Basketball: Cleveland, my Cleveland

Cleveland Cavaliers hero LeBron James waving to the crowd during a parade to celebrate winning the 2016 NBA Championship in downtown Cleveland on Wednesday.
Cleveland Cavaliers hero LeBron James waving to the crowd during a parade to celebrate winning the 2016 NBA Championship in downtown Cleveland on Wednesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Few occasions can match the euphoria as 52 years of hurt are erased by James and Cavs

Journalists tend to become jaded after covering one major news event after another in a long career.

From the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami Beach and 1973 Middle East War to Bali's Eka Dasa Rudra "mass exorcism" in 1979, the cable car disaster and Hotel New World collapse in Singapore in the 1980s, and, most recently, the election of the first African-American President of the United States, I thought I'd seen it all.

Yet the emotion that poured out of people - including myself - in Cleveland, Akron and elsewhere when the Cavaliers won the first national sports championship for my home town in 52 years this week was something else again.

LeBron James himself expressed it best, after doing what no other National Basketball Association player, including Michael Jordan, had done - led his team from a 1-3 deficit to win the best-of-seven Finals. When the buzzer sounded at Oakland's Oracle Arena giving his Cavaliers a 93-89 victory, and the trophy, he fell to the floor, covered his eyes - and wept.

Moments later, asked on the national television broadcast, "Why does this one feel different?", James spoke for everyone anywhere. "I'm home. I'm home," he answered, tearing up again. "It's what I came back for."

 
 

Indeed, James returned to the Cavaliers two years ago after angering hometown fans by leaving and winning two rings in Miami. He came back vowing to win a championship for Cleveland, and wore a bracelet during the Finals with two words on it: "I promise."

For that alone, virtually everyone was quick to forgive and forget, whether James delivered on that promise or not - even though everyone knew he would, somehow.

My own return to Cleveland in 2004, after more than 30 years abroad, including over 20 in Singapore, almost mirrored his. So, not one to be superstitious, I watched Game 7 on TV wearing the same Pink Floyd T-shirt, black jeans, Straits Times windbreaker, even the same unwashed underwear, that I'd worn to Game 6 of the NBA Finals when the Cavaliers did the unthinkable and evened the series at 3-3 here in Cleveland.

In a scene that no doubt played out in homes of Clevelanders here and wherever they had migrated over five decades, I went silent when Kyrie Irving, dropped in a three-pointer with 53 seconds left in Game 7. Although by then we knew the Cavs would win, we had all been disappointed in the final minutes by the city's pro baseball and football teams too many times before to react just yet.

When the Cavs were still ahead after the clock ticked down to zero - seeming to take 52 years to do so - I just stood up; it took a few minutes to sink in. Then I fell to the floor and teared up, then let out what must have been the definition of a primal scream. It could not have been anything else; I am still hoarse.

Cleveland did not win the grand prize on their home court, though more than 20,000 fans still packed Quicken Loans Arena to watch it on Jumbotrons, but that made it even sweeter. Last year, I was at the Q when the heartbroken hometown crowd endured the mocking grins of Golden State fans who had flown in and went wild when their Warriors won the trophy in Game 6.

This time, Cleveland fans who made the nearly 4,000km trip to Oakland saw their team return the favour - and then some; all the experts on ESPN had labelled a Cavaliers comeback impossible.

Even more impressive than winning the championship, though, was the response in Cleveland. The staggering numbers tell it all. Some 1.3 million people jammed its streets for the victory parade. That is three times the city's population.

Just getting downtown - standing on an overpacked bus for a 20km ride from my small suburb - proved to be an endurance test.

No matter. Standing next to me was my Singapore-born son. At age 15, he is only a bit older than I was the last time the city celebrated being a winner, something I know he will remember after I am long gone.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2016, with the headline 'Cleveland, my Cleveland'. Print Edition | Subscribe