Not Caring About Sports Doesn't Really Cut It In Cleveland

click to enlarge Not Caring About Sports Doesn't Really Cut It In Cleveland
Emanuel Wallace
I’ve never really been mistaken for a sports fan. My dad would probably be the first to acknowledge that any hopes he may have had that I would join him in conversations about football or occasionally play a game of pick-up basketball were swiftly dashed pretty much as soon as I became a sentient being.

Maybe if I had been forced to go to more baseball games as a child or grown up with an older brother like my best friend did, I would’ve been more apt to care about such things. But instead, I only have memories of being hit in the eye with a birdie during badminton games or being pelted in the gut while playing dodgeball in gym class. I remember high school jocks rolling their eyes when they got paired with me for tennis and the pressure I felt when I had to actually compete in “field day” every year. I never had the right type of confidence to actively participate in sports, so I guess I never really invested in them, as a result.

But there’s always been one thing that’s complicated my inherent lack of interest in sports…

I’m from Cleveland.

And not caring about sports just doesn’t fly here.

I’ve always been aware of that, and as a result, I’ve taken on at least part of the burden that has naturally come along with being from this city. I’m no expert on our sports trivia and I couldn’t explain to you all of the reasons behind our reputation, but I’ve always known enough to feel sufficiently discouraged by it. I’ve always known enough to understand why the people here have a self-deprecating attitude about our hometown. I’ve always known enough to understand why it was easy for the rest of the country to crack jokes at our expense.

I don’t specifically remember the Indians losing the World Series in 1997, but I remember my mom and my sister going to a game and bringing me back a baseball. I remember my sister having a poster of Omar Vizquel hanging above her bed. I remember it being a big deal. But I don’t think I watched any of the games. I probably just put on Back to the Future for the 50th time.

I also don’t remember the Browns leaving Cleveland, but I remember that I wasn’t supposed to like Art Modell. I remember that I was supposed to hate the Baltimore Ravens. I remember that we didn’t have a team for a long time. But I still never went to a game once the new stadium was built. My most vivid memory is seeing NSYNC perform there when I was 13.

I didn’t really grow up knowing the details of anything. I only grew up knowing that we lost all the time. And that’s all I really felt like I needed to know.

But then, a funny thing happened this year. Through a somewhat unanticipated series of events, I found myself being given the opportunity to go to some Cavs games. That sounds silly, I guess. As though I didn’t grow up 20 minutes away from a city with an NBA franchise. As if I haven’t had the opportunity to go to basketball games every year I’ve been on this planet….

Let’s just say this was the year I actually decided to take advantage of that opportunity.

I went to a couple games in the winter, and then a few more after that, and eventually even to a couple of the Eastern Conference Finals games.

And then, weirdly enough, I started to care. Let me be clear here. I’ve never been the type of person who acts like sports are not an important part of a community’s identity. I’ve never been the type of person who berates fans or complains about individuals who take sports seriously. I’m not so naïve that I fail to understand the greater purpose and meaning behind it all.

I watch The Oscars every year because I give a shit about movies. Oscar Sunday is my favorite day of the year. People constantly complain about how the awards don’t matter and how they’re rigged and how they’re based around profit/advertising/etc. I don’t protest. I don’t go crazy trying to defend anything. I just know why they matter to me. In the same way I know why sports matter to a lot of other people.

More importantly, I know what sports mean to Cleveland. I know how tightly our individual identities are woven together with our legacies. I understand. So I’ve always cared, in a sense. Because to care about Cleveland sports is to care about this town. It’s to care about our economy and our neighbors and our shared history. It goes deeper than all the superficial shit that comes along with major league anything.

I’ve always wanted our teams to succeed. I’ve always wanted them to win. Because I’ve always been from Cleveland. Just because it didn’t matter to me, didn’t mean I wasn’t aware that there were at least 10 other people I cared about who had a vested interest in our professional sports franchises.

I sat in a living room and watched LeBron announce he was going to Miami. I stared nervously at his face on ESPN and swore at the TV. I felt mad too. I didn’t watch Cavs games in my spare time, but I still knew what it meant.

I think there’s a difference between not investing in something and completely disregarding it. I’ve never disregarded our sports teams. I’ve never dismissed them. I’ve chosen to care about other things instead of them, but I think that came from a lack of knowledge and exposure more than anything else.

I feel lucky, and a little bit embarrassed, that this was the year I decided to open myself up to the idea of caring about basketball. I’m embarrassed because there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel as though I’ve suffered long enough. There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel entitled to the celebration. I didn’t watch game 6 last year. I didn’t watch any of the games when LeBron James was a Cavalier the first time around. I just happened to witness the championship season.

I felt a bit like an imposter walking down the streets of Cleveland when the Cavs won the NBA championship, giving out high fives to strangers in jerseys, jumping around like a crazy person in a bar when the clock ran out. Straining to see above the crowd so I could find out the final score.

I found myself literally running down the sidewalk, trying to get into a watch party before the first quarter started. I spent that first quarter separated from my roommate, just because I wanted to get closer to the big screen and I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I felt anxiety when the second half was starting and we hadn’t made it back into the bar. I didn’t care about people crowding me or pushing me. I didn’t even yell when some random dude crushed my foot underneath his while we celebrated our victory. I was shaking too much to notice.

I remember being out to dinner with my friend earlier in the season and she would laugh as I’d look behind her at the game on TV and yell loudly, while I made random comments about players whose names she didn’t even know I was familiar with. She’d ask me why I had gotten so into basketball all of a sudden. I didn’t have a good answer for her.

I guess I sort of just got it. I sort of got, finally, what it means to be a Cleveland fan. What it really means to be from this town, even though I’m not technically from here. Very few of us are, really. I grew up in Strongsville. You couldn’t get any closer to suburbia if you tried. But whenever I’m away from home and anyone asks where I’m from, I still say Cleveland. I still use it as part of my identity. I still associate myself with it more strongly than anything else.

And now I can also say, however strange it may seem to people who know me, that I’m a Cleveland sports fan. I can say that I own more than two Cavs shirts. I can say that I went out of my way to watch every game of the Eastern Conference Finals. I can even say that I attended some of them.

I can say that I watched all of The Finals. In random bars, at the Q, steps away from the heart of downtown. I became a part of my city in a way that I had never allowed myself to before. I understood what it all meant in a real way.

I’ll never pretend to care as much as the rest of this town. As much as all the people who have been watching and waiting for this for decades. But I’ll be grateful to say that I can join them in their celebration and have a conversation with them and know what they’re talking about. I’ll be grateful that I can name most of our players (but not all of them…I had to call in some reinforcements every now and then when the occasional unrecognizable dude wandered onto the court).

I’m not a sports fanatic, by any means. I’m also not a fair-weather fan. I’m just a Clevelander. And that means I feel pride when something positive happens for my city. I care when we achieve our goals. I just happened to care a little more this time.

Because I actually allowed myself to get caught up in the excitement. In the suspense. In the history that was being made. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized how important it is to participate in historic moments. I’ve realized how vital it is to involve yourself with significant cultural events and milestones. I try to be aware when those moments are happening. I try to take it in. I try to be a part of things. I think it’s a pretty important part of being alive.

I’m sure I’m not the first person my friends or work colleagues thought would be writing about a sports team. I’m also sure that most of them may not be interested in reading this, given the perspective it’s coming from. I just know that I write when things matter to me. I write when things affect me.

And scrolling though Facebook and seeing national magazines and newspapers writing so many kind, wonderful, engaging, and even humorous articles about my hometown, as they share in our collective joy, affects me. Reading a New York Times article about Cleveland fans filling the Q and screaming at the top of their lungs as they watched the Cavs play that final game, affects me. Seeing a Nike commercial made just for the people of this city, affects me. Listening to a live broadcast of a championship celebration parade during my workday and hearing that there are over a million fans showing their support, affects me.

It all makes my eyes water and it makes me smile and it makes me stare in disbelief. Because I’m from here too. And this doesn’t feel real to me either. And I’m so happy for anyone who this could ever matter to. I’m so happy for whatever it could mean. I’m so proud to be from a city full of such love, strength, determination and hope.

I’m just grateful to be included, however I happen to fit in. So from one newly-christened sports fan to the rest of Cleveland…congrats on the win!
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