This is what it looks like when a city finds true love after a lifetime of sports heartbreak: Strangers high-five and hug one another. Hardened cynics find themselves wiping away a stray tear. Fans young and old don goofy costumes and paint their faces, dancing to live music in the cool night air; friends and family snap countless selfies, trying to freeze frame a memory. Thousands of people show up on a cold and windy night, with or without tickets, just to laugh and cheer and soak up the joy of a moment that, even a year ago, would have seemed absurd.
For a few hours on Tuesday, downtown Cleveland was the center of the American sports universe. Inside Quicken Loans Arena, the Cavaliers raised a banner and slipped on their championship rings for the first time, then thumped the Knicks 117-88. Barely 100 yards away, the Indians hosted -- and won -- Game 1 of the 2016 World Series, beating the Cubs 6-0. It was a historic night for a city that once seemed would be forever cursed with disappointment, and nowhere was the suddenly surreal optimism more evident than in the giant courtyard between Quicken Loans and Progressive Field. It felt like a party 50 years in the making, a symbolic celebration for a city that's quietly thriving after years of being the butt of jokes.
"It's the most insane thing in sports history," says Gary Koehler, one of the thousands of fans who watched the World Series from the courtyard on giant video boards erected by the Indians. "Every Cleveland sports fan who has been through years of tragedy, they're just in heaven tonight."
All over the city on Tuesday, there was a sense of excitement buzzing in the air. A saxophone player on Euclid Avenue blared "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" to a gleeful gathering of Indians fans. You could find dozens of people, both men and women, dressed up like Ricky Vaughn, Charlie Sheen's rogue-but-lovable character from "Major League." "Let's Go Tribe!" chants broke out in bars, in coffee shops and especially on the street. The headline in Plain Dealer summed up the mood perfectly: "Are you ready to believe again?"
"All of this is so great for the city, and for the county," says Bob Leech, a 71-year-old who sold programs at Indians games as a kid. "We've always had such a bad rap, the whole 'Mistake by the Lake' thing. I hope that's all gone, because Clevelanders are really good, hard-working people. And it's great to be part of it."
The way the last few years have unfolded -- particularly the way LeBron James left for Miami, then returned, then fulfilled his promise to bring a championship to the city he had jilted -- seems, in some ways, more like literature than real life. You'd scoff at the sentimentality if you hadn't seen it with your own eyes. Before he received a long-awaited ring, James couldn't stop smiling and fidgeting, his body twitching with excitement. It was clear he couldn't wait to get a microphone in his hand. When he finally did, he wasn't speaking as a Cavalier, but as a native of Northeast Ohio.
"From this building, to next door where our guys are opening the World Series, at this point, if you're not from here, live here, play here, dedicate yourself to Cleveland, then it makes no sense for you to live," James said. "Cleveland against the world!"
It is obvious that the renaissance of the Cavs and Indians franchises has no real connection to Cleveland's economic rebirth as a city. The two storylines are related in only the loosest sense. But for many Cleveland natives, it has been almost poetic to watch them unfold on similar timelines. Jon Groza and Scott Sargent, two Clevelanders born and raised, were drinking a beer inside Johnny's Little Bar this week, a cozy downtown dive that's tucked into an alley off Frankfurt Avenue, when they couldn't help but laugh at a bit of irony.
Here they were, wondering if television networks would finally stop showing clips of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire as part of their pregame package for big Cavaliers and Indians games -- while at the same time, drinking pints of Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale.
"We're sitting here drinking this, but the reality is, that narrative isn't relevant anymore," says Groza, a lawyer whose grandfather, Lou Groza, is an NFL Hall of Famer who played for the Browns for 21 seasons. "It's so annoying to see that brought up so often."
"The story of this city has changed," says Sargent, who runs the popular Cleveland sports blog "Waiting for Next Year." "It's weird how people cling to that."
After experiencing decades of population decline and job losses, there are a lot of indications that Cleveland is finally starting to recover, and even experience growth. The Republican National Convention was just held here. The Cleveland Clinic is a world-class hospital. Home prices are on the rise, new businesses are opening up, and young professionals like Groza -- who used to live in Washington D.C. but moved back to his hometown -- are starting to return. Instead of settling in Chicago or New York, a growing number want to support the place where they grew up.
"One of the things Cleveland has always taken pride in is the way we maintain these cultural institutions," Groza says. "We probably don't deserve three sports franchises, but we're such a rabid fan base, it works. It's the same way we probably don't deserve to have a Museum of Art with $750 million endowment. Or a top-five orchestra in the country. But that's who we are."
James, too, left town to pursue other opportunities before ultimately realizing his heart would forever be in Cleveland. That's something a lot of young professionals could relate to -- once they took the emotional betrayal out of it. It's why it was easy to forgive James for The Decision, as painful as it once was, as soon as he announced he was returning. He was one of them. And of course, not only was he returning, he was convincing other people in the prime of their careers (Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith) that Cleveland was a suitable place to spend three or four years.
"Everyone in Cleveland knows exactly where they were when LeBron announced he was coming back," Groza says. "It's like people remembering where they were when they heard JFK was shot. Obviously he's a brilliant marketer, and it was good for his brand, but I think it was sincere. He wanted to come home."
Sometimes sports has a unique way of helping cement what it means to feel a connection to a place or a region. Anjali Atul Mehta, a Cleveland lawyer who is also a rabid Cavs fan, says she couldn't help but get emotional this week thinking about what her hometown's teams had meant to her family. There were countless nights when her father, Atul, would load Anjali and her two siblings into the car and drive to Municipal Stadium just to see the postgame fireworks.
"I know this sounds silly, but when my parents came to this country from India 40 years ago, they felt like they truly became Americans by following the Browns, the Cavs and the Indians," says Mehta, who attended the Cavs' ring ceremony. "My dad loves to joke that he's a true Cleveland Indian. I think that's what sports do -- they make you feel like you are a part of a community. We've all fallen together, we've gotten our hopes up together, and tonight, I guess you could say we all succeeded together."
The way that Quicken Loans Arena and Progressive Field are situated, it's actually possible to stand inside the Q, and from certain windows, see home plate through a gap in the left field stands. On Tuesday, when Indians catcher Roberto Perez put his team up 3-0 in the fourth inning, and then when he made it 6-0 in the eighth, Progressive Field went bonkers, people bouncing up and down in their seats and whipping red towels over their heads in a frenzy.
And if you looked through the gap in the stands, you could see a big group of Cavs fans inside the Q, also jumping up and down, faces pressed against the glass -- in the midst of one celebration and also longing to be a part of another.