Cleveland is great again because LeBron James, a Northeast Ohio native, led the Cavaliers to the city’s first sports championship since 1964.
I was in Cleveland for Game 7 of the Finals last month, when the championship curse ended. A capacity crowd packed Quicken Loans Arena for a watch party without coaches, without LeBron, and without even a basketball court. The court had already been transformed into the Republican National Convention construction site — a silent but strong foreshadowing of a much different spectacle to come.
As soon as the final buzzer sounded, the entire arena exploded, erupting with a celebration 52 years in the making. Joy and peace overwhelmed the city, noticeably changing it. Strangers who wouldn’t converse much, if at all, otherwise, were suddenly exchanging high fives, giving bro hugs, and praising the Cavs. For a single moment, race and class differences were wiped away.
One Akron man even dressed up as God and, with a homemade sign, shared the moniker with LeBron for the night.
The way LeBron James and the Cavs united the city that night was miraculous. Their victory was greater than sports itself. LeBron didn’t just lead his team to victory, he led an entire city back to prominence, back to a feeling that they too are great again, that they too can accomplish the seemingly impossible if they work hard enough and earn it.
But before the chalk dust has even settled on LeBron’s title, in a cruel yet only-in-Cleveland twist of fate, the political equivalent of L. Ron Hubbard will march into town to claim the nomination of the party of Lincoln — using the city as a stage from which he’ll tear the country apart.
Losing Trust & Losing Teams
The ragged roots of the Trump phenomenon stretch far before this election cycle, just like Cleveland’s last championship before LeBron.
Pew reports that in 1964 — the same year the Browns captured Cleveland’s last title before LeBron’s triumph — American trust in the federal government was at 77%, a record high. Over three-quarters of Americans trusted the government “to do what is right just about always/most of the time.”
Since 1964, though, trust in government has been in near constant free fall: down to 19% last year.
In addition to declining trust in the federal government, Gallup polls reveal that Americans are losing confidence in traditional institutions such as the church, the media, and the banks.
This decline in trust and confidence mirrors the decline of Cleveland’s economy. Manufacturing losses hit the entire country hard, but the impact was especially deep in Rust Belt cities like Cleveland. A Browns, Cavs, or Indians win was a welcome respite from the grind of everyday life, and the city’s devoted fans cheered even harder for their sports teams.
One of my great uncles was a family physician in Cleveland during this time. He once quipped that on Mondays after the Browns lost, he got more calls. People seemed afflicted by more ailments after a loss than after a Cleveland win. Although the Browns came close in the ’80s, and the Indians came even closer in the ’90s, a championship still eluded the city. But no matter how tough the defeat or how narrowly a team missed winning a title, Cleveland fans still believed and hoped victory would be right around the corner.
While a deep devotion to sports was cultivating civic pride and undefeatable optimism in Cleveland, if not any undefeated teams, others were scheming how to exploit blue-collar towns — not inspire them. Michael Brendan Dougherty, in an excellent article for The Week, explains how one man figured out how to manipulate Americans’ increasing distrust and declining confidence. Samuel Francis, an advisor to Pat Buchanan’s 1996 presidential campaign, realized many Americans felt betrayed by political elites, the destruction of traditional institutions, and the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalized world. Francis predicted 20 years ago that successfully targeting this distraught demographic of Americans would scramble traditional conceptions of political right and left and create electoral chaos.
In the light of Francis’ seemingly prescient analysis, the success of a “Republican” presidential candidate who openly bashes free trade seems less mysterious. Trump’s macho, hate-filled nationalist rhetoric and allergy to entitlement reform is a message tailor-made to reach people tired of traditional political demarcation — tired because they don’t trust either party to do the right thing, or even listen.
Trump’s vapid rambling about winning again betrays his complete ignorance of governing, but it also reveals a con man who knows his mark: millions of Americans who are dealing with legitimate problems but do not view any traditional institutions as legitimate. With no confidence in politicians or the media to tell the truth, it becomes easier to view Trump as a truth teller — after all, “he tells it like it is”— and harder to see him for what he is: a divisive, world-class fabulist with a history of conning the very people he claims to champion.
He said a Hispanic American judge, presiding over lawsuits brought against Trump’s fraudulent “university,” could not do his job because of his Mexican heritage.
Trump congratulated himself on Twitter after the Orlando terror attack, proving that he can and will exploit any tragedy for his own ends.
And that’s just since June.
While Trump is riding a wave of insults and tweets to an anticipated coronation in Cleveland, there is already a true and selfless “King” in town. LeBron, nicknamed “King James,” was born in nearby Akron and drafted first overall by the Cavs in 2003. After leading the team to a Finals loss in 2007, he left the city for Miami as a free agent three years later.
Cleveland fans felt betrayed not only by his departure, but also by how he announced it: on a special, live ESPN broadcast. Cleveland’s dream of LeBron delivering a title seemed hopelessly lost, but something incredible happened when he became a free agent once again in 2014: He came back to the Cavs. Announcing his new decision in a tremendously wise and heartfelt article on SI.com, LeBron struck the perfect tone.
He admitted Cleveland fans’ passion could be overwhelming, but that it also drives him.
He apologized for how he left in 2010, but not that he left.
And he stated that while winning a title is the goal, his calling to lead and inspire Northeast Ohio transcends the game of basketball.
LeBron ended his letter with a mantra that deeply resonates with the blue-collar town he was returning to:
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.
With his help, the Cavs earned Cleveland’s first major sports title since 1964.
Cleveland has a championship team — and a surging economy — once again.
The King and the False Messiah
The Cavs’ slogan for the playoffs was “ALL IN 216.” The team needed 16 wins to become champions, and 216 is Cleveland’s area code. The slogan communicated that the entire city, not just the team, was coming together to achieve a common goal. LeBron and the Cavs earned the championship on the court, but the victory belongs to the entire city.
LeBron lived up to his royal nickname, while Trump is a false messiah who will only make America worse, not great.
LeBron united Cleveland with an NBA title this year, while Trump is using Cleveland as a local stage to market his divisive and fear-mongering message to the world.
Just a few weeks after LeBron united the city, a city that was all in, Trump is bringing a very different message to the 216. He seeks to divide the country for his own purposes, not unite people for a purpose larger than themselves. And any “winning” Trump does will be for himself and no one else.
Trump carries division and chaos with him like a shadow, a far cry from LeBron and the Cavs uniting an entire city. Cleveland is great again because of LeBron James’ triumph, and nothing can change that — not even Donald Trump using the city as a prop to promote his latest con. Cleveland already has a real king.