Long train rides will inspire even the worst writer to put his or her thoughts on paper. In the midst of a 3-hour train to St. Moritz, one conversation with my traveling companions, Ryan and Courtny, gave me the urge to write about a subject that has nothing to do with Switzerland. No, I won’t be giving you details about the beauty of Lucerne or the majesty of the Swiss Alps. Instead, I am going to tell you about my favorite city yet—Cleveland, Ohio.
As I tried to explain to Ryan and Courtny the significance of LeBron returning to the Cavs (Courtny has heard it at least 5 times now), I realized that I can’t articulate it through the spoken word. I get too emotionally worked up. I make claims that if the Cavs win the NBA Finals, it will be the greatest sports story ever (not including things that are bigger than sports, i.e. defeating cancer and winning a championship or things of that nature). In terms of pure sports narrative, I stand by that statement, but as I sit here alone in my room, I can explain my argument for this bold claim. You may not agree with it, but at least you’ll see my perspective.
You think you know struggle?
1964. 27 years before I was born, Cleveland won a championship. Of course, considering the Super Bowl wasn’t even around, it puts a bit of an asterisk next to the NFL Championship that the Browns won. So let’s rewind a bit more to 1948—the last time the Indians won the World Series. Since then, Cleveland has endured more sports heartbreak than any other city in the country.
Sure, the Pirates had 21 straight losing seasons. But right down the road, the Steelers were collecting Super Bowl rings and the Penguins were parading down Boulevard of the Allies after the Stanley Cup.
Cubs fans want to bring up Bartman interfering with a foul ball? Please. It’s a foul ball. Sure, it may have been caught, but instead of blaming your shortstop for the error he had immediately following that incident, you choose to blame the diehard fan who did what 20 other fans were attempting to do. Go ahead and complain about your city’s sports “curse” as you stare at the six NBA trophies sitting in the Madhouse or watch highlights of the Blackhawks record-setting championship season.
Relax, Boston. The Curse of the Bambino is over, but even when the Red Sox were breaking your hearts, you had your GQ QB leading the Pats to numerous Super Bowls and the Celtics have had some of the best players of all time lead your city to championships.
So don’t try to tell me any city has struggled in sports the way Cleveland has—we’ve turned it into an art form.
The Drive. The Fumble. The Catch. The Shot. Red Right 88. Those are just the heartbreaks with names. Willie Mays. John Elway. Michael Jordan. Jose Mesa. Those are some of the names synonymous with heartbreak. Heartbreak has become part of the sports culture in Cleveland, Ohio. I wasn’t alive for many of the Browns’ most devastating moments, so I’ll stick to the other two sports in Cleveland. Do you wonder why our fans are so passionate, yet hesitant to hope?
Go ahead and watch Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. One of the clearest memories I have of my childhood is watching that game, KNOWING we were about to win the World Series. This was the year. One of the greatest offensive lineups in the history of the game (seriously, look at the roster) and we were 3 outs away from bringing home the ring. Of course, had we gotten those 3 outs, I wouldn’t be typing this. Jose Freakin Mesa comes into the game and gives up the lead. Local good-guy Tony Fernandez lets a grounder to his left slip under his glove, and all of those champagne bottles in the Tribe locker room remained corked. For a moment, I was stunned. Then little 6-year-old Phil did what many Cleveland fans of all ages did—cried himself to sleep.
Before I move on to basketball, let’s skip forward to 2007 and 2013 for a brief moment. The Indians were the best team in the far-superior American League and had the matchups to beat Boston in the ALCS. When the Tribe took a 3-1 series lead, I remember hearing Mike Trivisonno claim that it was literally impossible for the Indians to blow this series. He was right. We had the two best pitchers in the game on the mound the next two nights. If C.C. Sabathia blew game 5, surely Fausto Carmona would carry us to a game 6 victory. Yet the Indians somehow blew it. The Red Sox predictably swept the Rockies in the World Series, Sabathia left for the Yankees, and Carmona lost all control of his two-seam before eventually being deported. No, seriously. His name wasn’t even Fausto Carmona and he was three years older than his documents claimed.
On to 2013. Everyone knows what a grind it is to even get to the playoffs in baseball. So Cleveland fans were ecstatic when it was announced that there would be two wild card teams and a one-game playoff to get to the divisional series. But in true Cleveland fashion, the Indians miraculously won ten straight games to earn the number 1 seed in the Wild Card Game (which I drove 3 hours to see). Before 2013, this would have meant a divisional series berth. Instead, we lost the first ever one-game playoff series to Tampa Bay. It’s not like we would have won the World Series or anything, but it still has to be mentioned.
At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned how the Browns last won a title in ’64 and the Indians won in ’48. Do you want to know the last time the Cavs won a title? Well, truth be told, we never have. But as a 90’s kid, this didn’t affect my passion for the NBA. The 90’s were possibly the most entertaining era of NBA basketball ever. Rivalries meant fistfights. Every year there was a new contender, but the same champion. I’ll admit it—I was a Michael Jordan fan. I was also a Reggie Miller fan. They were conference rivals, but you had to respect the way they played the game. The passion of the NBA in the 90’s was unmatched.
2003 was supposed to be the rebirth of the NBA. Sure, it had Kobe, but the league needed a fresh batch of superstars. 2003 brought that. And the Cavs were getting the number 1 pick. Carmelo or LeBron? ‘Melo had just led Syracuse to a national title, but LeBron was the hometown hero who had it all. His sophomore year OF HIGH SCHOOL he was already gaining national attention. My sophomore year of high school I was competing with Boo Boo Rivera for the starting job at 2nd base on a .500 baseball team. LeBron was the real deal and everyone knew it.
After the NBA Draft ping-pong ball lottery went our way, Cleveland fans sat anxiously as we awaited the announcement. We all knew it was coming, but it had to come out of David Stern’s mouth for us to celebrate. “With the first pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select LeBron James.” The crowd roars. Season tickets sell out and, suddenly, there was hope in Cleveland. It was hope that rested on the shoulders of an 18-year-old boy, but it was hope nonetheless. He was The Chosen One. King James. The Hometown Hero. It wasn’t going to be a quick process, but fans were just excited to have a fun team to watch and we hoped that eventually, LeBron would lead us to a championship.
The 2007 Eastern Conference Finals put the Cavs against a familiar foe—the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons saw a lot of success in that decade, making multiple NBA Finals appearances and proving that, with the right pieces, it was possible to win an NBA title without any true superstar. They were a group of hard-working, gritty individuals who played as one unit and stepped up when they needed to. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the way Detroit played the game. I also hated them. They knocked the Cavs out of the playoffs the year before, but now it was our turn. Detroit was good, but LeBron was better. In a memorable game 5, with the series tied 2-2, LeBron scored 29 of the Cavs’ final 30 points IN DETROIT to give us the overtime win and a 3-2 series lead.
Game 6 was all but guaranteed. Back in Cleveland, there was no way the Pistons would beat LeBron James and his crew. And you know what? For the first time in a long time, one of those “guaranteed wins” finally went Cleveland’s way. The Cavs ran the Pistons out of the gym as Daniel “Boobie” Gibson dropped 31 points and the Cavs were celebrating their way to the NBA Finals.
Well, that ended quickly. LeBron was clearly out of gas and Gibson lost his shooting touch. Despite a few games that were closer than people remember, the Cavs were swept 4-0. Still, they had gotten over the hump—they made their first Finals appearance with more to come in the next few years.
Then Again, Maybe Not
Freakin Boston. They had just broken our hearts in the ALCS and now their basketball team was a contender. The Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the offseason to join Paul Pierce, and suddenly the Cavs had a much tougher nemesis than ever before. The two teams met in the Eastern Conference Semis. It was one of those series where we would go down, then come back and tie the series. We were constantly fighting back until finally, game 7 came. Despite 45 points from King James, the Cavs were eliminated from the 2008 playoffs. Maybe next year.
66-16. Number one seed in the playoffs. Best player in the world. This was the year. The Cavs steamrolled the Pistons and the Hawks on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals—they won all 8 of those games by 10 points or more. Up next was the Orlando Magic, who had somehow gotten past the dreaded Celtics. Talk about a break—not only were we rested, but we didn’t even have to play against the Big Three in Boston.
Game 1 was a fluke. LeBron scored 49 points but no one else showed up. It was probably just a case of finally facing a decent team trying to prove themselves on the road. The Magic got hot so we had to give them credit. Surely game 2 would be different.
Game 2 wasn’t any different. The Magic stayed hot and the Cavs were in danger of going down in the series 0-2 before traveling to Orlando. Then, it happened. Down by 2 with only a few seconds left, the Cavs inbounded the ball to the best player in the world. LeBron caught the pass, stepped back, and NAILED a fade away 3 to keep the Cavs hopes alive. Series tied 1-1. Season saved.
Unfortunately, Orlando never cooled off. They won game 3 on their home court, then won game 4 in a crucial overtime must-win scenario for Cleveland. The Cavs salvaged game 5, but the series would end in six as the Magic closed it out on their home court. Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis were just too much for the Cavs. Of course, both of them would end up playing horribly in the NBA Finals against the Lakers as Kobe got his easiest ring yet in 2009. That was supposed to be us.
My memory of the 2010 playoffs is quite clouded. Normally I’m a detail-oriented person when it comes to sports, but there is one moment that will always stick out in my mind when I bring up the 2010 Cavs. Every Cleveland fan knows exactly what I’m talking about. The signs were there. LeBron was sick of carrying the team on his back. His effort against Boston in those final games wasn’t the killer attitude we expected of him. He looked disengaged. As much as we hated to admit it, he looked like he was ready for the offseason. Well, Boston was more than willing to send him to the offseason he desired. Then, as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Boston, LeBron started walking off the court while simultaneously taking off his jersey. In that moment I knew he was gone. There was no way he was coming back to Cleveland, and who could blame him? He had weak teammates surrounding him and a coach he didn’t get along with.
Cleveland is a city of subtlety. People outside of Northeast Ohio wonder why we love Cleveland so much, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not a flashy place, and certainly isn’t on anyone’s bucket list. LeBron’s hour-long, self-centered, and downright ridiculous ESPN special was the complete opposite. His pink button down shirt was more fitting for a city like New York or maybe even Miami. Still, despite all of the signs, we remained hopeful.
“Taking my talents to South Beach”
It’s one of the most famous quotes in basketball history. It wasn’t enough to say he was going to play for Miami. He had to “take his talents” there. This was unlike anything we had ever seen before in Cleveland. This wasn’t the type of heartbreak that would leave 6-year-old Phil crying himself to sleep. This was temper tantrum material, people. 6-year-old Phil would have had tears of anger as his favorite athlete ditched his city on national television. Of course, 18-year-old Phil settled for swearing at the TV and burning a jersey in a bonfire. The city responded by immediately tearing down his building-sized mural downtown.
The Party, The Letter, The Cavericks, and The Rings
I know this blog is getting long, so I’m going to speed through the next couple of points. LeBron was already well on his way to becoming the most hated figure in Cleveland sports history (move over, Art Modell). Then he cemented that legacy when he arrived in Miami and made his “taking my talents” quote sound humble. He claimed it would be easy to win with that team. When asked about winning multiple titles, he responded with “not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7, not 8…”
Meanwhile, back in Cleveland, Dan Gilbert wrote an incredibly impulsive letter ripping on not only LeBron as a player, but as a person as well. He said things in that letter that every Cleveland fan was feeling at the time, so of course we all rallied behind him. Fast forward to the actual season.
The Heat rolled through the Eastern Conference and went on to play Dallas in the NBA Finals. They dominated game 1, and Cavs fans were already drinking their sorrows away as they watched their ex enjoy a level of happiness he never had in Cleveland.
Game 2 was more dominance from the Heat. I watched as Dallas got down by 5, then 10. “WADE FROM DOWNTOWN!” D-Wade’s corner 3 put Miami up by 15 with 7 minutes left. Dallas called a timeout as LeBron and Wade celebrated on the court by punching each other in the chest and gloating right in front of the Dallas bench. But Dallas crawled their way back into it as Cleveland fans everywhere were clinging to the hope of a championship evading LeBron James. That’s what it had come to. Behind Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki, The Mavericks (or the Cavericks as we called them) came back and tied the series at 1. The rest of the series went back and forth with plenty of heroics. As game 6 ended and Dallas won its title, it was the closest thing Cleveland had to a championship in a long time.
We mentally regrouped for next season, when the Cavs would once again be terrible but the season was a success as long as the Heat lost. That’s no way to live. At some point you have to let go. When the Heat won the finals in 2012, we finally started to let the hate ease away. The Heat won again in 2013, but that sting wasn’t nearly as bad. But 2014 had to be different.
Cavs fans didn’t want the Heat to lose the 2014 NBA Finals. We NEEDED them to. Because if they lost to the Spurs, maybe, just maybe, LeBron would leave the Heat to come to a younger team like the Cavs. But no one foresaw the pure dominance of the Spurs. In a quick 5-game series, the Spurs won the NBA Finals with the biggest point differential in NBA history, and all of a sudden LeBron was back on the market.
We Have History
Twitter rumors spread like wildfire. Was LeBron actually considering leaving Miami? Could he really come back to Cleveland? There was no way. Josh Teplitz, a personal trainer in Cleveland, broke the story on Twitter that LeBron was definitely coming home. He and other “unreliable” social media sources claimed Dan Gilbert’s plane was heading to Miami to meet LeBron, which began a #PlaneWatch2014 craze. The national media thought we were crazy. We trusted a personal trainer and a parody Cleveland sports account for our information. Maybe we were a bit crazy. But we didn’t care. LeBron’s camp wasn’t squashing any of the rumors, so that was good enough for us. Plus, what Clevelander would be dumb enough to get the entire city worked up about a LeBron comeback if he wasn’t absolutely sure it was happening? This was potentially the biggest moment in Cleveland sports in the last 50 years. You think Bartman feared for his life after the Cubs lost in the playoffs? That is nothing compared to what Teplitz would have gone through if he turned out to be full of BS. Eventually, the national media caught on and started giving Cleveland a shot to land LeBron. Apparently our local sources weren’t as unreliable as people thought.
As we all know now, the rumors that were being spread on Twitter were 100% legitimate. Gilbert and LeBron met in private to settle the past. LeBron really did have a strong desire to come home, and he definitely wasn’t the same LeBron that had left 4 years ago. Finally, the announcement was made official on July 12th. It wasn’t on an ESPN special. Fittingly, the official announcement came on LeBron’s Twitter account, where he sent his followers a link to the Sports Illustrated article that had all of the details. The announcement was subtle. It was humble. The article emphasized hard work and loyalty. It was Cleveland.
Obviously getting LeBron back doesn’t mean Cleveland will win its first title in 50 years. It’s not going to be a quick process. We’re just happy to have a team that will be fun to watch and we hope that eventually, LeBron can lead us to a championship. Only this time our hope isn’t resting on the shoulders of an 18-year-old boy. This time, our hope rests on the shoulders of a 29-year-old man.