ESPN 30 for 30: Believeland (2016)

Directed by Andy Billman

When searching for a picture to use for this review, I found it quite difficult. Upon searching Google for “Believeland”, I found a number of relevant sports related images which depicted the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, it was impossible to pick just one to represent the documentary in question here, Believeland, because it would be unfair to two teams to pick a heartbreaking image from just one. The city of Cleveland, Ohio, a city with which I am very familiar living just down Interstate 71 in Columbus, Ohio, is not seen by the American public in a very favorable light. It is an industrial town whose infrastructure suffered after the initial industrial boom in this country. I can say from experience, the city is not as bad as its reputation. It’s also not the best city out there.

Cleveland’s reputation in the sports world is one of pity, or just downright sadness. The football stadium where the Cleveland Browns of the NFL play their home games has even been nicknamed “The Factory of Sadness”. Cleveland sports teams have continuously, consistently and unconscionably produced losing teams for a half century. The Cleveland Indians of Major League Baseball haven’t won a World Series since 1948. The Cleveland Browns of the National Football League haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1964. The Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association have not won an NBA Championship, ever. It would be one thing to harbor a poor team, such as the Chicago Cubs, or the Boston Red Sox for nearly a century, but it’s another thing entirely for one city to feature three such teams, depriving the city of any hope of a championship.

Using the examples of the Cubs, Chicago at least also had the 90s Michael Jordan era Bulls dynasty, the Blackhawks, White Sox and Bears too. Boston have the Celtics, who have won 17 titles since the Cleveland Indians last won a title. And let’s not forget the Patriots and Bruins too. I’ve found people reacting to Cleveland sports as though there are other fans out their who have suffered more, or for Cleveland to “suck it up”, but without experiencing what it means to be a Cleveland sports fan, to be deprived of success for so long, no one can truly relate to these fans suffering. The added insult is the numerous close calls throughout the years, which keep the fans just interested, passionate and supportive enough to continue coming back for more. This film, directed by Cleveland native Andy Billman, is a great document of these various occasions which have, through the years, contributed to the tears of Cleveland fans.

I myself am not a Cleveland sports fan, though I can recall cheering for the Indians in the 90s when they had such great teams. However, many of my friends are Cleveland fans, and as such I have an intimate relationship with this tragic story. As a sports fan my whole life, I have begun to mock Cleveland sports myself, though in recent years, and especially during the experience of this film, I have developed sympathy for Cleveland. It would be easy for me to keep mocking them, but their experience is truly evil. Through the close calls, and the current ineptitude of the Cleveland Browns, there has been nearly nothing to cheer for. The LeBron James betrayal, and his second coming (which might just result in Cleveland’s first championship since 1964), the great Indians teams of the 90s, and Jose Mesa’s blown save, just outs away from a championship. There are all things which would break the heart of any normal sports fan the world over.

And yet, Cleveland fans are some of the most passionate in the country. Through thick and thin, for better or for worse, they show up to support their teams, and are lifelong fans. A championship will come, hopefully sooner rather than later, and I can’t think of a city or fan base more deserving. What Believeland manages to accomplish is to show the country what it means to be from Cleveland, not just merely be a Cleveland sports fan. Seeing the situation from the outside is one thing, but experiencing what this type of losing is like from the inside, hearing from devout Cleveland fans and their stories from the most tragic events in their town’s sports history, really brings about the right amount of sympathy while also allowing people to realize just how unlucky and unfortunate the Cavaliers, Browns and Indians have been over the years. By striking a balance between drumming up sympathy for Cleveland, while also not making it seem like we need to necessarily feel sorry for Cleveland, Andy Billman has crafted a balanced and entertaining film.

*** – Good

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