- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

The 37-season history of the Cavaliers embodies in part the struggles and hard times of the city that they calls home.

The Cavaliers hit bottom in the early ‘80s and again 20 years later before a measure of hope was restored with the selection of LeBron James in the 2003 draft.

That period saw the city in steep decline, notwithstanding the revitalization of the downtown that includes the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Lake Erie, the impressive homes of the Browns, Indians and Cavaliers, fancy lofts with water views and restaurants and watering holes that cater to tourists, conventioneers and the postgame crowd.

Yet visitors who veer off the destination points of downtown find vast swaths of Cleveland so devoid of life and activity that a bomb-packing terrorist could detonate himself and not produce a single casualty.

Cleveland has been trying to reinvent itself since the ‘70s, when its steel- and manufacturing-based economy began to go belly up and the exodus to the suburbs shifted into overdrive.

Cleveland is now a city of fewer than 500,000 residents, down from its population high of 914,808 in 1950, and its future remains an ongoing source of concern among city officials and social planners.

It is the poorest big city in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and its financial bleakness goes with its tortured sports past.

Clevelanders have not celebrated a championship since the 1964 Browns of Jim Brown and Frank Ryan.

The drought has been punctuated by memorable playoff events that torment the faithful still: John Elway’s 98-yard touchdown drive, Earnest Byner’s fumble and Michael Jordan’s shot over Craig Ehlo.

No identifying names are actually necessary with Clevelanders. These disheartening moments in Cleveland sports lore are known simply as “The Drive,” “The Fumble” and “The Shot.”

Perhaps the sense of fatalism in Cleveland’s sports fans is being purged with the Cavaliers ascent to the NBA Finals.

It is the organization’s first trip to the NBA’s grandest stage, and no amount of Leastern Conference references are about to dampen the upbeat mood of the faithful.

Clevelanders have a genuine star to embrace in the 22-year-old James, whose tendency to whine if a referee’s call does not go his way disturbs only those with a rooting interest in the opposition.

They are proud to be “Witnesses” of the Annoying One.

Nike’s advertising campaign is annoying, too.

These are minor complaints to what is an otherwise uplifting development for a hard-luck city trying to find its way in the high-tech age.

The city could use the good cheer more than most municipalities.

And it can find a modicum of encouragement in the travails of the Cavaliers.

The organization did not reach this point easily after joining the NBA as an expansion team in the 1970-71 season and staggering to a 15-67 record at the 11,000-seat Cleveland Arena.

The team moved out to the hinterlands of Richfield, Ohio, about 30 miles south of the city, before the 1974-75 season. The move coincided with the departure from the city of nearly 200,000 residents in the ‘70s.

The franchise endured the troubled ownership period of Ted Stepien in the early ‘80s, when he threatened to hold “home games” in Pittsburgh and Buffalo and later threatened to move the team to Toronto.

Bad teams and bad marketing resulted in dismal attendance figures, none worse than the 3,916 average in the 1982-83 season.

The Gund brothers, Gordon and George, rescued the Cavaliers before the 1983-84 season and made a commitment to keep the team at Richfield Coliseum.

They also set the front-office foundation that led to the securing of Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Larry Nance. Those teams peaked with 57 wins in both 1989 and 1992, only to have each trip to the playoffs end in disappointment to the Jordan-led Bulls.

Jordan’s shot over Ehlo in 1989 remains a highlight staple of ESPN.

The Cavaliers returned to a newly built facility in the city in 1994 and, along with the Indians playing next door at Jacobs Field, have brought economic vitality to the urban core.

The emergence of the Cavaliers remains incomplete.

Even so, the team and the city finally have something to shout about.

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