“Believeland” wasn’t just a depressing mantra from a bunch of fatigued sports fans—it was a battle cry
In case you don’t care about sports, something pretty massive happened last night. The Golden State Warriors lost in game 7 of the NBA finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year the Warriors surpassed the Chicago Bulls’ mark for most wins in a single season. Their star player, Steph Curry, was the first unanimously selected MVP in league history. This was Destiny’s team.
And then they lost.
The Warriors were up in the series 3 games to 1, and they only needed one more win to secure the title for a second straight year and cap one of the best seasons in sports history—any sport. And since no team had ever come back in the finals from a 3-1 deficit, LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers were basically dead in the water.
But they weren’t. Because LeBron James is never done. He’s never out of the fight, and he lead his team to a comeback that simultaneously made and shattered history. The 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors will forever have an asterisk next to their historic season, because unlike the Chicago Bulls, these Warriors would not take home the ultimate prize. Because LeBron James is a hero who put the dreams of a city and a region and a fandom on his formidable shoulders.
And when the clock ran out on Steph Curry and the Warriors last night, James ran into the arms of his teammates, crying and shouting with joy, because he had brought a professional sports title back to the city of Cleveland for the first time in 42 years. Believeland wasn’t just a depressing mantra from a bunch of fatigued sports fans. It was a battle cry, and thanks to it, they are champions once again.
The pain of making a team your own and investing a substantial chunk of your emotional wellbeing in their successes and failures can be as masochistic as it is rewarding. When you win big, you celebrate big. You jump and scream and hug strangers and sometimes you even cry, because the team’s victory is your victory. And oddly enough, when you lose (and I do mean you lose, not your team loses), you do the exact same things. You jump and scream and hug strangers and sometimes you even cry, except this time in the dark way. The sad way. The “Why the hell do I feel like I just got punched in the stomach?” way.
LeBron James after winning his second NBA title with the Miami Heat.
So that’s what today is like for me as a Golden State Warriors fan, but where I would normally be sitting in a bitter haze—dismissing my coworkers so I can hate-click all the stories about my team’s demise until I find the one where our immediate past gets rewritten and it turns out we actually arose victorious—today I find myself being grateful for sports in general.
Grateful that I’m ridiculous enough to put so many of my feelings on the line for a roster of athletes I’ve never met and likely never will meet. I am grateful because over the past three games of these NBA finals we’ve been witness to a rare display of sports heroism. And when the world around us feels like it is engineered to thwart happiness and tear us apart, it is uplifting to know that a community of hundreds of thousands can be united in joy simply by seeing their team hoist a trophy in the air.
LeBron James is a goddamn hero, and that matters because at this point we are almost numb to watching our heroes fall. Michael Vick abused dogs. Lance Armstrong abused performance enhancing drugs—along with Alex Rodriguez and maybe Roger Clemens and seemingly an entire generation of baseball players that were active during the Steroid Era. And even LeBron James became a villain in Cleveland after he left his hometown team in 2010 for a considerably more sexy life with the Miami Heat. In a television spectacle called “The Decision”, James told ESPN, “I feel like it's going to give me the best opportunity to win and to win for multiple years, and not only just to win in the regular season or just to win five games in a row or three games in a row, I want to be able to win championships.”
And win he did. As a part of the Heat, James won two NBA titles and was named league MVP four times. Meanwhile, his former team spiraled, and the city turned on him. Cleveland fans burned James jerseys in the street and the team’s owner publicly excoriated him in an ill-advised open letter. During return trips, Cavaliers fans would aggressively boo James whenever he stepped on the court.
But then in 2014, he came home. In a far cry from the media circus that was The Decision, James addressed his choice to return to Cleveland in an essay for Sports Illustrated in which he said:
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now…
But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. 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. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.
In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.
I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”
In two years, James’ presence transformed the team. He was a man singularly focused on “getting one for The Land” and what James did last night was bigger than basketball. The East beat The West. Northeast Ohio beat the San Francisco Bay Area. The curse hanging over Cleveland was snapped as David outlasted Goliath in historic fashion. Every single historical data point said the Cavaliers were supposed to lose game 7 of the NBA finals, but LeBron James said “No,” and willed his team, along with the whole of Believeland, to victory. The game was in Oakland, but more than 40,000 Cleveland faithful gathered at their home arena to watch the game and be a part of history. Good luck telling any of those 40,000 people that basketball is just a game and LeBron James is just a man. The Cavaliers are their team, and he is their man.
Immediately following last night’s win, James had his customary post-game interview with sports reporter Doris Burke. Through intermittent tears he explained what his third and most precious title means to him, and more importantly, what it means to his home state. At one point he interrupted himself to scream, “CLEVELAND! THIS IS FOR YOU!” and even I, a Warriors fan whose stomach was sick with disappointment, couldn’t suppress how inspired I felt. LeBron James had manufactured a miracle. He made the impossible possible. And if you’re a sports fan like me, those are the moments you live for.