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July 15, 2014

James bears the weight of Cleveland’s championship dreams

LeBron James has done it all on a basketball court. He’s a great scorer, rugged defender, proven big-play leader and champion. But that might not be enough in Cleveland, where he’ll also need the powers of Merlin the Magician.

In returning to his hometown, James will face the Curse that has haunted the city known for generations as “The Mistake on the Lake.” Whether by spell or bad luck, Cleveland might rock but it doesn’t win championships.

When GQ Magazine compiled a list of the 20 worst sports franchises of all time, Cleveland topped the list. Not the Browns, not the Cavaliers, not the Indians. All of them.

The city’s major sports franchises have gone an amazing 156 seasons without a championship. The last time a Cleveland team claimed a title was in 1964 when the Browns became NFL champions. Of course, that was two years before the Super Bowl was first played.

In returning to Cleveland, James assumes the burden of trying to end a long, sad story and writing a new narrative that leads to brighter days, not only athletically but also economically and socially for the sprawling community along Lake Erie. James knows the fan base has high hopes and even bigger dreams. In his announcement on Sports Illustrated’s website that he was returning home to northeast Ohio from Miami, James addressed the challenge: “Our city hasn’t had that feeling in a long, long, long time.”

That assessment is both accurate and noble.

Playing for the Heat had advantages. During his reign, Miami reached the NBA finals four times, winning twice. Plus, South Beach is not a bad spot to be, especially  during the winter, when Cleveland features lake-effect snowstorms.

James said his decision transcended sports: “I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously.”

Those words alone must give Cleveland fans much-needed encouragement and hope for better days ahead. If anyone can get it done, James will.

Fortunately for him, and all of those who consider themselves Cleveland sports fans, he might not have to save a city’s reputation by himself. The area already was on a sugar high when the Browns drafted former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, a Heisman Trophy winner known for dramatic plays.

The Browns have been involved in numerous big-play scenarios over the years, but the biggest seemingly  have all gone against Cleveland.  The superstition gained footing in 1981 when Cleveland only needed a field goal to take the lead against Oakland late in an AFC playoff game. But Coach Sam Rutigliano called a pass play that was intercepted. Incredible.

Cleveland again looked to be in good shape against Denver in 1987’s AFC Championship, but John Elway led the Broncos on a 98-yard, game-tying drive in the last 5 minutes. Denver won in overtime, and “The Drive” became part of pro  football lore.

A rematch with Denver the next year was just as crushing when Earnest Byner appeared headed for a game-tying touchdown until he lost the ball at the 2-yard line. The play has long since been referred to as “The Fumble.”

The list of disappointments is long. The Indians won 111 baseball games in 1954 only to be swept by the Giants in the World Series. Remember the over-the-shoulder catch by Willie Mays? Yep, against Cleveland.

The Cavaliers appeared to have Chicago down for the count in the first round of the 1989 NBA playoffs, but Michael Jordan hit a game-winner as time expired and misery reigned in Cleveland once again.

That’s the challenge — and the curse, if you believe in such things — that James has accepted. Maybe this run of incredibly bad luck will finally end. Having the best player in the world is a plus.

If not, Cleveland can count on another hard-to-believe chapter in a book about how things continually go wrong.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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