CLEVELAND - Brendan Walton is the owner of A.J. Rocco’s, a cafe and bar located within walking distance of Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland, where the Cavaliers play. In his 17 years of owning the business, Walton has never seen a night like the evening of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cavs and the Golden State Warriors.
By the time the game tipped off in Oakland at 9 p.m. ET, A.J. Rocco’s was already at capacity. Walton spent most of the evening working the door while his wife charged an extra dollar for every domestic beer that evening - not that any of the Cavaliers fans minded. That evening, their team ended a 52-year championship drought for the city of Cleveland.
The celebration continued a few days later when the Cavs returned home for their championship parade, and fans packed A.J. Rocco’s once again. Walton estimates Game 7 and the parade accounted for 20 percent of his total revenue in 2016.
The Cavaliers head into Game 6 against the Boston Celtics needing to win the next two games to return to the NBA Finals. However their season ends, LeBron James enters free agency this summer. For more than a year, there have been whispers around the league that he will consider leaving once again, this time for Los Angeles, Houston, or Philadelphia.
Folks like Walton have two concerns: how James’ departure will impact the Cavaliers, and how it will affect their business. But Walton believes James will retire in Cleveland.
“They’re renovating the Q for him so he can take ownership of the team in five years,” Walton told theScore. “They’re going to draft his son, and LeBron is going to suit up for him.”
Down the street, Joe Wisniewski, a store manager at sneaker shop The Restock Cleveland, also believes James is staying.
“Nobody is beating Golden State anyways,” Wisniewski said. “Where would he go?”
Originally from Pittsburgh, Wisniewski grew up in Northeast Ohio, and has watched James since he played at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. Even when James signed with the Heat in the summer of 2010, Wisniewski remained a fan and would travel to Miami to watch him.
“People see LeBron’s story as a hometown thing,” Wisniewski said. “They try to play it off like any other athlete, but there’s a uniqueness about his story.”
That uniqueness stems partly from his business impact. Wisniewski remembers what downtown Cleveland was like in the four years after he left the Cavaliers to play for the Heat.
“It was pretty much how everyone paints our city,” he said. “There was no economic growth. There was no improvement on building structures.”
That changed when James came back. A project called nuCLEus is underway in the Gateway District, approved in November 2014. The Q Transformation project is also underway to modernize the 23-year-old arena.
Walk toward East 4th Street - a pedestrian-only strip of restaurants and bars that's filled with Cavaliers fans both before, during, and after games - and you can see the growth of downtown Cleveland. Today, some of the best names in the culinary scene have set up shop there, including Michael Symon’s flagship bistro Lola and his Cleveland-style barbeque restaurant Mabel’s BBQ.
Another popular place on the strip is Pickwick & Frolic, a complex that includes a theater, restaurant, martini bar, and Cleveland’s only champagne bar. Nick Kostis, 75, purchased the space in 1998 and opened Pickwick & Frolic in 2002.
He's watched East 4th Street grow into what it is today, and he says James deserves a lot of the credit.
“LeBron is a walking and talking economy,” Kostis said. “He’s had an impact not only on the franchise but on the city, and also the entire region. He’s more than just a basketball player.”
Kostis grew up in Brooklyn, New York, then attended college in Ohio and remained in the state. When Philadelphia and Los Angeles took out billboards to recruit James earlier this season, Kostis put a message on the 10-foot long digital marquee outside his complex.
The message read: “L.A. and Philly had their say, for all the good that you do, please stay. Number 23."
Over in Ohio City on the west side of Cleveland, Sam McNulty - owner of establishments including Market Garden Brewery, Bar Cento, McNulty’s Bier Markt, Speakeasy, and Nano Brew - has seen that area grow as well. McNulty interned for a local community development corporation while studying urban planning in college and remembers a different Ohio City, with boarded-up buildings, drugs, and prostitution.
“It was a tough neighborhood,” McNulty told theScore. “But you could see the bones of these buildings from the 1800s. The architecture was gorgeous.”
McNulty bet on the area's potential and opened his first beer market in 2003. On one Saturday evening during its first year of business, McNulty remembers just three people hanging out there.
“There was so little traffic that night,” McNulty said. “We went out, stood in the middle of the street, and played catch football.”
Today, all of McNulty’s establishments are packed on Cavaliers game nights. Beyond the business impact of James' return, McNulty thinks he helped change Clevelanders' conception of the city.
“For better or worse, the self-image of this city was always tied to the success of our sports teams,” McNulty said. “The Cavaliers winning the championship in 2016 shifted that conversation. I think a lot of us have started to untangle our self-image with the city’s sports success. Now we can move on and stop beating ourselves up over it. We checked that off our bucket list. We no longer have this baggage. We lost our championship virginity. Now we can just be a great mid-sized city on the north coast of Lake Erie and go about our day.”
McNulty doesn’t think James will leave this summer. “This is where he is most appreciated and most loved,” he said.
On a typical game day, Wisniewski gets visitors to his sneaker store from around the world, including Kuwait, Japan, Thailand, and all across Europe. These are tourists who wouldn't visit Cleveland if it weren’t for a chance to watch James play in person. Wisniewski doesn’t anticipate that James’ potential departure would significantly impact the store’s business (after all, everyone loves sneakers), but he does think the restaurant and hospitality businesses downtown will take a hit.
While Kostis admits it might impact his bottom line, he has no problem if James decides to end his basketball career somewhere else.
“I would hope any resentment would give way to the fact we got to be part of his journey,” Kostis said. “He could have never played here.”
At A.J. Rocco’s, Walton is confident he's built a loyal base of customers after almost two decades of operation in downtown Cleveland - people who will drop by regardless of whether the Cavaliers are competitive in a post-LeBron landscape.
“It would be a little sad,” Walton said. “But we’ll just keep chipping away. Whether it’s playing hoops or running a business, we just have to work harder.”
Kostis is proud of what he’s built with Pickwick and Frolic. He knows Cleveland won’t be the same without James, but life goes on.
“He’s a one and only,” Kostis said. “I would dare say he’s the world’s best athlete. Where do you go from there? That’s a tough act to follow. Will it be the same? Probably not. Will we go away and just wither and die? No."
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Vice Sports, and Complex, among other publications.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)