The victory of the 2015-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals marked the end of a long drought for Cleveland fans everywhere. The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Believeland recently aired with a new epilogue following the Cavalier victory. The long history of glorious defeats in Cleveland history, defeats that paralleled the economic decline of the city by the lake, are all covered in their painful detail.
For the first half of the 20th Century, Cleveland personified American industrialism and prosperity. In 1964 the Browns won the NFL championship 27-0 over the Baltimore Colts with legendary Jim Brown leading the way, a dynasty appeared in the making. However, Brown retired to pursue a film career and the Browns stepped aside to watch their arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers rule the 70s.
I imagine living in Cleveland during the 1970s to be a sometimes frightening and often surreal trip, a post- industrial metropolis on the brink of some new kind of reality. Stranger Than Paradise, the 1984 Jim Jarmusch captured the bleak mood. The American Splendor comics of Harvey Pekar told the story of an everyman trying to survive in Cleveland. In the midst financial breakdown, the city's music scene thrived, playing a leading role in the birth of punk. Such music could only come from places like Cleveland.
Meanwhile, the sports teams languished in mediocrity.
Believeland benefits from off the wall interviews, Clevelanders putting all their feelings on the table. Former players also share their memories.
As the big freeze of the 70s gave way to the 80s, the Browns regained their footing only to lose the big game in dramatic fashion time and time again. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Fumble. Those phrases conjure tragic images for Cleveland fans. Growing up I remember watching VHS tapes of these games over and over and hoping for a different outcome, revisiting the moment of trauma.
By the 90s the city underwent a renaissance with a new baseball stadium and the Indians became a winning team. The 1995 squad won 100 games and the AL pennant behind a potent offense. In 1997 they came within two outs of winning the World Series, only to blow it once again in grand Cleveland style. Many started to lose their faith.
Then the Browns left town in 1995, in perhaps the most cruel blow of all to Cleveland fans. When the Browns were revived in 1999, a comedy of errors ensued.
But there's a happy ending.
The Cavaliers won the 2003 NBA draft lottery and acquired Lebron James of Akron, already declared the chosen one by Sports Illustrated. And James did not disappoint, quickly rising to superstardom and taking the Cavs to the NBA finals in 2007. Yet fans felt betrayed again in 2010 when Lebron left Cleveland for the Miami Heat, leading them to two world championships.
After sustaining a barrage of criticism from Clevelanders, James returned to his hometown in 2014 to make things right.
Believeland does a great job of capturing the spirit of a city. Amazing archival footage adds an authenticity to the film. Could the Cavalier championship mean a change of fortune? Who knows, but for many people, after June 19, 2016 the future suddenly looked much brighter.