Cleveland still hopes to enjoy celebration

Published 2:06 am Tuesday, June 7, 2016

CLEVELAND (AP) — The tire-swallowing potholes are fixed. A few new luxurious hotels dot the skyline. Flowers and trees seem to have sprouted through cement, brightening downtown and making it almost unrecognizable to even the locals.

Cleveland, rising once again after decades of decline, is ready to host a party — the Republicans.

But before Donald Trump’s expected nomination at the national convention in July, when red, white and blue balloons — and who knows what else — will signal the start of his presidential run, there could be a celebration unlike any before it, a summer bash to end them all.

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With homegrown hero LeBron James and the Cavaliers back in the NBA Finals, but facing a daunting 2-0 deficit after being embarrassed by Golden State in Game 2 on Sunday night, Cleveland has another chance to end its 52-year major pro sports championship drought. Fans dream of popping champagne and a having a parade down East 9th Street.

“We hope that will happen, that this is the year,” said Jim Brown, the Hall of Fame running back who helped the Browns win the city’s last title on Dec. 27, 1964. “Cleveland has a good chance.”

Around here, that’s all you can ask for.

The city’s well-chronicled sports famine — the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians have gone a combined 144 seasons without winning the big one — and the nicknamed near-misses like “The Drive” and “The Fumble” have grown into something outsiders latch onto anytime Cleveland makes news. The national narrative goes something like this: poor, pitiful Cleveland, where the river once caught fire, winter never ends and second place is as good as it ever gets.

Rarely is there any discussion about the city’s renowned medical community, its symphony orchestra or art museum. Nobody mentions the fabulous restaurants, low cost of living or vibrant music scene.

Cleveland rocks.

And, Cleveland waits.

But while the Browns are one of only four teams never to reach the Super Bowl, the Indians haven’t won the World Series since 1948 and the Cavs are winless in two previous finals with James, the city does have a recent championship to call its own. Stipe Miocic, who grew up in the eastern suburbs and chokes up when talking about the city’s sports misfortunes, recently won the UFC heavyweight crown by knocking out Brazil’s Fabricio Werdum.

He returned to a hero’s welcome and showed he’s got another punch by belting a home run during batting practice with the Indians.

Although getting the history-making, shot-making Warriors to tap out may be impossible, Miocic believes his victory is emblematic of a Cleveland turnaround.

“There are a lot of big things going on here,” he said. “Look at what the Cavs are doing. Things are changing for our teams.”

Earnest Byner senses the new vibe.

Remembered for his costly fumble as he neared the goal line in the final minutes of the 1987 AFC Championship at Denver, the former Browns running back is re-connecting with Cleveland and its fans.

Byner has spent nearly 30 years carrying around guilt, haunted by the miscue.

But since the debut of “Believeland,” a documentary about the city’s sports heartbreak, Byner has been overwhelmed by a flood of support by fans moved by a moment in the film when Byner looks into the camera with tear-filled eyes and says, “I messed it up for everybody.”

Cleveland is helping Byner heal, embracing him the way it once did. He feels at home.

“There’s been a tremendous outpouring of love and affection,” said Byner, whose book “Everybody Fumbles” recounts his struggles from his infamous gaffe. “People have been encouraging me, not only telling me they appreciate me but also telling me: ‘Hey, it’s OK. We forgive you. We thank you.’ It has made it natural for me to step right back in to where we are. It’s almost like we just finished playing that playoff game.

“I feel like some of the energy from ‘Believeland’ has opened up something sort of spiritual that is going to help all of this come together.”

If anyone understands the city’s sports hunger, it’s Indians manager Terry Francona, who in 2004 guided the Boston Red Sox past the Curse of the Bambino and to their first World Series championship since 1918. Francona spent part of his childhood here when his dad, Tito, played for the Indians.

Francona has title fever.

“I’m pulling like hell for them, so I can imagine what it’s like for people who have spent their whole lives here,” he said. “Man, I hope they get it.”

Browns coach Hue Jackson believes a championship would change Cleveland’s self-image.

“We’d walk around very proudly and feel good about what we’re doing because this city is about hard work,” he said. “It’s about putting your head down and working hard and showing up every day to get done what you need to get done.”

Cleveland has been waiting five decades to party like it’s 1964. When the Cavs won their first playoff series in 1976, fans tore down the baskets — a tradition reserved for football goal posts.

Now 80, Brown hopes he lives long enough to see Cleveland on top again.

“It’s a great city with loyal fans, and if the Cavs could bring it home, man, the streets will be alive,” he said. “Fans will probably march for a month.”