CLEVELAND: Scott Ciccantelli sat patiently in a small Prospect Avenue parking lot in his fire-engine-red Chevrolet HHR, smartphone at one side as he fiddled on his tablet.
Just waiting. Waiting like everyone else.
The wait ended Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena. But before the game, Northeast Ohio officially welcomed Akron native LeBron James back home to the Cavaliers, the team that drafted him No. 1 in 2003.
Ciccantelli, a Stow resident, watched as a throng of people bided their time, waiting to get into a parking lot that bordered Prospect and Huron avenues where hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar and rockers Imagine Dragons were scheduled to play a concert before the 8 p.m. tipoff against the New York Knicks. Unfortunately, the Knicks eventually spoiled the party, winning 95-90.
The entrance line snaked around a fence that ran along the lot and split in both directions on Prospect. In one direction, it went down to East Ninth Street. Ciccantelli, who arrived at noon to claim a cherished parking spot, understood the allure.
“You know what I think it is?” he said. “LeBron is such a likable guy and he represents all of Northeast Ohio, even down to Cincinnati and Columbus, and I think a lot of people can get behind that. He’s a good guy, he represents us well and we support him.”
The magnitude of the event was such that it wasn’t lost on those who formerly played for Cleveland sports teams. Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar was seen roaming the arena and former wide receiver and Cleveland native Joe Jurevicius, who played for the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before ending his career with the Browns, was pumped for the return of the king.
“This is the biggest thing happening [in Cleveland sports],” he said.
It would be difficult to disagree with him.
James is seen as the best hope for ending a 50-year championship drought in Cleveland. Given the commercial that Nike released Tuesday morning, James’ conciliatory demeanor in it and the business-like tone he sets, he knows it.
“The film celebrates LeBron’s homecoming. It was filmed locally and brings the city of Cleveland together with LeBron to kick off the season,” Nike spokeswoman Lisa Beachy said.
Those who’ve witnessed the mediocrity and heartbreak associated with pro sports in Northeast Ohio understand that.
Bruce Drennan, host of Drennan Live! on SportsTime Ohio, has occupied a spot on Northeast Ohio’s airwaves for more than 35 years in some form or fashion. As he hosted his show just outside the arena’s doors, he just absorbed the atmosphere, bass blaring from portable D.J. booths and crowds roaming about.
“The only thing that comes close was the first time we were in the World Series in ’95 against Atlanta,” he said. “There was a buzz because we had such an awesome lineup. But the anticipation of an Opening Day game there has been nothing like this.”
As far as where it ranks in recent Cleveland sports history?
“It’s right up there with that World Series in ’95, no question about it,” he said.
The grumbling few
Not everyone displayed a celebratory mood.
Ticket scalpers who plied their trade across the street from the arena grumbled about Cavs owner Dan Gilbert affecting the secondary ticket market with FlashSeats.com, a company he owns.
Clint, a scalper from Lorain who declined to give his last name, lamented that some people are being left out of the celebration.
“It hurts poor black people,” he said. “It leaves out people who supported this team when they were losing.”
At least he was honest enough to acknowledge his motives weren’t completely altruistic.
If that was the only grumbling done Thursday, that probably bodes well.
James represents the reason that people such as Dillon Loomis, 25, of Erie, Pa., who gambled by purchasing season tickets with his buddies, will return. It shows the gravity that James has to pull people from all over.
“I’m not a world traveler who goes to all of these different events, but this is different,” Loomis said.
Thursday night was just the beginning of what could be a wonderful ride not seen in Northeast Ohio in 50 years.
“We like to be a part of the party,” Stow’s Ciccantelli said. “I think that’s why everybody’s here — to celebrate.”
Gathering in Akron
In Akron, the Game Grill & Bar at Canal Park was the site of two watch parties hosted by the Canton Charge, the Cavaliers’ development team.
“We’re just looking for Cavs fans to come out and watch the game with a lot of like-minded folks,” said Charge ticket sales manager Wes Warne as he greeted partygoers at the door.
Fans were offered a choice between a Cavs T-shirt and a Kyrie Irving bobblehead. Inside, Charge cheerleaders mingled with the crowd and added to the game-time ambience.
Being around “like-minded folks” is exactly why lifelong friends Ryan Bevere, Michael Lavery and Nathan McLaughlin made the trip from Massillon.
“Ya gotta dig the atmosphere,” said Bevere, 17. “You can’t sit at home and watch it.”
Added 18-year-old Lavery: “We wanted to be here for the turning point in Cleveland sports history.”
Sitting at the bar waiting for the game to start, Mike and Tammi Dannemiller of Cuyahoga Falls were bemoaning the fact that their son won tickets to the game in a lottery but failed to take either of them.
“I wish I was at the game, but this is closer to being to the game” than sitting at home, Mike Dannemiller said.
As they snacked on a plate of fried appetizers, they watch a wall-mounted TV filled with cheering crowds 40 miles up the road.
“It’s nice to see all the fans and all the excitement going on in Cleveland,” Tammi Dannemiller said.
On the far end of the bar, Dee Shilling of Youngstown sipped a “Cavs Long Island,” colored red for the team, while friend Craig Wilson of Mayfield drank a “classic $2 Bud Light.”
Both were expecting Thursday night to be just the beginning.
“We’re hoping for a championship year,” Wilson said.
But for the moment, they were simply enjoying the camaraderie of being surrounded by fans who shared their journey from heartbreak to hope.
“The atmosphere, the TVs, the great seats, the free T-shirts, the Canton Charge,” Shilling said. For those who couldn’t be at the game, “why not be here?”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.