Category Archives: Cleveland Cavaliers

Well, That Was a Thing that Happened


The day after “The Decision,” almost exactly four years ago, we went to my wife’s friend’s house for lunch. Her husband is a sports guy, and, Cleveland fans being a novelty in New Jersey, I knew I was going to have to talk about it. And talk and talk and talk. I certainly got sick of explaining what it’s like to be a Cleveland fan in those days—some of the ideas I’ve laid out here—and how this thing, much as it sucked, kind of fit. It made sense in the frame of a cosmic self-pity.

So this past Saturday, I went out for bagels at home in Brooklyn wearing my Cavs hat, as I’ve done here and there for a couple of weeks, since it appeared on the top of the pile in the closet. It’s a blue and orange late-80s throwback, from the last time the Cavs were remotely relevant pre-LBJ. If you don’t remember those teams, they were basically that era’s version of today’s Pacers—a balanced, well-oiled regular season machine undone in the playoffs by a transcendent talent (ask Craig Ehlo about that). A guy at the bagel place started up, and the talking began again. Different tone this time, of course—whether they should give up Wiggins for Love—but the same curiosity about what is going on inside the head of a Cavs fan. I can’t speak for all of us, especially people actually in Cleveland, who I’m sure experienced these ups and downs differently than a person like me. You see, I left Cleveland, too. And unlike Lebron, I have no intention of going back (outside of visiting my parents and taking my son to Cedar Point when he’s old enough to appreciate The Gemini). But I can speak for myself about what it’s like to be on the fringes of the most unusual sports narrative of recent decades.

All that talking four years ago did help me eventually articulate what I thought hurt so much about The Decision for a Cleveland fan. And the intervening four years—miserable basketball and management and bizarre, probability-vortex luck—helped me get over it. Even then, I couldn’t really blame the man. That 2010 Cleveland team was crap and had little capacity to improve (despite, according to sources now, LBJ’s best recruiting efforts). As I’m sure all now realize, the pain of the The Decisionwas a product of tone-deafness, though describing it that way is a bit of an understatement. He was supposed to be The One—both hometown boy and the best in the world. We hoped that he “got it,” that he could realize that he somehow meant more to the city than putting a round ball in a hoop. This idea, of what sports means to Cleveland, was best articulated in Wright Thompson’s Believeland Outside the Lines piece for ESPN—to this day the single best piece of sportswriting about Cleveland I’ve ever read. The hangover of its peak, as a hub of early-century manufacturing, came in the 1970s—The Mistake by the Lake. The city’s recovered from that, with ups and downs along the way, but it has never stopped bleeding away the trappings of urban significance. Its status as a three-sport town, despite a population smaller than Jacksonville, Albuquerque, Omaha, and Tulsa, was a callback to its glory days, one of the things that kept Cleveland from just fading away. We mustn’t forget the art museum, symphony, universities, hospitals, etc., but those don’t nearly have the hold, domestically or globally, of being one of the 12 American cities with teams from all three major sports—a club so excusive that it does not count Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Francisco as members. And that is why sports figures so large in Cleveland despite decades of failure—it makes the city matter. LBJ missed this idea in the form, if not the content, of The Decision, and this is why some Cleveland people on my Facebook feed are confused, ambivalent, or bitter about the Cavaliers signing the best basketball player alive. His opting out of being The One was more than a sports decision, but touched some nerve in the Midwestern lizard-brain—one connected to the same pathways as survival, significance, identity. For that reason, people will boo him when he next tosses the chalk at Quicken Loans Arena. Make no mistake.

Whatever disappointment (vitriol?) I had ended very cleanly when I read Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron. I never put down a book unfinished, but damn I hated that book. Simply put, Raab is a horrible shit, and to turn to a horrible shit looking for some clarity is to go to a very dark, smelly place. This book was such an act of self-loathing, of projection of self-loathing, that I needed a shower after I read it. It was too much, too hopeless, too oppressive, too icky. Hope is embedded in Cleveland’s character. Talk about tone-deaf. All that was left was residue: defeating and defeatist, consuming, silly. (I also credit the excellent and dark movie Big Fan with helping me put this into perspective a little bit—while I make the argument that sports can be more than trivial, the movie’s portrayal of insane, blinding over-emotional fandom is healthy to watch when you’re worried that you care too much.) I’m half-inclined to read The Whore of Akron again, but I simply don’t want to spend one more second in Raab’s pestilential presence.

If I had gotten over LBJ’s departure, and in some glancing way begun to appreciate just how damned good he had become (where was that post game in Cleveland?), prior to all this I still had some ambivalence about the idea of him coming back. Though I’m a naturally pretty cynical person, Cleveland sports makes me want to be an optimist. I figured that if LBJ had decided he wouldn’t be The One, someone else would and it would still be sweet. Kyrie didn’t seem to be wearing the mantle very well, but then there was Wiggins. Hoyer, Manziel, Gordon, Brantley, Kluber? Outlook hazy.

Chagrin Falls, man. The One became the greatest villain since Art Modell and then, improbably, became The One again. If someone had sat me down and asked me to specify a set of conditions under which I would welcome LBJ back to Cleveland, the letter he dictated to Lee Jenkins kind of nailed it. Not gonna lie, I teared up a bit when I read it on the subway. Cynically: it was a beautiful piece of PR. But then again: He does get it! He sees now why he mattered so much. (Is anyone else uncomfortable with how many old, white sportswriters are describing that letter as “mature”?) There’s that silly secret sunniness that lies in the heart of every Cleveland sports fan except the most embittered. I’ve decided I do not have mixed feelings about Lebron’s return. The first thing atlswami texted me after “I’m Coming Home” (is that how it will be remembered?) was that he wasn’t happy for me, but he was happy for my son. Now, my sports inheritance to him maybe won’t be so poisonous. Me, I’m happy for Cleveland. They— not “we”—have got another shot. And, weirdly, the entire sports world, minus the handful of sports fans in Miami and those in Cleveland who hold a grudge, seems to have a smile on its face. Right now, the manager of the Indians, the quarterback of the Browns, and the greatest Cavalier of all time are all homegrown. It’s a nifty moment.

I had this theory—atlswami will attest to it—that LBJ had voluntarily become a Judas, both so he could get some titles and remove that withering and surely tiring speculation, and so that the Cavs could tank the shit out of it and rebuild so he could come back to something promising. It was trying to impose a story on something I didn’t like, but that is, functionally at least, what happened. Think for a second about all the little things that even made this a possible outcome. The #1 picks—three in four years (on top of the one that put LBJ in Cleveland in the first place). The Mike Brown debacle, then picking such a strange and kind of perfect replacement in David Blatt (who I am super-bullish on). You have Dwyane Wade’s balky knees, Riley not wanting to keep Mike Miller around. The fact that Varejao, a LBJ favorite, managed to get hurt enough to prevent a trade that seemed inevitable. Actually maintaining the cap space for what seemed like a pipe dream. Even before LBJ decided to sign, I feel like the usual Cleveland optimism was taking hold. A lot of people love the coaching hires. Wiggins is the right piece at the right time. There is this idea that Irving and Waiters will figure something out and aspire to be Paul and Wade instead of Marbury and Francis. Hell, even Anthony Bennett suddenly seems promising.

The cynical, including Deadspin’s Drew Magary, figure that the latest move is simply a replay of 2010, except with a much more polished turd (Magary also wrote this, this, and this about LBJ). Basketball-wise, it is. In 2010, LBJ left an inadequate team built around and dedicated to him for a better one, alongside two perennial all-stars. In 2014, he left an inadequate team built around and dedicated to him for . . . well, not a better team exactly, but one with much, much better prospects over the next five years or so. A team so loaded with assets that a few smart decisions and a little professional development could turn it into the dynasty that the Heat, with their reliance on two men, never really had a shot at becoming.

Plus, he gets a different role than he had in Miami (and the first time in Cleveland), where he was forced to be a workhorse—picking up all the slack from resting Wade—and a conductor. He was good at it, but it never seemed his nature. He’ll never be like Jordan and there’s nothing wrong with that. He wants to be liked too much, he wants to pass too much. He’s not, in a word, maniacal. It seems like he’s finally sorted that out about himself and now he has a chance to be a white hat, to pass at the end of games without apology. Perhaps he wants to prove that he’s the best ever at making others better. More sunniness.

He might also make Cleveland a destination for other players. It’s not something he was really able to accomplish before—see the Windhorst piece linked earlier—but that could be different now. And this will be the subject of the talk until the season starts—thanks, bagel guy. Mike Miller, Ray Allen, etc., would be nice for continuity and to make sure that the locker-room culture really changes for good. Kevin Love clearly the most obvious, intriguing, and complementary option. How I would love to get him without giving up Wiggins, who seems like the perfect mentee for LBJ. That said, Wiggins is potential and Love is now and only 25. But then again, Wiggins is cheap and Love would mean three huge contracts and little flexibility in case of injury. There’s a few other pieces the team needs—a backup point guard, a defensive big man (Jason Collins would be a feel-good addition for a year and I’m good with Ekpe Udoh and Emeka Okafor for reasons that aren’t clear to me), and shooters (if Miller and Allen are out). The point here is that the Cavs are at a clear inflection point—they either come up smaller than ever before or become the dynasty that Cleveland hasn’t had since Otto Graham and Jim Brown. Somehow it doesn’t feel like there’s an in between. Be bold and be wise, my friends.


Cold. Blooded.

Meaningless game. Bad teams. References to the Canadian military. But damn!

Makes me wanna put the whole thing on my hot dog.

I immediately want to put the whole thing on my hot dog.

The title of this post appears in this story about alternate NBA unis. Coolio. It’s apt, and the subtitle on the story is sad as only Cleveland sports things are sad. Also, the man who wrote it apparently has a Pulitzer Prize.

The Cleveland-Duke Conundrum

Championship ring from the last major title of any kind in the city of Cleveland--1964. Dammit. At least it's classier than the newer bling-era Liberace rings.

Before we discuss loser-on-loser violence in response to atlswami’s last post, I must note that it is just after halftime of the Ravens-Pats game for a trip to the Super Bowl. Dear Ravens: Lose please. I hate you. Naturally I’m bitter about that team’s ongoing success, hard-nosed running and defensive identity, even the rivalry with the stupid Steelers (these two teams of remorseless, jackbooted headhunters deserve each other—it blows that they have to constitute one-quarter of the Browns’ schedule every damn year—and it makes the battle for third with Cincinnati our only real rivalry, which is just sad), and, especially, their Super Bowl victory four years after leaving Cleveland. That falls into the expanding category of unique, innovative ways that fortune stabs Cleveland fans in the neck. I certainly can’t think of another beloved franchise stolen from one town that won a chronically elusive title (Browns one of four teams with no Super Bowl appearances) within five years. As big a middle finger at a town I can imagine, worse than The Decision, especially since the WoA is still without a title as yet. Compound this with the fact that my favorite player when I was a child, Ozzie Newsome, is their goddam awesome GM. Another Coming Up Small city, Seattle, is starting to understand what this feels like, but OKC needs to win a title first. Side note: Simmons and his ilk recently discussed somewhere how poetic it would be if Baltimore won a title in Indianapolis (site of this year’s Super Bowl, and I must confess that I freaking love that stadium’s design), the city that stole its Colts franchise in 1983. Blech, who cares. Indianapolis more or less sucked donkey balls until Peyton arrived. Baltimore got its justice. I’m just waiting for the wheel to turn and “hapless Ravens” to enter the SportsCenter lexicon. I wish them ill.

Yes, I did evince a little hope for the Cavs future–there’s a ton of young players on that team, likable guys who are starting to distinguish themselves. Irving, Thompson, Casspi, I like these guys. A couple of pieces and some experience away from being interesting. Play hard, good coach, fun to watch, what’s not to like at the moment? At least we’re not Washington Wiz (the major omission in the Coming Up Small lineup of sports towns at the moment). They’re a cavalcade of awfulness because their young promising players are like torture to watch, hot dogging when they’re getting blown out and ball-hogging all the time. Yech. Concern with the Cavs now is maybe winning too many games and fouling up their lottery ticket in a strong draft. So thanks Hawks for setting us straight. I’m happier with the Cavs situation than I think atlswami is the with the Hawks. Sure, the Hawks make the playoffs every year, but they’re stuck in the ghetto of mediocrity, and it’s costing them an arm and a leg. Sparing Dwight Howard, they’re not getting any further until they blow it up and start over again, I figure. So Cavs, step one in rebuilding the right way under way. Kudos, fellas. We could look like Oklahoma City, Denver, or the Sixers in a few years, and maybe take Miami out of the playoffs once. That’d taste like truffles, man. That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.

Finally, the Duke-bag issue requires some explanation. I came by Duke fandom honestly–I went there for college, and it’s impossible not to absorb some of that culture. If pain is the engine of solidarity in Cleveland, persecution does it for Duke fans. The vitriol that goes their way, delightfully saucy stuff. But yeah, it’s awful weird for a Cleveland fan to also have the Yankees of college basketball in his personal stable (and the two have several connections–Danny Ferry, Trajan Langdon, Carlos Boozer, and now Irving). I actually do know what it’s like to have one of my teams win a title–two, actually, since I matriculated in 1993. Begrudge me that? Meh. Your prerogative, Bobby. I’m not gonna fight you. As much as I enjoyed those Duke titles, that fandom really doesn’t measure up to being a Cleveland fan. Not in the slightest. Being a Duke fan is easy. Being a Cleveland fan is hard.

Friendly Fire

Atlanta wins a battle of Coming Up Small squads. Likely doesn't portend anything positive.

I still don’t think the Hawks have a big season ahead of them without Al Horford on the court. But, they can still beat up on the franchise that represents the only city that Atlanta has defeated in a major sport’s championship game.

Just the other day, valmikcle was telling me how the Cavaliers were looking all right. Probably not good enough to make the playoffs, but trending positive. He also noted that young Kyrie Irving was coming along swimmingly. (In addition to being a long suffering Mistake by the Laker, my fellow blogger and all-around great American is also an unapologetic Duke-bag.)

All evidence to the contrary tonight. The Hawks shredded the Cavs, winning by 27 at home in the Highlight Factory (which often doubles as the Lowlight Factory). I won’t belabor this point, as in the world of Coming Up Small, that would be fool-on-fool violence—especially given that the Hawks have played only two 2011 playoff teams since Horford went out (and lost to one of them, the Sixers, by 14).

I don’t really see big things in store for either of these squads this year—aside from their odds in the draft lottery.

Haterade Bath

There’s no legit reason the Tebow-la virus should be gracing this site, which is about withering on the vine, not creating a mile-high vortex where the laws of probability, common sense, and F=ma cease to apply. And yet here he is. Word out of Denver is that he and LeFraud James are chummy. “Us Nike guys stick together,” said the whore of Akron (WoA, let us stop a moment to admire his loyalty). Among the choice nuggets from this interview:

“I can relate to him a lot. I see how the media plays it sometimes and how the critics go at him and to see him continue to prove them wrong.”

“I’m one of those guys who has been in those shoes before . . . I understood a lot of what he’s going through, what he went through, and it’s good to see him success(ful) now.”

Before I get into this, the WoA is a fan of the Cowboys and Yankees and doesn’t that just say it all. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless had one of their bilingual shoutfests over it, actually agreeing on a few points. They agree that the WoA and Tebow have almost nothing in common. All they share is the hothouse of ESPN complicity in brand awareness. Oh, and each of them turns into a completely different athlete at certain times. The WoA takes an entire season of divine athletic ability, strongman tactics, and neck beards, and then turns it into root marm. Tebow takes 55 minutes of tomfoolery and wounded ducks (his only observable skill being survival until the last 5 minutes) and then appears to be the only man left standing on the field—at least in about half his games. So they’re opposite sides of the same coin, eh? Enough for the WoA to relate to? Or perhaps he’s just sniffing around in the hopes that if they get mentioned together enough, he’ll be able to grab some of that improbability matrix for himself and start ruling the NBA like he should have years ago (or still could, once he extracts himself from under Dwayne Wade’s heel).

Now, I hate—I’m using the word hate here—the entire Tebow phenomenon and have a nauseating, visceral reaction to watching him succeed. I’m an atheist, and you can have any god more invested in the Broncos ineptitude than the earthquake in Haiti. It’s just mortiferous to believe that blindness and ignorance of your own limitations, combined with Rudy-like dedication, is somehow a recipe for success. Storybooks are fiction, man, even though Rudy is now a successful motivational speaker.

Anyway, the WoA brought this comparison on himself. So he needs to own it. For all the nasty things I can say about Tebow (wait, there aren’t any, he’d probably give me his last nickel, which makes him even more infuriating), he’d never, ever have pulled something like “The Decision.” He’d never, through ignorance or malice, gut an entire sports community. The WoA was allowed to leave Cleveland—I did, Thome did, Ilgauskas did (though we’re happy to have you back in the front office, Big Z)—but his greater crime was not understanding the town, not understanding what he meant. Tebow’d never do that shit. He’d never be accused of giving up. He doesn’t check out. I mean Tebow stayed in a fracking game he was losing by 35 points with rib and lung injuries because he wanted to finish the season with his teammates on the field. Jesus! Um, exactly.

One mocks loyalty and doesn’t know when to stop talking. The other mocks his limitations and piles on the sincerity to the point of meaninglessness. It would take the WoA to make me appreciate Captain God Wad. Context is a bitch, ain’t it?

Don’t Hate the Player, Kiddo, Hate the Game

Claes Oldenburg's "Free Stamp"--It's totally in Cleveland, look it up.

Many people now have asked whether I’m going to raise my infant son as a Cleveland sports fan. Bitter legacy and all that. Why not let him fall into the warm, smelly, corrupt embrace of New York fandom, or pick a frontrunner of his own, or devise some random association (like my Cleveland-born-and-raised cousin who lives and dies by the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas Jayhawks basketball—something about the hawks? I never asked him)? Notably, no one who asked me this question is from Cleveland. They’d never even think to ask it, just as I’d never even consider letting this little kid think for himself. He’s going down with the ship, riding on his father’s shoulders, cursing Art Modell, Jose Mesa, and LeFraud James.

Lots of people leave Cleveland, probably more than stay. A few more years and I’ll have been in New York longer than I ever lived in the Midwest. But I’ve observed that people who leave the town (different, in a way, than even the most prideful who still live there), love the place unreasonably. Ask Michael Symon, Drew Carey, or Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (our best and brightest?). People who come from Cleveland wear that shit on their sleeves, man. Maybe it’s an overreaction to the overdiscussed “Mistake by the Lake” days, or because it was a nice place to grow up, or the world-class art museum and symphony (right, that’s totally it). Nah, it’s because of the Browns, Cavs, and Indians. I don’t need to go over the sources of this pain—shit, I will anyway in this space, over time—but no other town claims “Most Tortured Sports City” more vociferously than the Metropolis of the Western Reserve. Stop arguing. We’re winning that shit in a walk. No one knows what it’s like to be us, and dammit if shared pain isn’t the greatest engine of solidarity.

So yeah, the kid is going to grow up with this. It’ll build character and teach him patience for things that may never come. I’ll cross my fingers that it won’t set him to tears like it once did me, pray that he can lay claim to the ground floor when Cleveland has a multiple title–decade like stupid Boston just had, and hope that he doesn’t one day hate me for it. I salute you, little man. Here’s a helmet.

If they ever tell my story, let them say that I rooted for giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die. Let them say I lived in the time of Omar Vizquel, Mark Price, and Ernest Byner. Let them say I lived in the time of Kosar.