The signs are everywhere. Clevelanders show their faith in the Cavaliers, who will play their first home game in the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, with the greeting, "Rise Up!" During one of the few months they can't complain much about the weather, they make small talk about their savior, King James. Three-year-olds wear Cavs clothes to preschool, and in workplaces, dress codes are out, while basketball attire is in.
Then there's the 110-foot-high Nike advertisement featuring LeBron James that hangs on the side of a downtown building and proclaims "We are all witnesses." When transportation officials said it should be taken down, they called in the governor. Ted Strickland, who is also an ordained Methodist minister, rushed to town to save the banner by anointing it a work of "commercial art."
In Cleveland these days, marketing is art, and basketball is religion.
See what the prospect of the first major sports title in 43 years can do to a town?
No matter that the Cavs are 0-2 against the San Antonio Spurs in the finals. Here, there is hope – palpable, infectious hope, the kind that transcends the despair in this shrinking city of 452,000. A leader in foreclosures, poverty, and punch lines, Cleveland has a median household income nearly half that of the nation's. But now, its basketball team has joined the city's medical establishment (the Cleveland Clinic) and its orchestra as a world-renowned attribute. The Cavs enjoy a regionwide cheering section, which stretches from the most spoiled suburbs to the most neglected neighborhoods. Divided by economics, race, and education, at least they are undivided under LeBron.
"For this city, it's kind of a moment – that even if it turns out they're not champions, they can act like they are. Even if we have a typical Cleveland moment, at least we can have enjoyed this," said Kurt Lehr, who brought relatives from Arizona last Thursday night to Quicken Loans Arena, which has held free "watch parties" for the away games.
"Typical Cleveland moments" involve high-profile sports ventures gone horribly wrong. They include "The Drive" (1987), which helped launch the career of Denver quarterback John Elway and denied the Cleveland Browns a berth in the Super Bowl; "The Shot" (1989), which helped launch Michael Jordan's career and ended the Cavaliers' season; and "The Fumble" (1988), which would have launched the career of the Browns' Earnest Byner if he had managed to keep the ball while crossing the goal line in the AFC Championship. The Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948. The Browns haven't landed a championship since 1964 (in the pre-Super Bowl era).
And the Cavaliers have never been in the NBA Finals before.
For Game 1, about 20,000 fans squeezed into the Q, as the arena is called, to watch the action on the screen. One worker at the Q, Alma Scott, screamed "Rise Up, Cleveland!" as they filed under the balloon archway. The fans came with tired toddlers, truculent teenagers, and creative signage ("Boobie Trap the Spurs!," referring to Daniel Gibson's nickname). They even came with Anderson Varejao wigs. When the arena was filled to capacity, they stood outside and watched the game through the window.
In a city where 32 percent of residents (and 48 percent of children) live in poverty, many can't afford tickets to see the Cavs under normal circumstances, let alone the finals, when the cheapest tickets are more than $100 and the priciest are almost $15,000.
"This is my first time [to the Q for a game], and I've been a Cavs fan all my life," said Dorothy Barringer, holding her 1-year-old granddaughter on her lap. She could have watched LeBron on television at home as she usually does. But instead, she drove a daughter, son-in-law, nine grandchildren, and two friends to the arena. It took two trips in her van.
As the game went on, the families with young kids left, and the older kids got more animated. They waited in line to get their faces painted and their hair sprayed wine and gold colors. One boy said he was so excited that he didn't sleep the night before. Of all the things he likes about Cleveland, he said the Cavs are "No. 1."
For the Game 2 telecast at the arena Sunday, there were even more perks: Fans wore special glasses that enabled them to watch the game on three-dimension, high-definition screens.
Outside the Q last Thursday night, people filled nearby restaurants and bars. Will Curran, who lives downtown, loved the energy.
"On most nights, there's about 20 people out here," he said. "Now, everyplace is jampacked."
Clevelanders are enjoying an awakening, but they're still hoping for a resurrection.