He said what he had to, because to do otherwise Wednesday would have offered a spectacularly ill-timed, literal new meaning to that old bromide about raining on someone’s parade. So LeBron James was asked by ESPN about his plans — asked in the midst of his city’s first championship parade in 52 years, asked even as the confetti fell — and he said: “I love it here in Cleveland. I have no intentions of leaving. That’s right from the horse’s mouth.”
The road out of town may be paved with good intentions, a cynic might note. James’ soft promise to stay, wrapped in the civic glow of a celebration waiting more than half a century to uncork, may yet change once NBA free agency starts July 1. Meantime LeBron rode in a Rolls-Royce convertible, a victory cigar poking from his maw, as hundreds of thousands of northeast Ohioans adored him along a parade route, and it was a moment he had both caused and richly earned.
Wednesday wasn’t about LeBron, though, as much as it was about an oft-maligned city and its starving fans, who had earned the day even more with their long suffering. Clevelanders had last cheered a major sports championship when the Browns won a pre-Super Bowl NFL title in 1964, which was four years before James’ mother was born. No city in American had waited longer to feel that feeling again.
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We lose sight of it sometimes — that sports is about the fans, first and always. It’s about the people in the cities that adopt and love the teams, generation to generation, decade after decade, years flying until you stop to realize you have given so much of your whole life to those teams you call yours.
Everything else changes. The franchise’s owners and coaches and players come and go. New stadiums and arenas are built. Uniforms evolve. Heroes retire or are traded; even the greatest athletes are replaceable. Only the fans are indispensable, the one constant, the lifeblood of it all. The fans, who are innately loyal even as they gripe. The fans, whose default feeling is to believe even as they are always let down. The fans, whose emotional investment in their team over time far exceeds the money spent on tickets, parking, replica jerseys or $8 beers.
Our own lives change, too. Loved ones pass away. Children grow. We have health issues. Change jobs. But there is always next season! There is always our team. Even if we move across the country, we can take our team with us.
This brings us to the team visiting Miami to face the Marlins for four games starting Thursday night: the Chicago Cubs.
This could be the year that ends American professional sports’ two longest and most infamous droughts, first with Cleveland celebrating the end of any one city’s longest wait for another championship, and now with the Cubs angling to end any one team’s or fandom’s longest drought.
The Cubs are the best team in baseball, clearly. They are the favorites to win the World Series, a feat Cubs fans last celebrated in 1908. Nobody is alive who saw it happen. They were the “Tinker to Evers to Chance” Cubbies. Teddy Roosevelt was president. Ford unveiled the Model T that year. Fewer than 1 in 10 American homes had a telephone.
Dare Cubs fans dream that this year might finally be the “next year” of which their fathers and granddads always spoke? Or are they too superstitious by now to think it?
We are reminded again who counts most in sports.
These 2016 Cubs are a wonderful team because Jake Arrieta is 11-1 with a 1.74 ERA, and because Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo (of Stoneman Douglas High in nearby Parkland) lead a lineup as young as it is potent, and because manager Joe Madden is as good as he is colorful and real.
But the Cubs are a wonderful story because 108 years of “next year” might finally be ending. They are wonderful story because a million fans prayed their Cubs would win a World Series before they died and their hopes became an epitaph. They are a wonderful story because of all the long-time loyalists who’ve been believing since Ernie Banks and despite Steve Bartman.
Most every city has its believers who’ve been waiting, and waiting, to see their faith redeemed.
Here, in Miami, the Dolphins are a month away from training camp with a new head coach in Adam Gase, a retooled roster and high hopes for quarterback Ryan Tannehill. This season isn’t about the latest team, though. It is about that team in the context of the franchise timeline, and of what Dolfans have endured. This will be the 43rd season since the Dolphins last won a Super Bowl in 1973. That is no Cubs-ian drought, but is longer than most, and unreasonably so. It swirls around the franchise like the dirt cloud that would never leave Pig-Pen in the Peanuts comic strip.
If the Dolphins beat long odds and actually won the next Super Bowl, the triumph would not belong to owner Stephen Ross or Tannehill, not mostly. The triumph would belong to South Florida diehards who remember Flipper leaping in that Orange Bowl end-zone tank, and Larry Csonka’s bull runs, the No-Name Defense, the Killer B’s, Dan Marino to the Marks Brothers, Jason Taylor on the sack, and Zach Thomas fighting tears after the latest loss. The triumph will mostly belong to those Dolfans who have grown old waiting for the next Miami Super Bowl parade but never quite gave up hope it would happen.
Despite the Dolphins drought, Miami has had it pretty good overall as a sports town.
If you include the Big Four team sports of NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL, plus major-college football, Miami is one of only two markets in the U.S., along with New York, to have cheered a national champion in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s — five consecutive decades. Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles have not. Chicago has not, unless you include Notre Dame football, which is about 95 miles away by car.
Miami in fact has had at least two major champions every decade: Dolphins twice in the 1970s; Hurricanes three times in the ’80s, Marlins and UM in the ’90s; UM, Marlins and Heat in the 2000s, and Heat twice this decade. Since the 1980s we’ve not waited longer than six years between major championship parades.
Only Dolphins fans truly are long suffering in this market, but perhaps there is a positive omen to be seen in Cleveland ending its 52-year civic drought and now in Cubs fans hoping to party like it’s 1908.
It could be the year in sports of patience finally finding its reward for Cubs fans as it did in Cleveland. Dare Dolfans dream, too?
If not, well, there’s always next year.