After the relocation of tax-based businesses and manufacturing companies in Cleveland, the city experienced a major loss in population, coupled with rampant unemployment. No one has been hit harder than the city’s black community, who make up 53 percent of the city’s population and reside in one of the most segregated cities in the country.
As the Land has struggled to fix its ailing economy—where more than 58 percent of kids are growing up in poverty—its below-average sports teams have seemed to provide unnecessary heartbreak to a community desperate for optimism. Thankfully, now that extra weight has been lifted by Akron, Ohio, native LeBron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers this week, dramatically shifting the vibe within the city. So we caught up with black residents in downtown Cleveland who celebrated the historic victory.
An estimated 1.3 million people showed up to the event Wednesday, leaving work, skipping class or commuting from neighboring cities. Bernard Witherspoon, a 59-year-old facilities manager at a local rehab center, was just one of many fans camping outside Quicken Loans Arena at 4 a.m., more than seven hours before the event officially began.
“The city of Cleveland needs events like this. We’ve been champions, and now we deserve this,” Witherspoon told The Root while he waited for the team’s rally to begin. “It’s changed the attitudes of everyone in the city, and it just feels like there’s new life here. We’ve waited so long for this.”
A diverse, enormous crowd wearing wine and gold was packed in the city’s Mall B lawn, withstanding the sweltering 80-degree heat. Fans climbed trees, parking garages, buildings and commercial vehicles just to catch a glimpse of their hometown heroes. There were only three arrests throughout the event. The willingness to come together was so strong, fans agreed, that regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, people were ready to celebrate together for the record-breaking season.
“The Cavaliers can unite the races,” Jomo Benn, a 43-year-old Cleveland State University radio host, said during the festivities. “The difference between the Cavaliers winning the championship game compared to the verdict in the Tamir Rice case is simply unbelievable.”
Benn has watched Cleveland sports events at A.J. Rocco’s, a coffee-and-draft-beer joint in the city, for more than a decade, and said that during the series, most people completely dropped their political differences and saved their racial microaggressions for another day.
“One night I was watching Game 6 of the finals and joking about the Cavaliers’ slogan with this [white] guy,” Benn said. “We were making fun of ‘We’re all in.’ This guy had never given me the time of day before, and probably would have never spoken to me outside of this sporting event, for obvious reasons.”
Myron Cloud, 38, and Tenika Pams, 37, grew up in the city together and have been married for four years now. “We have a little 1-year-old who yells defense at pretty much everything when he has his Cavs gear on; he might be a bigger fan than us,” Pams said.
“The success will carry over to local businesses in the city as long as our people want it to carry over,” Cloud said. “We live in very diverse neighborhoods with different people of color, and even some white people, so as long as people living here can put aside their differences, we can be successful. You need teamwork to make the dream work.”
The pair also experienced all of the city’s legendary heartbreak firsthand. From the Browns' notorious fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship game to Michael Jordan's jumper against the Cavaliers in the 1989 NBA playoffs, folks in Ohio have long been thirsty for a championship.
“If you look at the championship win from the perspective of a young black kid, you see these athletes with similar backgrounds and environments to them and you see that you can become successful regardless of the conditions you grew up in,” Michael Williams, director of black studies at Cleveland State University, said Thursday. Professor Williams, who has worked at CSU since the 1980s, skipped the massive crowds to witness the rally from a big screen at Channel 19, a local news outlet.
“It’s extremely important for young black children to see those images on-screen that reflect on you and how you relate to them,” Williams said. “I think it’s even more important how the players handled themselves during the rally. They celebrated the victory but promoted a certain wholesomeness about themselves.”
The city’s new air of confidence quickly turned into an atmosphere of fear and confusion when gun shots rang out just 10 minutes after the event wrapped up. A 14-year-old girl suffered two nonfatal gunshot wounds to her leg, and Cleveland police appeared alongside an unusual military-grade armored vehicle armed with riot gear.
Some drew direct comparisons to the police response in 2015 when protesters responded to a grand jury’s decision not to indict the white officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir. The Cleveland Police Department recently announced that it will beef up its presence when the city hosts the Republican National Convention July 18-21. For the convention, the city also plans to temporarily replace the iconic image of James across from the Quicken Loans Arena with a sign that reads “This Land Is Our Land: 150 Years in Cleveland.”
“How is that your land when you’re only going to be here for a couple weeks? It’s like claiming or gentrifying the city,” Williams said. “It seems like the message isn’t that they’re going to come join us; it’s that they’re coming to take over.”
Now that the curse and 52-year drought have ended in Cleveland, residents, fans, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and James all agreed on one thing: The championship is only an important first step serving as a morale booster for residents. Now it’s up to the city to fix the rest.
Justin Michael is a screenwriter, journalist and producer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has written and edited for The Independent, BuzzFeed and Ashton Kutcher’s A Plus. Follow him on Twitter.