ESPN Doc ‘Believeland’ Helmed by True Believer

When Andy Billman went to work for ESPN, he was the first Cleveland fan that many of his co-workers had met.

“They would ask me, ‘How do you handle it,” said Billman, who hasn’t lived in the Cleveland area since his infancy but retains strong ties with local sports teams.

Billman had worked as a producer for ESPN, a role he had with multiple installments of the network’s “30 for 30” series. But he moved into the director’s chair for “Believeland,” an installment set to premiere March 31 at the Connor Palace Theater in Playhouse Square as part of the 40th annual Cleveland International Film Festival. There will be another showing at the film festival, on April 6 at the Tower City Cinemas downtown, and the program is scheduled to air at 9:30 p.m. May 14 on ESPN.

The project was originally supposed to be helmed by Kris Belman, director of “More Than Just a Game,” a documentary about LeBron James. It was supposed to premiere in 2014, the 50th anniversary of the last title won by a Cleveland team, the Browns’ upset victory over the Colts in the NFL Championship Game – two years before the first Super Bowl.

But Billman replaced Belman in July 2014, and his film tells the story of how the sports teams in Cleveland mirrored the fate of the city: Powerhouses in the 1940s and 1950s, punchlines in the 1970s, and just good enough since to spark talk of a comeback – a comeback that still isn’t complete but is still talked about today as the city prepares for the Republican National Convention in July.

Billman was born in Elyria, but his family moved to Roanoke, Va., while he was a baby. Even then, he remained a Cleveland sports fan, thanks to the intercession of his father. After nearly a decade in Virginia, the family returned to Ohio. Billman went to Bishop Watterson High School in Columbus and the University of Toledo, but his loyalty to the Browns, Cavs and Indians remained.

As a child, his family would make a return trip to Cleveland annually to try to attend at least one sporting event. He can be heard audibly laughing during an interview with Arsenio Hall when the comedian and Cleveland native talked about an event common to all Indians fans who were kids the 1980s: Racing down empty rows at Cleveland Stadium putting up chairs. “We used to have relay races,” Billman said.

Hall is one of the people interviewed for the film. Others include broadcasters Jim Donovan and Tom Hamilton; journalist Tony Grossi, media personality Tony Rizzo; and Hank Aaron, who talks about how he would try to go to a Browns game every year. Among the players interviewed are Earnest Byner (who still gets teary about The Fumble nearly 30 years later; I wanted to give him a hug), Kevin Mack, Kenny Lofton and Craig Ehlo.

Also interviewed is David Modell, the son of former Browns owner Art Modell. He defends his father’s decision to move the Browns to Baltimore, and Modell comes off a little more like a victim than most Cleveland fans would appreciate – but not necessarily by design, Billman said.

“I didn’t want to present him as sympathetic,” Billman said. “I just wanted to tell the entire story.”

Reality almost offered a ready-made happy ending for Billman, who was in Cleveland filming the documentary during the NBA Finals last year. “I would have loved to have taped the parade,” he said.

But the Cavs couldn’t overcome injuries and the Warriors, succumbing in six games. Outside the arena, Billman was prepared for the worst – and was shocked by what he saw. “It was a semi-celebration,” he said. “You’re waiting for burning couches, and people were dancing in the streets.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s kind of what we do.”

And that’s the message he wants to impart – and mostly does in the movie. Yes, John Elway hitting Mark Jackson in the end zone at Cleveland Stadium is hard to watch. So is Jordan over Ehlo at the old Richfield Coliseum. And the clips of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series in the movie are the first time I’ve watched any of the game since it was played. But being a Cleveland fan means appreciating those players and teams – even if they didn’t come home with a trophy – a shared bond that can be almost as deep as family, and optimism to the point of delusion.

“I hope people get some gratification from this,” he said. “We live in Connecticut, and I have three sons, and I hope they all grow up to be Cleveland fans.”

Photo: Cleveland Memory Project


***editor’s note: This story originally posted on March 16, 2016, at 11:00 AM.

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