Missouri freshmen basketball players Frankie Hughes and Willie Jackson, who played together at Garfield Heights High in Cleveland, awoke Monday to a new world.
It had been two generations since anyone in Cleveland felt the civic pride that a major sports championship brings, but the Cavaliers’ 93-89 victory at Golden State on Sunday clinched the 2016 NBA crown and made a winner of the city for the first time since 1964.
“It was very special for Cleveland,” Hughes said. “When we were down 3-1 (in the finals), I was telling people around campus and the coaching staff and everybody at the basketball arena that we were coming back and winning three in a row. I was just keeping the faith and a belief in the Cavs, knowing what LeBron (James) and Kyrie (Irving) and all those guys are capable of.”
Hughes’ confidence is unusual for Cleveland sports. No sports town’s fan base has known pain quite like Clevelanders, whose 52-year title drought in all sports before the Cavaliers’ championship was the longest among the nation’s pro sports towns.
“It brings some excitement to the city, because nowadays all we hear about in Cleveland is somebody being shot or robbed,” Jackson said. “It was big to see everybody come out and support something that hadn’t happened in a long time.”
Here’s a refresher of recent Cleveland sports heartache:
▪ There was “The Drive,” a 98-yard march that John Elway of the Denver Broncos led in the 1986 AFC Championship Game against the Browns.
▪ One year later, workhorse Earnest Byner fumbled away the game-tying touchdown at the goal line in an AFC Championship Game rematch with the Broncos. “The Fumble” perhaps robbed Cleveland of a still-unrealized Super Bowl berth.
▪ Those gut-wrenching results were better than Art Modell’s decision in 1995 — “The Move” — when the Browns packed up and left for Baltimore. The Ravens subsequently won Super Bowl titles during the 2000 and 2012 seasons.
▪ You’ve seen the highlight of “The Shot” a hundred times: Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls hangs in the air impossibly long, rattles in the game-winning, series-stealing jumper over the Cavaliers’ Craig Ehlo, then fist pumps his way into sports-highlight immortality during the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs.
▪ Shortly before Jackson and Hughes were born, the Indians came within three outs of a crown before Jose Mesa’s blown save opened the door for more Cleveland sports heartbreak as the Florida Marlins rallied for a Game 7 win in 11 innings to clinch the 1997 World Series.
When homegrown star LeBron James made “The Decision” in 2010, taking his talents to South Beach, where he helped the Miami Heat reach the NBA Finals four straight seasons and win two titles, all seemed lost in “The Land.”
Two years after James came back, Cleveland’s awakened from a decades-long nightmare.
“We say that you’ve got to be from Cleveland to understand how much this win means to us,” Hughes said. “Earnest Byner’s fumble at the goal line and all those things — they call those things the curse of Cleveland sports. But now we feel like the curse is broken. It gives us more hope and faith for the other sports in Cleveland, too.”
Jackson and Hughes gathered with several teammates at Mizzou Arena to watch Game 7. Most were cheering for the Warriors, including sophomore point guard Terrence Phillips, a native Californian.
Adam Wolf was the lone exception.
“We had a little support,” Jackson said, “but most of the guys were going for Golden State.”
That made the moment a bit sweeter after Irving’s late three-pointer and James’ free throw in the closing seconds allowed the Cavs finally to lay claim to the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
“We started making phone calls back home,” Jackson said. “Most of our friends were downtown going crazy.”
Jackson was a bit bummed he couldn’t be there.
“That’s all I kept talking about was that I was trying to go home,” he said.
Hughes felt the same tug toward Cleveland.
“I wish I was there, but it’s not bad being here,” Hughes said. “We’re here to take care of business. I wanted to be there, but I’m in the right spot.”
Besides, Jackson and Hughes still got to do a little chest-beating Monday during workouts and a pickup game at Mizzou Arena.
“One of our managers (Brandon Byer) is from San Francisco, so he was a diehard fan,” Hughes said. “We were rubbing it in with him a little bit, but it was good today. Everybody knew Willie and I would be coming to the gym happy today.”