30 for 30: Believeland
Distributed by: ESPN Films
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
A little over a year ago, I was bored and found a documentary on ESPN about a football player whose hard life as a kid didn't stop him from going after his dreams. I thought the documentary was well-done, showing the perspective of the player himself, co-players, coaches and even family members, including the father who had abused him as a child. I was amazed and I often check out films in the ESPN 30 for 30 series. This time around, I learned all about Believeland.
Sports fans in Cleveland, Ohio have experienced terrific highs and astounding lows, but are always invested in their teams. The area hosts three major franchises - the Cleveland Indians baseball team, the Cleveland Browns football team and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team - and yet it took them fifty years to bring home a championship trophy. Believeland is an in depth look at the city whose fans believed and the franchises who got them almost there, only to suffer devastating defeats.
It all begins with a look at the rise and fall of industry in the city and its ultimate default in the 1970s. This economic rise and fall had a direct impact on the city's teams, but it is also the reason for such ferocious devotion amongst its sports fans - the idea of hope for their team in the midst of such a hopeless situation. So the pain of these dramatic losses is palpable. As Arsenio Hall points out, Cleveland is probably the only city where you can look up a vague term like The Drive or The Fumble and come up with one of their sports teams. But the documentary doesn't just show the fans' reactions to these moments, it also discusses them with the sportswriters of the times and the teammates themselves.
As a fan of both the New York Mets and the Oakland Raiders, I can feel the pain of many of these fans of Cleveland teams. I'm a diehard fan and have faced so many lean years and almost made its. I totally get it. That's why I cringed in sympathy as my Raiders beat the Cleveland Browns in the 1981 AFC playoff game by two points thanks to The Red Right 88 passing play that was intercepted in the end zone in the final moments of the game. Then there was The Drive of 98 yards in the final minutes of the 1986 AFC playoff game that put John Elway and his Denver Broncos ahead of the Browns by three points to win the game. And The Fumble by running back Earnest Byner at the one yard line that cost the Browns the 1987 AFC Championship against the Broncos. That one was particularly devastating. Byner, discussing the moment began tearing up as if the game was just played yesterday. Who couldn't feel for this man? Of course, The Move was even more devastating, as Art Modell decided to move the Browns to Baltimore in 1995. The Browns returned in 1999, but it just wasn't the same.
And of course, it wasn't all just football that supplied the devastating moments for the Cleveland sports fan. There was The Shot made by Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan to win the 1989 Eastern Conference Game. There was the collapse of the Cleveland Indians in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. And let's not forget The Decision in 2010 that saw LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers and moving to the Miami Heat. Fans reacted rather harshly, burning their LeBron jerseys and vowing to hate him forever.
The version of Believeland I watched had an added piece - the return of LeBron James. All is now forgiven - if not because he returned to his home team, then because of the NBA Championship win in 2016 he helped bring them, finally ending the fifty year drought of championship wins in Cleveland by any sport and bringing hope for the future.
I was mesmerized by 30 for 30: Believeland and its in depth look at Cleveland's half century playoff drought, not just because it the documentary was so well done, but because I am a sports fan...of teams who have experienced pretty devastating droughts themselves. Any sports fan would enjoy watching these 30 for 30 documentaries, but I think Believeland is rather special and definitely deserves to be watched.