Way back in October of 2009, the second episode of 30 For 30, “The Band That Wouldn’t Die” (directed by Barry Levinson!) told the story of the fan-led Baltimore Colts marching band, and how they kept the spirit of football alive in the city after the team moved to Indianapolis. The episode established one of 30 For 30’s recurring themes, about how sports history’s “losers” sometimes have just as much spirit and personality as the perennial champs. But Levinson’s documentary also noted—if only in passing—the capriciousness and illogic of fans. The Colts faithful felt betrayed when Indy stole their team. So they stole Cleveland’s.
Andy Billman’s “Believeland” retells the tale of when Baltimore took the Browns and turned them into the Ravens, but from the perspective of the city that lost the franchise. And if this episode had only been about that—or had just been about the long, troubled history of the Browns—it might’ve been one of the series’ best. Instead, Billman and producer (and main interviewee) Scott Raab split the focus of the film, covering the Browns, the Indians, and the Cavaliers, along with the city’s five-decade championship drought. From scene to scene, “Believeland” is filled with fun anecdotes and moving memories. But on the whole it’s too scattered and incomplete, and lacks the unique angle of “The Band That Wouldn’t Die.”
If the doc does have a hook, it’s best-expressed by Cleveland native Arsenio Hall, who talks about how some of sports’ most memorable moments—John Elway’s last-minute AFC championship drive, a Michael Jordan buzzer-beater, the Marlins winning the World Series in their last at-bat—came at Cleveland’s expense. Every time ESPN or Fox or MLB Network shows a clip of the Atlanta Braves’ one “team of the ‘90s” championship, for example, Clevelanders get to witness their own downfall yet again.
To be fair to Billman and Raab (and to another frequent interviewee Wright Thompson, who wrote the original ESPN The Magazine article “Believeland”), there are really too many fascinating stories of heartbreak in Cleveland sports to stick with just the loss of the Browns. Just taking into account the football team alone, “Believeland” has to cover how owner Art Modell chased away legends Paul Brown and Jim Brown, and how the team’s three best chances to make the Super Bowl after its 1964 NFL Championship (which was the last title the city has won in professional sports), were thwarted by Elway, a goal-line fumble, and an unfortunate choice to forgo a potential game-winning field goal. Add in LeBron James’ decision to leave for Miami, and the Indians’ run of almost-but-not-quite years in the ‘90s, and you have not just a dispiriting record of futility, but failure compounded by its proximity to other failure.
“Believeland” does a good job of explaining why this long dry spell matters, by connecting the decline of Cleveland sports to the decline in the manufacturing sector, and the subsequent decade or so of economic bad news. (Making matters worse: During this same era, the equally depressed Pittsburgh was the home to the dominant Steelers and a resurgent Pirates.) And like so many of the “sympathy for the losers” 30 For 30 episodes, “Believeland” is sensitive to the arbitrariness of outcomes in sports, and tries to make sure that one-time Cleveland heroes like LeBron, butterfingered running back Earnest Byner, and even Modell are remembered for what they did for the city, and not for the times when they failed.
But it’s hard not to notice what’s missing from “Believeland,” from the key interview subjects who didn’t participate to the footage that Billman couldn’t license. We don’t hear from LeBron, Bernie Kosar, or Albert Belle. The baseball coverage is largely limited to still photographs and interviews with Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, and manager Mike Hargrove, with only a few of the more widely seen World Series highlights sprinkled in. This is one of the weaker 30 For 30s when it comes to actual sports analysis; instead we get a lot of platitudes about heart, character, and capturing the public’s imagination, and very little about talent, chemistry, or strategy.
That vagueness extends to the larger cultural story that “Believeland” means to tell, about how working class life in the midwest was undermined at the end of the 20th century by the widespread demise of factory jobs. The film mentions that economic disaster and eventual rebound, but the details of Cleveland’s renaissance are sparse (aside from how the mini-boom drove Modell away, because he grew tired of waiting for his turn to reap the benefits of a revitalized downtown). Meanwhile, no mention is made of the controversy over the Indians’ name and logo; and in the focus on “all or nothing” outcomes for the city’s pro sports franchises, “Believeland” gives short shrift to the many years when the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers were competitive and entertaining, even if they didn’t even come close to the finish line.
The main problem with this episode though is that it’s too shapeless to come to any sharp point. There’s a little here about how a legacy of disappointment has been passed down from generation to generation almost as a perverse point of civic pride, and some wry commentary about a town that’s been so used to coming up short that when the Cavaliers won a single playoff series back in 1976, the event was commonly dubbed “the miracle.” But ultimately, there’s just too much material here to do any of it justice. More than anything, “Believeland” should persuade sports fans to root for the Cavs to go all the way this year in the NBA playoffs—in part because the city has suffered enough, and in part because maybe that’ll end all this hand-wringing.
- When next we meet on the 30 For 30 beat, it’ll be for a pre-air review of the already wildly acclaimed miniseries “O.J.: Made In America.” I haven’t seen it yet, although I will be getting an advance screener soon. I loved FX’s American Crime mini “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson,” so I’m very much looking forward to this one. More coming soon.