, telling OSU quarterback and Cleveland native Cardale Jones after the win, “This is something for all of Cleveland to rally around.

LeBron also knows that the area's desperation extends well beyond its stadiums. “I feel my calling here goes above basketball,” he says in the essay. “I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from.” For some, LeBron’s homecoming symbolizes talent returning to Cleveland’s depopulated downtown, which has made claims of a “renaissance” amid an influx of Millennials (and soon Republicans, for the 2016 RNC).

Still, LeBron believes that the best way for him to benefit the city is on the court. After Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was found not guilty of manslaughter in the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, LeBron was hesitant to weigh in, saying “Obviously, I'm going to take a look at it and read up on it, and if I get more knowledge about it, then I may give a statement.” A statement on the verdict would never come, but he did say, “Sports in general, no matter what city it is, something that's going through a city that's very dramatic, traumatizing or anything of that case, I think sports is one of the biggest healers in helping a city out.”

The sorry state of Cleveland’s police department is just one facet of a rusting infrastructure, hollowed out by tax abatements and scandal, as well as Ohio’s decade-long recession.

This did not prevent protesters from assembling outside Quicken Loans Arena the next night for Game 3 of the Conference Finals. A group, smaller than the one that saw 71 arrested the previous night, chanted and drummed, holding up pictures of Russell and Williams across the street from a massive billboard of James doing his signature chalk toss. They were decrying a police department that the US Justice Department chastised in December for “engaging in a pattern of using excessive force in violation of citizens' Constitutional rights.” Last week, the city signed a consent decree with the Justice Department, agreeing to implement drastic and immediate reforms. Meanwhile, residents await the potential indictment of the officers responsible for the November death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

The sorry state of Cleveland’s police department is just one facet of a rusting infrastructure, hollowed out by tax abatements and scandal, as well as Ohio’s decade-long recession. The potentially costly reforms were announced just two months after Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish announced that his predecessors’ commitments to major projects in downtown Cleveland, some potentially tied to local corruption that has led to dozens of convictions related to bribery and kickbacks, have severely limited the county’s borrowing power. “There's very little capacity to take on new projects for around a decade or more,” Budish said. He did say, however, that he would continue to look for money to fund overhauls of Cleveland’s MetroHealth Medical Center and downtown Justice Center.

While officials hunt for money to fund health and justice, a ballot to extend the county’s sin tax for 20 more years easily passed last month, assuring Cleveland team owners that there will be enough money to pay for work on their stadiums. The tax, which opponents argued disproportionately affects the poor, will collect $260 million more from alcohol and cigarette sales in Cuyahoga County and bring the public’s investment in Cleveland sports facilities to over $1 billion since 1990, a large bill for a group of teams that has not brought home a trophy in over half a century.

This time last year, Brazilians were clashing with police over the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which cost Brazil’s soccer-loving public billions of dollars, including $270 million on a stadium, located in remote Manaus, to be used for only four games, the revenue of which would go not to Brazil but to FIFA. The situation in Ohio is not as dire: Cleveland isn’t Manaus and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert isn’t Sepp Blatter, who just resigned as FIFA president amid a flurry of corruption charges against the organization. And though the economic boon of stadiums has been greatly exaggerated, LeBron himself is likely to have a positive effect on the city. Still, when Cleveland-area schools, job growth, and food insecurity rank among the worst in the nation, it’s difficult to consider sports "one the biggest healers.”

It’s a testament to the area’s hardscrabble mentality that fans still believe in a depleted team of replacements as it prepares to face off against an intact Golden State team that boasts the league’s best offense and defense, as well as its MVP, Stephen Curry.

In his essay, LeBron preached patience: “Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.” But Cleveland fans aren’t waiting. Despite a regular season that saw a huge roster shakeup, and a postseason that has seen one star exit and another hobble toward the finish, many fans continue to say that “this is our year.” It’s a testament to the area’s hardscrabble mentality that fans still believe in a depleted team of replacements as it prepares to face off against an intact Golden State team that boasts the league’s best offense and defense, as well as its MVP, Stephen Curry.

Some sports writers, too, are holding out hope for the Cavs, describing at length the myriad things that must go right for Cleveland to win, only to predict Cavs in six, usually for one reason: LeBron James. "I would never be an underdog," James told reporters after finishing off the Chicago Bulls. And with five straight Finals appearances, it’s hard to argue with him. But in sports, as in life, hope can blind us to reality.

LeBron is in the middle of a terrible shooting drought, sinking a dismal 33% of long 2 attempts and an even worse 17.6% from the 3-point line during these playoffs. And though fans love the scrappy, undrafted Matthew Dellavedova, FiveThirtyEight ranks LeBron’s current supporting cast the third worst to appear in the Finals since 1985. (Second worst was the 2007 Cavs team that got swept by the Spurs.) Of course, the Cavs could still pull it off. It wouldn’t be the first time LeBron performed a miracle in the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight also places the 2013 Spurs well above his 2013 Heat, who won the series in seven games. But win or lose, it’s safe to say that this has certainly not been Cleveland’s year.

Cavs in six.

Photos by Flickr.com