As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” finishes up with—surprise!—your Wine and Gold Winners.
We left the arena and flooded the streets. Thousands of us. Strangers; hugging and crying and smiling. A mass of people moving throughout downtown with nowhere to go and no place they’d rather be. Moving, walking, running, dancing, all because we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Some people chanted, others drank, many just stood and stared off into the distance. They absorbed everything about the moment even as their eyes looked miles away.
The celebration didn’t stop, it just moved. To the airport as the team arrived. To the team shop to grab every piece of clothing that could fit a trophy on it. To the phone lines to call loved ones. And finally, to the streets again. Up Euclid. Down 9th. Confetti filling the sky. The celebration moved even as the parade couldn’t. The streets were so packed with people it took the team hours to reach their destination. It didn’t matter. Other cities can have parades, this was a gathering. The people taking the streets was the main attraction. The parade was just an excuse.
Kyrie hit that damn three and the city of Cleveland celebrated like it hadn’t for 50 years.
This city has spent it’s whole life being overlooked for flashier, more flamboyant options. In that way, the Golden Boy Warriors were a familiar opponent. Some years they wear Yankees or Red Sox jerseys. Bulls and Celtics during others. If you squint hard enough, those yellow shirts worn inside Oracle Arena begin to look a lot like Terrible Towels.
Cleveland is always being dismissed before it is given a chance. Being the butt of jokes. Being nothing more than a montage of highlights for other cities to celebrate. For fifty years validation on the playing field and off has felt light years away.
The celebration didn’t stop, it just moved.
This team craved validation in the same way the city did. Validation of still being the best player in the world. Of being the best young point guard in the league. Of still being the star that shone so bright in Minnesota. Of being worth that $82 million contract. Of not being the head-case that was portrayed in stints with Denver or New York.
This Cavaliers team wore the city’s insecurities the same way they wore their own. Their entire history was rife with missteps, in-fighting, and failure. The Cavs had a way of highlighting the back page instead of the box scores. They invited controversy and derision. And they were on the verge of being a footnote to the greatest season in NBA history, again a background to someone else’s highlight.
And then they weren’t. Suddenly, the outside noise didn’t matter. Suddenly, it was the Warriors who were worried about hurt feelings and cheap shots. It was the Warriors who were arguing with referees and having on-court temper tantrums. The Cavaliers had taken control. Down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers no longer had anything to lose. And they wouldn’t lose again.
In a funny way, Cleveland probably underplays the significance of this championship. It’s easy to see what it’s done for the city. We all watched the way it impacted the players individually. Even as the Indians went on their World Series run, you could see how Cleveland had been elevated on a national level. But the Cavaliers didn’t just change the fortunes of Cleveland, they changed the landscape of the NBA forever.
Had the Cavs lost, they may have broken up the team. They may have traded Kevin Love, or even Kyrie Irving. There’s a chance LeBron never wins another ring, his place in history frozen in time, with the NBA firmly in the hands of arch-nemesis Steph Curry. The Warriors would easily be favorites heading into this season, though the pesky Oklahoma City Thunder would be waiting for them. The city of Cleveland would likely be staring down additions to the Misery Montage, first from this Finals, and then from the Indians’ World Series loss.
Instead, LeBron James cemented his place as one of the top two or three best players of all time. His re-asserted himself as the undisputed best player in the NBA. Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving remain Cavaliers, putting up their best numbers since the Big 3 formed in Cleveland.
And outside of Cleveland, the Cavaliers just broke up the best regular-season NBA team in history. Kevin Durant, a consensus top-three player in the NBA, joined the Warriors and in doing so, broke up another title contender in Oklahoma City. What once looked like the beginning of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history is suddenly searching for title number two. The NBA just instituted a new CBA that specifically addresses some of the issues that were created with the movements just described. By sitting on top, Cleveland had turned the NBA world upside-down.
You could see it on LeBron’s face when he embraced Kevin Love in the final seconds of Game 7. The validation. Of coming home. Of being one of the best players ever. You could see it from J.R. Smith as he broke down on stage following the game. You could see it from Kevin Love, who wore a WWE-style championship belt everywhere he went for a week.
And you could see it in the city of Cleveland. In the streets after the game. In the lines for the team shop. In the masses during the parade. In the way an entire country that had spent 50 years knowing little more about Cleveland than the nickname “Mistake by the Lake” embracing this team and celebrating along with them.
We all woke up on June 19, 2016 thinking one thing, and went to bed knowing something else completely. All because of those Cavaliers. Because LeBron James returned home. Because Kevin Love sacrificed everything. Because Kyrie hit that damn three.
And because of them, inside Cleveland and out, nothing will ever be the same.