CLEVELAND – Parents walked alongside children and grandparents alongside grandchildren. Husbands and wives, boyfriend and girlfriend, partners, lifelong friends and new friends congregated at the center of the sports universe wearing Cavaliers and Indians apparel on a night Cleveland sports fans could have never imagined. Not even five months ago.
The Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena received championship rings on the same day of Game 1 of the World Series between the Indians and Cubs just hundreds of feet away at Progressive field.
What kind of alternative sports reality was that? The kind that warmed once-hardened hearts.
“It’s a special day for our fans in Cleveland, in Northeast Ohio to be able to live and enjoy for a day,” LeBron James said when he addressed the crowd. “They get an opportunity to just remember this day, us receiving our rings and our Indians being able to host Game 1 of the World Series, so, it’s a day that will go down in history. For anyone that lives here, they will never forget it. So, I’m happy I’m a part of it.”
It’s a night that illuminated what sports means to people who had been waiting since 1964 for Cleveland to a win a major pro sports championship.
Are sports important? Well maybe not in the big picture. They’re just a footnote in world history. But that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful to fans who have invested time, money and emotion into Cleveland sporting events. That investment comes with no promise, only hope that someday they might celebrate a hometown team’s title.
That Cavaliers championship over the Golden State Warriors in last summer’s NBA Finals was meaningful to Cleveland sports fans.
James, who was born in nearby Akron, said he didn’t have a full understanding of Cleveland’s sporting heartache – all the close calls, all the agonizing defeats – until he was in his mid-20s.
“Growing up, you don’t really get involved in that,” James said. “For me personally, I had my own struggles to worry about then.”
But he understood how important it was last June when he rode through the streets of downtown Cleveland with about a million people cheering on the championship parade route.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue sat at a restaurant in Las Vegas shortly after winning the championship and two fans approached.
“This man and his son came up to me and said, ‘You don’t understand how much this means to the city of Cleveland. My dad is not alive, but he’s supported all three sports every year. It’s so sad he’s not here to see this. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done for the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio,” Lue said. “Then he broke down and started crying. That was one of the best moments I experienced this summer.”
Cavaliers general manager David Griffin sat in the Progressive Fields stands a few weeks ago at an Indians-Red Sox playoff game. As fans began to the recognize him and then congratulate him, he noticed the tone of the conversation. It wasn’t defeatist.
The Cavaliers helped transition the sporting psyche from “Not again” to “Why not us.” It went from Cleveland can’t to Cleveland can – including the Indians.
"You can ask Cleveland people who’s going to win the World Series, and nine out of 10 believe in their heart and soul the Indians are going to win," Cavs owner Dan Gilbert told USA TODAY Sports. "Once you win it, it’s a whole different thing.”
The result of the Cavs-Knicks didn’t matter. There are 81 more regular-season games plus the playoffs for the Cavs. The ring ceremony mattered to fans. It mattered that it mattered to James, who made sure his ring touched the banner before it ascended to the rafters.
It was a meaningful night and a long time coming for Cleveland sports fans.