“The Shot.” “The Fumble.” “The Drive.”
They’re all curse words in a Clevelander’s vernacular – each with their own chapter in the heartbreak of a long-tormented sports city. But after June 19, only one word matters to native Clevelanders such as Ches Helmick – champions.
Helmick, Vice President of the Rotary Club of Hillsville and a financial advisor for Edward Jones in Galax, was back in his native city on Father’s Day. There was no way he was going to miss a chance to see the Cleveland Cavaliers’ dramatic Game 7 victory June 19 over the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship, ending a 52-year pro championship sports drought for the Ohio city.
“Born and raised in Cleveland, I don’t have a choice when people ask me who I’m a fan of – I’m a Browns’, Indians’, Cavs’ and Ohio State fan,” Helmick said. “Growing up in Cleveland, a blue-collar town such as that, you are a fan of the teams your father and grandfather were fans of, and you are told the heartache and you lived through it.”
At the tender age of 31, Helmick is one of the lucky ones – sort of. He didn’t have to suffer the full torture of the 52-year title drought. And he was certainly too young to remember the gut-punches to Clevelanders known as “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” and “The Shot.” That really doesn’t matter though, not when those moments have been engrained into the very DNA of every Cleveland sports fan. It’s also why the scene in Cleveland was pure, unadulterated pandemonium after the Cavaliers made history – the only team in NBA Finals’ history to come back from a 3-1 deficit.
“I think what made it amazing was not just the euphoria of the win, but also the fact it happened on Father’s Day. The whole Believeland documentary (on ESPN) was a father telling the story of Cleveland sports to his son,” Helmick said. “It was so amazing it happened on Father’s Day because it was truly a moment where fathers and sons came together and had an emotional moment on a day that’s all about honoring a father.”
Breaking the curse goes much further than sports though. Helmick knows all too well the pain of a Clevelander – a place often derogatorily called the “Mistake on the Lake,” and a city in the nation’s Rust Belt that has lost thousands upon thousands of jobs along with a once-booming automobile industry. Those factors made it much harder to swallow when NBA superstar and local legend LeBron James left the Cavaliers at the altar to “take his talents to South Beach.” After winning a pair of NBA titles with the Miami Heat, James reversed the city’s down-spiraling fortunes two years ago when he decided to return home to the Cavaliers.
“To win it with a hometown kid really put the icing on the cake. People have always made fun of Cleveland, ‘The Mistake on the Lake.’ When LeBron first left town, $100 million in revenue left downtown with him because of the fan base not coming any more,” Helmick said. “LeBron’s ‘Decision’ had a huge financial impact. It’s kind of the feeling you have in Galax when kids and grandkids want to leave because the opportunity isn’t there for them. I understood why he left, but I told all my friends until he brought a championship to Cleveland, LeBron James was dead to me.”
All of those factors and all of those past Cleveland sports heartbreaks also explain why Helmick would not allow himself to celebrate until the clock hit triple zeroes in Cleveland’s title-clinching 93-89 victory.
“The Believeland documentary captured it a little, but to live it, when Kyrie Irving hit that 3-point shot with 52 seconds left, I didn’t cheer,” Helmick said. “I have been in that situation before and had my heart broken. Even when LeBron had the block and went up for the dunk that would have won it, he comes down holding his wrist. I was like, ‘This is our luck. He just broke his wrist and now Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson is going to come down and hit a 3-pointer and here we go again.’ That’s the mindset – waiting for the epic collapse and to have our hearts broken again at the last second.”
Only it didn’t this one glorious time. So as soon curse was killed, Helmick raced along with his wife from the restaurant across the street to the watch party near Quicken Loans Arena. Joining in the massive celebration, Helmick even made it on ESPN’s SportsCenter briefly that night. And so far, the party hasn’t stopped.
“They said 1.3 million people came to town for the parade. The population of Cleveland is only about 400,000, so they had fans from all around the county come to Cleveland just for the parade,” Helmick said. “As soon as the game ended I went online and bought a t-shirt that said ‘Won before I die.’ I am at a conference in Virginia Beach right now and every person that has walked by with a Cleveland shirt or hat, I have either hugged them or high-fived them – almost a week after the game.”
In the days that have followed Cleveland’s NBA championship, numerous stories have been written covering all angles of the historic moment. The one aspect that has not gotten as much attention, the one Helmick loves, is how the title will hopefully serve as inspiration for an entire city.
“I think it gives the city of Cleveland and even the young people a little more hope that if a kid from your city here can make it as one of most wealthy and recognized athletes in the world, maybe I can get out of my situation,” Helmick said. “That is story that hasn’t been covered yet, that I don’t have to be a byproduct of the mistake by the lake.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN