Howes: Gilbert’s Cavaliers, Ford win big for Rust Belt

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The Rust Belt got a little revenge Sunday.

Not against the foreign competition and trade deals that have reordered lives, restructured companies and reshaped the region’s economic landscape over the past 40 or so years. But against the gods who long ago buried its Golden Age of the 1960s, consigning Detroit’s auto industry and, especially, Cleveland’s big-league franchises to ignominy and ridicule.

The also-ran status of Detroit metal, marked by bankruptcy and massive job losses, is only recently undergoing revival. Cleveland’s culture of losing home teams weighs on at least two generations — so much so that cynics could be forgiven for believing the Cavaliers, owned by Detroit mogul Dan Gilbert, couldn’t possibly, finally, end the city’s 52-year championship drought.

Except they did. LeBron James led his Cavaliers back from a three-games-to-one deficit to win Game 7 and the NBA title, the first championship for Cleveland since the ’64 Browns. Just hours before, Ford Motor Co. GTs finished first, third and fourth in their class in the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race.

Different sports, yes, but the parallel victories deliver similarly emphatic statements: namely, Rust Belt institutions given up for dead are very much alive, able to compete at the highest levels, and to win. Sweet? You bet.

Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. says the Blue Oval “dared to dream” it could return to France and “take on the toughest competition in the world.” It believed it could recreate the handiwork of his uncle, Henry Ford II, and 50 years later repeat its victory over Ferrari in a clash of automotive titans.

Sunday proved dreams can come true. For Ford, yes. For Cleveland, the die-hard fans of Northeast Ohio, and the diaspora of natives (like me) who left for opportunities elsewhere, the Cavs’ championship is huge, a relief, a long-time-coming validation.

Losing, or winning and then losing the Big One — to the Denver Broncos because of “The Drive” or “The Fumble” in the AFC championships, to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, or to the Golden State Warriors last year — are the stuff of cruelly repetitive legend.

In northeast Ohio, certainly. On ESPN’s Sports Center, on talk radio, and in a state that’s seen national championships won by the Ohio State Buckeyes and two Super Bowl appearances lost by the Cincinnati Bengals.

For decades, Cleveland’s teams manufactured disappointment and heartbreak in eerily equal measure. Missed trips to the Super Bowl three out of four consecutive playoff years in the late ’80s, courtesy of John Elway and the Broncos. Art Modell spiriting the storied NFL Browns to Baltimore in 1995, essentially in the middle of the night. Blown World Series. Botched, injury-marred NBA finals.

The serial disappointments are epic. So much so that the obituary of one Scott Entsminger, 55, carried in the Columbus Dispatch three years ago, said he “respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pallbearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.”

Until Sunday. In the waning seconds, Kyrie Irving drains a three-pointer. I’m absolutely sure I wasn’t the only Ohio native standing, thrusting fists into the air and yelling, “Finally!” When time expired, Cleveland got the championship Dan Gilbert hoped Akron-born LeBron James would deliver when he came home from Miami.

Lions fans, of course, understand the anguish. They haven’t seen an NFL championship since 1957. They’ve seen only one playoff win, in 1991, since. The team’s culture of losing, institutionalized when Bill Ford’s dad controlled the team, has yet to be permanently, provably excised.

All that said, Detroit has garnered far more big-league success than Cleveland, its neighbor on the south shore of Lake Erie. Twenty-five consecutive seasons in the playoffs for the Red Wings, including four Stanley Cups since 1990; an ’84 World Series win for the Tigers and other post-season wins; and three NBA championships for the Pistons.

When it comes to big-league sports laments (save the dubious distinction that neither city has seen its NFL team in the Super Bowl), Detroit has nothing on Cleveland. It’s in a class by itself — not unlike the Rust Belt whose caricature, rooted in the gritty early ’80s, does not so much reflect reality today.

Gilbert is betting his prodigious fortune on the fact that his hometown of Detroit, and his adopted hometown of Cleveland, offer more opportunity than conventional wisdom might appreciate. Winning can do nothing but bolster his proposition.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.