In recounting the Cleveland Browns professional football franchise re-locating, at the behest of owner Art Modell, from its home city of 49 years to Baltimore in 1996, the team’s beloved running back Earnest Byner says that it was, for Cleveland, like a losing a member of the family. That is the sort of phrase that will prompt a fuss from the intellectually haughty about how people take sports too seriously, and so be it, because that, as ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary “Believeland” points out again and again, is the city of Cleveland’s relationship to sports; they take it too seriously. That’s why Scott Raab, the doc’s preeminent talking head, wrote a book titled “The Whore of Akron” which referred to Ohio basketball hero LeBron James when he departed the Cleve for South Beach so infamously in 2010. The Whore of Akron? Yeah, that’s taking sports too seriously.
People don’t come to Cleveland, we are told; no, they start in Cleveland and stay there, or leave and come back. It’s not a city of transplants, in other words, it’s a city of Clevelanders, where the city’s fierce connection to its three sports franchises – the Browns, the Indians (baseball) and the Cavaliers (basketball) – is inestimable and inherited. This latter fact is translated in Raab’s interview at some unnamed diner, where he sits with his teenage son who hardly talks, just listening as his dad spins yarns of Cleveland sports misery, how no team has won a championship since 1964, and how each failure to do so seems more gut-wrenching than the last. It’s as moving an image as it is terrifying, an assimilation of fandom heartbreak.
The first half-hour of Andy Billman's film is its best, and some of the best material of any of the 30 for 30 documentaries, focusing on connecting the trajectory of Cleveland's up and downs as a city to the successes and failures of its sports teams. Author Wright Thompson explains this in swift detail, how the city boomed during its postwar manufacturing period of the 50’s, mirroring the glorious rise of Paul Brown’s Browns (which were named for him) before Brown was forced out and the team’s fortunes begin to collapse in the 60’s and on into the 70’s, just like the city’s gradual industrial decline. This is an intriguing connection ripe for being “Believeland’s” central subject, but Billman is oddly content with this informational appetizer rather than continuing to track the economic ebbs and flows of Cleveland in conjunction with the city’s fragile sports psyche.
Instead “Believeland” forsakes the tantalizing possibilities of fusing civics with sports to simply go the way of so many 30 for 30 docs by devolving into a glorified highlight reel - or, I should say, a lowlight reel, since most of what's shown here chronicles all of Cleveland’s athletic failures so infamous they generally go by individual, capitalized names like The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot. This is little more than a rolodex of pain, one content to settle for mostly banal observations from its interviewees that all essentially boil down to the chestnut “I Couldn’t Believe It”.
The doc gets its mojo back, a little, near the end, when it returns to the famous subject of LeBron James spurning Cleveland (in a horrific television special that was produced by ESPN which conspicuously goes unmentioned cuz Bristol, CT ain’t about the introspective state, see) only to return several years later and how that idea relates, as Wright Thompson puts it, to the daughters and sons saddled with guilt for leaving Cleveland too. But this is not really scrutinized, just suggested, raised and then moved aside for more reminiscences that, specific details aside, could, frankly, be about any team in any city. Cleveland, we are told, who is resolutely itself, and yet, by the end, Believeland could be Anytown USA.