More Than Just A Game: Segregation And Living In A Championship Starved Sports City

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Led by arguably the game’s best player, Lebron James, the Cavaliers lost the 2015 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in six games, adding another season to the 51 year championship drought here in Cleveland. In ‘Bron’s first season back home, the team experienced roller-coaster highs and lows. They began the season 19-20, and stories quickly surfaced about locker room division. The tension was so thick it could be felt even by the most casual basketball fan, and it was clear the experiment would take the team time to develop before they could be called a family.

I’m white. Or, would the politically correct term to use be Caucasian? Because, in comparison, when I hold my hand up to a blank sheet of printer paper, my skin is hardly white at all; It’s more of a watered-down olive tone, likely due to genetics passed down from my parents. My surname, Theman (pronounced ‘Thee-Men’), is taken from my father’s German and Ukrainian descendants when they arrived to the new country, but, I’m told my physical appearance and traits favor my mother’s Sicilian ancestry – you know, the type of people glorified in old gangster films like ‘The Godfather‘. The thought immediately sparks fragmented memories of my own family reunions in the 80’s with short, sweaty, and overweight Italian men dressed nice on a sunny Cleveland summer day. Or, Grandma Immormino spending the day in the kitchen rolling dough and preparing sauce ingredients for an authentic Italiano spaghetti dinner. The food was always prepared from scratch with hard work and love…The kind of hard work and love you put in for your family – or, as the Italians say, La Famiglia.

I’ve never really had much interest in discovering my heritage or the distant relatives of my family tree from across the pond. Perhaps it’s because I’m 3rd generation American, and Europe is completely out of sight and out of mind. Or, maybe it’s because I know I’d likely never make the international trek across the Atlantic Ocean to visit and establish a relationship of any substance with them. Besides, an argument can be made about which relation constitutes the meaning of family, and whether tracing bloodlines should be the primary factor in determining those who are considered such.

Cleveland is home to 115+ unique cultures and/or ethnic backgrounds. The area has a rich mixture of European descent, which was the foundation of the city’s emergence into relevance beginning in the late 1800’s – the Italians in Little Italy; the Polish in Slavic Village; the Irish, originally immigrated to the land known today as Whiskey Island;  the Germans landed in the Tremont neighborhood; and the list goes on and on. At the turn of the 20th century, a large population of African American families began filtering in, migrating mainly east of the Cuyahoga River, which separates Cleveland’s west and east sides. This was due partially because Ohio was a bordering state during the slave trade days in America, and the city, code named “Station Hope”, was a stop along the Underground Railroad to freedom. But, as diverse as Cleveland is, it is and always has been severely segregated, with each group of people generally sticking together within their own neighborhood and/or side of town.

From its peak of 914,808 residents in 1950, Cleveland began its incredible shrinking decline of population, hitting a low haven’t seen since the early 1900’s of 396,815 in 2010 (according to the U.S. Census). That’s over half a million people leaving the city in a 60 year span, never to be replaced. Many families, mostly Caucasian, dispersed throughout the region to the suburbs – the activity often called “white flight” – while others picked up and moved to other parts of the state and around the country. Even today, the city continually makes ‘Top 10’ lists of most segregated in the country.

I was born July 28, 1977 into a typical four member household – mom, dad, older sister, and myself – in the southwest suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. We lived with other, mostly, Caucasian families. Went to school with mostly Caucasian kids. Area stores, restaurants and shops were mostly Caucasian employees serving other Caucasian customers. White people were everywhere! But that’s what segregation over time does…it reinforces a certain level of comfort by making surroundings comfortable and visually relatable, generation after generation.

During this time period, Cleveland’s local economy was in shambles due to the steel mills closing and manufacturing jobs leaving the area. Previous to that, the Cuyahoga River that runs through the city caught fire on numerous historical occasions due to pollution dating as far back as 1869, with the final one in 1969, prompting the creation of the Clean Water Act and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Then, the city defaulted on its debt in 1978 – the first American city since the Great Depression to do so, and headed straight into a recession. Cleveland was left without an identity, minimal work opportunities, and the future of this once prominent city was in much doubt.

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“Cleveland: You’ve Got To Be Tough!” was a popular tshirt slogan worn by Clevelanders in the 1970’s, created by iconic tshirt maker, Daffy Dans.

Cleveland became a national laughing stock and punching bag for others around the country, who created such monikers as “The Mistake By/On The Lake”.  And if you were a sports fan, it was not much better. Like our economy, politics and environmental disasters, we became defined by our sports failures as well, and summed up into short, nifty slogans:

  • Right Red 88 – The play designed near the Oakland Raiders end zone down 14-12 with less than a minute in the 1981 Divisional Playoff game that resulted in an interception. The Browns could have kicked a field goal and almost assured themselves victory, but instead chose to pass.
  • The Drive – The 98 yard improbable drive by John Elway and the Denver Broncos, heading into the infamous Dawg Pound, which was known for being one of the rowdiest of fans in the NFL. With 5:30 left on the game clock, and the Browns up 20-13, the Broncos drove down the field tying the 1987 AFC Championship, and subsequently kicking the game winning field goal to advance to the Super Bowl.
  • The Fumble – The following year, the 1988 AFC Championship pitted the Browns against nemesis John Elway and the Denver Broncos again. Browns running back Earnest Byner fumbles at the goal line with a minute left, which would have tied the score. They ended up losing 38-33.
  • The Shot – In game five of the NBA’s 1989 Eastern Conference First Round, Chicago Bulls superstar guard, Michael Jordan, hung in the air shooting over Cavalier Craig Ehlo in an impossible game and series winning shot at the Coliseum in Richfield. The shot is remembered as being one of Jordan’s all time clutch moments of his highlight reel.
  • The Betrayal/The Move – On November 6, 1995, Cleveland Browns owner, Art Modell, announces he will relocate the team to Baltimore due to financial reasons and a deteriorating stadium, where they would eventually be renamed the Ravens and go on to win Super Bowl XXXV at the conclusion of the 2000 season. Clevelanders fought back, retaining the Browns colors and history, and “won” an expansion franchise to take the field for the 1999 season.
  • The Decision – Following the 2009-10 NBA season, superstar Lebron James announces he will bring his talents to South Beach and play for the Miami Heat, on a nationally televised ESPN special dubbed “The Decision”. The Cavaliers next four seasons were a combined 97-215, failing to make the playoffs at the conclusion of any of those seasons.

Sports has always been a vital part of our community, though. Growing up in the 80’s, I was particularly fond of Cleveland professional sports. During this time, the Indians were basement dwellers, but the Cavs were competitive – making the playoffs four times in the latter part of the decade. But, this is a football town first and foremost, and the Browns have always been Cleveland’s pride and joy, even during their roughest years where loyalties could get tested. When the decade came to an end, they advanced to the AFC Championship game three out of four seasons, losing each time to the John Elway led Denver Broncos (86-87, 87-88, 89-90). The year they didn’t advance – the 1988-89 season, I went with my father to the finale against the Houston Oilers at old Cleveland Municipal stadium. If we win, we go to the playoffs. Lose, we go home.

I remember that game like it was yesterday. What little boy didn’t dream of going to a ball game with his father, anyway? We caught the Rapid downtown to Public Square, then walked the several blocks north towards the lakefront to the stadium. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of December in a town known for its extreme wintery weather, the excitement of the game experience coupled with the added bonus of father-son bonding time was all you needed to forget the conditions.

We were two of the nearly 75,000 other fans rooting our hometown team, shouting chants of “Houston Sucks!” which vibrated the structure of the stadium. There, in this stadium, the divide of race and culture was left at the front gate. It didn’t matter who was sitting next to you so long as they were wearing brown and orange. The color of their skin didn’t matter, we were emotionally invested in this franchise together. Cleveland has always been known for having some of the most passionate, dedicated and rabid fan bases the NFL has seen. It was perfectly normal to see dog bones get thrown while barking at opposing players in the east end zone, notoriously known as the Dawg Pound. I remember high fives and jubilant, victorious hugs were passed around during those glory years. And in defeat, we hung our heads…together. We did it like only family would.

Even in the seasons we were winning, we, as a city, felt like the underdog. We’ve had to wear thick skin because our troubling times were treated with national ridicule. Essentially, we were being bullied. And our citizens began to believe they were worthless, which created an entirely new issue with morale and self confidence. But we were easy targets for the continuous collective kicks while already down, and had no real defense against the attacks. So, in sports, we became fiercely loyal to what’s ours – and this mentality brought us together as a city while in the sporting venue, regardless of race or the zip code you lived in. This mentality was reinforced due to decades of non-stop jokes from outsiders. It became easier to just proclaim – Cleveland Against The World.

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Me with one of my girls, Era, wearing my iLTHY “Cleveland Against The World” hoodie

Our mutual bond was tested again during the 1995 NFL preseason when the national sports media picked the Browns to be Super Bowl favorites, only to be derailed by an announcement midseason by owner, Art Modell, to move the team to Baltimore. On that last home game of the season when the final second ticked off the clock, several players ran to the Dawg Pound to thank them for their unwavering loyalty. Grown men – both player and fan, were seen with tears running down their face, firmly embracing each other in their goodbyes. Players publicly stated their opposition of the move, claiming their allegiance to Cleveland and its fans. The following season (1996), center Steve Everitt wore a Browns bandana under his helmet to show the city he has not forgotten while playing for Baltimore, which cost him, getting fined $5k by the NFL. This was bigger than football. This was family.

With the first pick in the 2003 NBA draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Lebron James from nearby Akron, who was dubbed “The Chosen One” while in high school. Lebron went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award, back-to-back MVPs (2008-09, 2009-10), and claimed just about every team record, among a laundry list of other individual and team accolades during his first 7 seasons in the NBA. On July 8, 2010, Lebron made his announcement on the ESPN broadcasted event titled “The Decision“, where he stated “…I’m going to take my talents to South Beach, and join the Miami Heat.” I instantly felt that all familiar knot in my stomach, with the feeling that we’ve been here before. The city of Cleveland was shocked and silent.

Just like our Browns who went on to become Super Bowl champions in Baltimore (Ravens), we were left watching Lebron and the Heat go to four consecutive NBA Finals – winning two of them. I think I can speak for most Clevelanders, it wasn’t that he left, it was how it was done that hurt the most. Lebron was a free agent, and entitled to go wherever he sees best for his career. But, even still, I would by lying if I didn’t admit that I wondered why he would want to leave at all. After all, he was one of us!

While in Miami, Lebron made remarks in passing about what it would be like to win a championship for the fans of the city of Cleveland, and the celebration that would follow with a parade downtown. During a visit by the Miami Heat to Cleveland in 2013, Cavs fan, James Blair, stormed the court wearing a white tshirt with the words “2014 Come Back” on the back and “We Miss You” on the front in black marker. Watching the video, you can sense Lebron was unconcerned about a possible threat for his safety, even walking towards him and patting him on top of his head when he was carried away. These events and more gave Clevelanders hope our native son could make a future return.

On July 11, 2014, I was in Los Angeles screening my first documentary, Guilty ‘Til Proven Innocent, when I received a text from a friend back home at about 10 in the morning. The text said (paraphrasing) “Did you hear? He’s coming home!” In a Sports Illustrated essay, Lebron announced “I’m Coming Home“, and just like that, immediate redemption and forgiveness was felt city-wide by the majority of Clevelanders. In this letter, he discussed the importance of knowing where you come from – “where nothing is given, everything is earned” – and realizing the impact he has on the entire NE Ohio region and state of Ohio. For him, his reasons for coming back were bigger than basketball. They were about community, and being proud of his hometown area. It was about family.

In Guilty Til Proven Innocent, I examined laws called Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), which restrict or prohibit certain types of dogs – namely Pit Bulls. I started this film in 2008 in response to Lakewood (the city I lived in) proposing and passing BSL just as I was about to adopt a Pit Bull dog named, Preston. Being Caucasian, I never experienced any form of intolerance until the day I walked this dog down the street or in a park. The looks we received could penetrate right through us. The more I began to dissect the law, the more I understood the nature of what the law was intended to do back in the 80’s when they spread like wild fire across the country. Since laws cannot be created that infringe upon rights of protected class, politicians adopted this legislation as a legal form of racial and social class prejudice, using it as a tool for law enforcement to harass people they suspected of committing crimes. My views about living in a segregated city also began changing, realizing the current model is unacceptable and counterproductive for the future success of any city.

When Lebron came back, I don’t think anybody realized the impact he could have on our economy as well as on the basketball court. But his presence goes even beyond that. At the start of 2015, I began a new documentary project, Made In Cleveland, which examines the revival of the city. National media have all covered this resurgence, depicting how creative people can turn around a once downtrodden town. But we still have so much improvement left to go, and that can only happen once our neighborhoods become less segregated…To embrace the culture of unity and no longer the division of east side vs west side, or color and cultural barriers. Truly, a one Cleveland, which we desperately need. Just as we did in so many of those sporting events, we need to play in the game of life. Like family. Because you play your heart out for your family.

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