- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

Two days after their foreclosure-infested city was portrayed as “All Boarded Up” on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the Cleveland State Vikings knocked off 16th-ranked Butler to qualify for the NCAA tournament. These are the same Cleveland State Vikings who last attended the Big Dance in 1986, soon after which the program went on probation for three years and the coach was arrested outside a crack house in the company of a hooker.

If you’ve heard nothing else about Cleveland State basketball, you’ve probably heard the immortal line uttered by eternal rascal Jerry Tarkanian after Kentucky got caught trying to pay a recruit a while back: “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it’s going to put Cleveland State on probation for another two years.”

Actually, if you’ve lived in D.C. awhile, you may also remember that that ‘86 Cleveland State team - led by a feisty freshman guard named Ken “Mouse” McFadden - lost in the Sweet 16 to David Robinson and Navy… by a single point 71-70. Yes, the Midshipmen made their only regional final in the modern era by squashing a Mouse.

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Anyway, any feel-good story is to be welcomed in Cleveland these days, the local economy being what it is. The Times piece paints a brutally bleak picture of abandoned homes being cannibalized - stripped down almost to the studs - by marauding scavengers.

“In December,” the newspaper reports, “just when local officials thought things couldn’t get worse, Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, posted a record number of foreclosure filings. The number of empty houses is so staggeringly high that no one has an accurate count. The city estimates that 10,000 houses, or 1 in 13, are vacant. The city treasurer says it’s more likely 15,000…

“The city’s unemployment rate is now 8.8 percent. Moreover, on some streets so many houses are already vacant that those residents left behind are not necessarily inclined to stay.”

But along come playmaker Cedric Jackson, MVP of the Horizon League tournament, and J’Nathan Bullock, a 240-pound rock of a power forward, and suddenly Cleveland stands for something other than gloom and doom. It stands for Quality Hoops, especially with LeBron James and the Cavaliers taking their most serious run yet at an NBA championship.

Basketball isn’t going to cure the town’s economic ills, but it can certainly improve the esprit de corps. It can dull the pain so many are feeling. It can distract from the problems of the day. Sports, at its best, has always had that capacity, the ability to make folks - for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, a few months - forget their worries.

And Cleveland has plenty of them - not that it’s alone. So, for the longest time, did Cleveland State and the Cavaliers. Not long before State’s coach, Kevin Mackey, wound up in a ditch in 1990 (and took the program with him), the Cavs were run by a cartoon character of an owner who gave away draft picks like they were parking passes.

One such pick ended up being the first overall - and enabled the Lakers, who hardly needed him, to select future Hall of Famer James Worthy. Another time, the owner traded two first-round picks to the 76ers for a nothing-special player, and the Sixers used the second of them to get Moses Malone, who immediately led them to a title.

Back then, NBA general managers would joke that they were afraid to go to lunch because “I might miss a call from Ted Stepien.” But the Cavaliers became respectable after Stepien left, winning 57 games in 1988-89 and 1991-92, and now they have the best record in the conference thanks to LeBron. As for Cleveland State, it already has 25 victories this season and, in the opinion of Butler coach Brad Stevens, is “a terrific team.” Maybe not Sweet 16 terrific but definitely scare-a-top-five-seed-in-the-first-round terrific, possibly even upset-a-top-five-seed-in-the-first-round terrific.

The city, meanwhile, isn’t so terrific. According to the Times, Cuyahoga County “has lost nearly 100,000 people over the past seven years, the largest exodus in recent memory outside of New Orleans.” It wasn’t so long ago, though, that the Cavs were in similarly desperate straits - fans evacuating the arena, the owner stripping the franchise of just about anything of value. Cleveland State, too, was down and out - banned from two NCAA tournaments, a national laughingstock.

And here they are, taking over the sports pages - and in the process reminding battered Clevelanders, if they’re not too preoccupied to notice, that nothing is forever.

Want more Dan Daly? Be sure to check out his new blog, Daly OT

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