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Arts & Culture

Sports Fans and Clevelanders Take a Big-Screen Trip to "Believeland"

photo of Believeland panel

It will probably come as no surprise that one of the biggest hits at the Cleveland International Film Festival this year is a documentary on the pain and anguish that Cleveland sports fans have experienced for decades. WKSU’sKabirBhatia takes a look at the new film, “Believeland.”

Twenty-eight-hundred people packed the Connor Palace Theater for the world premiere of “Believeland”: they watched, cheered and booed throughout the ESPN documentary, which covers five decades of sports heartbreak. Among those appearing in the film is comedian -- and Cleveland native -- Arsenio Hall.

“There are so many memories that the rest of the world puts a ‘t-h-e’ in front of, and it has something to do with our bad day. I mean, literally, you can go on the internet now and you can put in ‘The Drive, football’ or ‘The Shot, basketball,’ and it will be about Cleveland.”

Panel discussion

photo of Red Right 88
Credit NBC Sports
The ESPN documentary "Believeland" chronicles such Cleveland sports follies as "Red Right 88," the play that cost the Cleveland Browns a potential trip to the Superbowl in 1981.

Following the screening, the audience was invited to a panel discussion featuring big names from local sports. The Cleveland Indians’ current VP of Public Affairs, Bob DiBiasio, was one of them.

“You’re in this room tonight only because someone in your family made you a Cleveland sports fan.”

One of the moments in Cleveland sports history that the documentary looks back at is “The Fumble,” which came during the 1988 playoff game that could have sent the Browns to their first Superbowl. Instead, Earnest Byner – at the end of an otherwise-stellar game – was stripped of the ball. He was eventually traded to the Washington Redskins, where he was part of the team that won Superbowl XXVI. During the panel discussion, he talked about his great respect for the Browns teams he played for in the late 1980s.

“We had guys that could step up and step in. We had leadership; we had love. We had coaches that developed us. One of the things that was most difficult in dealing with The Fumble -- and that being the end of the season – was not being able to take that energy and go out the next week and make something out of that energy.”

Football and baseball heartbreak in the '90s
The film spends a great deal of time on Browns owner Art Modell’s turbulent relationships with Hall-of-Famers like Jim Brown and Coach Paul Brown, as well as the move to Baltimore in 1995. Those moments are balanced throughout the film with triumphs like the Cleveland Indians’ comeback of the mid-to-late ‘90s. But in “Believeland,” that ends with Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. The Cleveland Indians’ Bob DiBiasio remembers the party preparations abruptly stopped in the bottom of the 9th.

“There goes the trophy, and there goes the champagne. I’m standing next to the guy that’s etching Chad Ogea’s name on the Most Valuable Player trophy of the World Series. And he gets to the ‘O-G’ in his last name, and then takes out his little screwdriver and take it off the trophy and takes that thing out of the clubhouse as well.”

The Shot
The Indians moved to Jacob’s Field (now Progressive Field) in 1994, the same year the Cavs moved to their current home at what’s now The Q. Guard Craig Ehlo played on the Cavs teams of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. During the panel discussion, he remembered back to the 1989 playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, when Michael Jordan made an unbelievable game-winning shot.

“When Ron Harper looked at me and said ‘you take him,’ I said ‘OK.’ I don’t think a lot of people knew it, but two days earlier I was Michael Jordan on the scout team at practice. And I rolled my ankle trying to pull a move that he pulled. So I had a pretty bad ankle sprain.”

Despite “The Shot,” Ehlo remembers his Cavs era – which included Hot Rod Williams, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price – fondly, as he told WKYC’s Jim Donovan during the “Believeland” panel.

“I think Sports Illustrated said we were ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’”

Donovan: “Who were you?”

Ehlo: “I was Gomer [Pyle], probably.”

photo of LeBron James
Although he's not interviewed in the documentary, LeBron James' story -- from St. Vincent-St. Mary to the Cavaliers to the Heat and back to Cleveland -- gets ample coverage in "Believeland."

  Looking to the future with LeBron
The film closes by looking to the potential that lies ahead for Cleveland’s teams. Ehlo echoed that during the discussion, saying he’s one of many people looking forward to this year’s Cavs in the postseason.

“I will definitely be here for that parade because, no longer how long it’s been that I have not worn a Cavaliers jersey, I’ll always be part of Cleveland’s family.”

That theme of family runs throughout “Believeland.” Scott Raab wrote “The Whore of Akron,” about LeBron James leaving Cleveland for Miami six years ago. He’s interviewed in the documentary while eating lunch with his teenage son in downtown Cleveland. Speaking for the fans, he likens their faith in an eventual championship to religion. And during the panel, he said when that day finally comes, “I think the entire sports world is waiting to tell that story. I don’t know if I could survive such a thing.”

https://vimeo.com/157732750">30 for 30: Believeland (Teaser) from https://vimeo.com/user26677759">ESPN Films Shorts on Vimeo.