- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 28, 2009

CLEVELAND

The Nike billboard that bears the larger-than-life image of LeBron James and the slogan “We Are All Witnesses” still hangs from a building downtown, about a half a block up from Quicken Loans Arena, like a glowing beacon of hope to the tortured fans.

For 45 years Cleveland fans have watched, waited, suffered and watched, waited and suffered some more as one team after another disappointed and dashed their championship hopes. They proclaimed this year to be different. This would be the year of destiny, when LeBron James with the Cavaliers on his back would vanquish all the years of suffering and deliver a championship.

Those hopes appear to have taken a serious hit; with a loss Tuesday, James and Co. fell behind 3-1 to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals. But as the series shifts back to Cleveland on Thursday night with the Cavaliers a defeat away from elimination, the belief remains that King James still can bring salvation.

“I believe in LeBron James. The whole city does. It’s united. Rich, poor, black, white, Puerto Rican, everybody,” says Cleveland taxi cab driver John Walker, 61. “We haven’t had a championship since Jim Brown and the Browns won in ‘64. I was there. It was a cold day, 80,000 screaming fans. Imagine what it’d be like if LeBron wins it for us this year. After all these years?”

Taking account not only their sports franchises’ droughts but also the state of the economy - this city has been hit hard, leaving downtown storefronts vacant, residents out of work and others homeless - people here say their city needs a title now more than ever.

“Man, this city is depressed. You get a look at it,” says lifelong Cleveland resident Marvin Connors, who is both jobless and homeless. “LeBron bringing us a championship is more than just basketball. If he brings us a championship, I think it will bring something nice that we’ve never had in Cleveland. It will bring businesses in here, help with the economy. When they made it to the finals the last time, I had a job for three days just cleaning up from the celebration. Maybe he wins a title and businesses will feel like he wants to stay, and they’ll want to come in here, too. That means jobs.”

James may be only a basketball player, but Cleveland residents and sports fans have heaped lofty expectations on him from the minute the Cavaliers won the NBA Draft lottery in spring 2003.

James, from nearby Akron, had been pegged since his junior year of high school as the NBA’s “Chosen One,” the player who finally would take up Michael Jordan’s mantle. The Cavaliers saw him as the messiah for their struggling franchise.

“If they hadn’t gotten LeBron, the Cavaliers would’ve been sold away from here,” 37-year-old Cleveland native Scott Jefferson says while watching a playoff game at Local Heroes Grill & Bar. “I remember that day they got the top pick in the lottery. I was working a fair, Weird Fest, and the news came out, and everybody was running around cheering.”

Since then the Cleveland faithful have waited and watched, not hoping but rather expecting James to bring them multiple championships, and James seemingly has embraced the challenge and remained undaunted by the weight on his shoulders.

“It is a lot of pressure and lot of higher expectations, every night, game by game, day by day. I don’t know he handles it,” teammate and former Maryland star Joe Smith says. “He stays pretty much levelheaded. He likes to joke and have fun, but still, when he takes that floor, he goes out there and wants to get it done. I don’t know how he handles it.”

Four years into his pro career, James had the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, and although they got swept by the San Antonio Spurs, fans got what they believed was a taste of things to come both in the form of the long-awaited success on the basketball court and a morale boost around the city.

The Cavaliers were eliminated by the Celtics in last season’s conference semifinals, and to return to the finals they must pull off a feat only eight teams have done before - rebound from a 3-1 series deficit.

But another NBA Finals appearance won’t be enough, Cleveland residents say.

Sure, they’ll be happy, and businesses expect at least a temporary boost in the economy should the Cavaliers advance. But the 45-year-old curse won’t be vanquished until James hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

“He’s got to win a championship,” Duane Hamilton says. “Reaching the finals is nice, but man, we’ve been suffering so long.”

“Yeah,” Jefferson agrees. “From the Browns reaching the 2-yard line and John Elway going 98 yards to win the [1987 AFC championship] game to the Indians two runs up with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and losing the [1997] World Series? It’s time. There’ll be a celebration if they make it to the finals this year, but not like it will be if they win it. It’s gonna be like it was in Chicago when [Barack] Obama won the election. That’s what it will look like here.”

Jefferson and Hamilton both have jobs, but they agree the city of Cleveland will only prosper if James can string together a Jordanesque championship resume, which is what they believe it will take for James to remain in Cleveland and not pursue free agency in the summer of 2010.

“If he starts winning rings and Danny Ferry keeps putting pieces around him, there’s no reason for him to leave,” Hamilton says. “His goal is to become a global icon. He can do that here. People all over the world buy his jerseys. We need him here, though. He’s all Cleveland’s got. He’s finally giving Cleveland that global recognition we deserve. Whenever you hear people talk about this city, it’s not in a good way - it’s almost like a joke. He’s giving us a reason for pride.”

The Cleveland fans soon will learn just how proud of James they can be and exactly what they are witnesses to this season: another disappointment or the long-awaited relief.

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