This can’t be right.
Is it even real? Could it possibly be true? Is there really, for the first time since 1964, a sports team which can use the words “champions” and “Cleveland” in the same sentence? This flies in the face of everything we’ve come to know and accept as inarguable fact in the world. Cleveland sports are no longer the losers who keep unearthing new and unique ways to be losers. Under the efforts of the Cleveland Cavaliers, they’ve been reborn. The Cavaliers are now the current NBA Champions, a title they won in one of the most Hollywood fashions imaginable.
Since its decline started in the 1960’s, the entire Rust Belt has had trouble turning its sports teams into champions. Yes, there’s Pittsburgh regularly bringing home the hardware, but that’s kind of the exception that proves the rule. And yes, Detroit has been producing good teams for the last three decades, but only the Red Wings have been Motor City’s pride and joy lately – no one remembers the Pistons even when they’re good, the Tigers never quite got over the hump, and let’s not even go into the misfortunes the Lions have endured. That logic also holds true with St. Louis and the Cardinals. Titles usually go to glamor centers because they’re the places that can attract all the best players – New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and a handful of other places with established sports histories and popular teams. You think the NBA is itching to get the Milwaukee Bucks that long-awaited second title? Not until Brew City returns from the brink and turns into what Futurama foretold, which is The Romance Capitol of the World. Cities like Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Cleveland tend to attract bad luck.
The Cavaliers, like a lot of NBA teams, are the punk kid of the city’s sports scene. They started up in 1970 as part of the expansion which also created the Portland Trail Blazers and Buffalo Braves (who eventually became the Los Angeles Clippers). The name was the chosen winner of a (sigh) fan contest sponsored by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The other choices were Jays, Foresters, and Presidents; at least there was no choice for Express. In any case, the first-year Cavaliers charged out of the gate to a league-worst record of 15-67. This will become a recurring theme.
The great thing about being the worst team in the league, of course, is getting the first pick of the draft. And in 1971, the Cavs got access to the first pick of the draft: Austin Carr. Carr had a great ten-year career and spent all but about two or three years in Cleveland, but never quite reached his full potential because of a leg injury he suffered shortly into said career. That didn’t stop the Cavaliers from slowly improving, though. By 1974, they were falling just short of the playoffs, and with players like Carr and Nate Thurmond, the Cavs broke through in 1976 with a 49-33 record. That was good enough for coach Bill Fitch to receive the Coach of the Year award, the Cavs to win their division, and the playoffs. The team’s first playoff series, against the Washington Bullets, is known in Cleveland as the Miracle of Richfield because it featured a lot of last-second heroics. It ran through all seven games, with Cleveland coming out on the top of the last game when a shot by Dick Snyder put them up 87-85 with four seconds to go. In the second round, the Cavs lost one of their key players, Jim Chones, to a broken ankle. Although many of the team’s fans and players believe the Cavs would have won their first-ever title in 1976 had Chones stayed healthy, it should probably be taken into account that they were playing in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. In other words, an awful lot of people with no connections to the Cavaliers fucking doubt it. It really doesn’t matter very much anyway; the Cavs lost the series, and the Celtics went on to defeat the Phoenix Suns to win the 1976 title.
The Cavaliers followed that year up with a pair of 43-win seasons, but they were sent to the golf courses after the first series both years. Bill Fitch – the only coach the Cavaliers ever had at that point – resigned after a 30-win campaign in 1979. The Cavs rebounded the next year a little bit – they won 37 games and looked to be pulling themselves back on track. Unfortunately, it was here that the great sports curse that afflicted Cleveland truly struck the Cavaliers: A certain Ted Stepien entered the picture. Stepien was the team owner for only four years – from 1980 to 1983 – but he did insurmountable damage to the franchise every day he was in charge. He was one of those large-and-in-charge owners, a guy who had his fingers in the team operations despite lacking the necessary acumen. He bungled his work with the front office starting with an early proposal to rename the team the Ohio Cavaliers in a plan to get the team into Cincinnati and eventually other Rust Belt cities like Buffalo (the Braves moved to San Diego in 1978) and Pittsburgh. He also introduced a polka-themed fight song and a dance team called The Teddy Bears. Stepien’s acumen for the team’s on-court happenings was even worse: He was directly responsible for a number of NBA coaches getting new jobs and then losing those jobs in short order. His trading decisions can charitably be referred to as piss-poor. Many of those trades involved Stepien giving up the Cavs’ first round draft pick. In fact, Stepien was so bad with draft pick trades that the NBA had to introduce a new rule to prevent teams from trading away first round picks in consecutive years – a rule which carries Stepien’s name to this day. The league even took the unusual step of giving the Cavs bonus first round picks every year from 1983 to 1986 just to compensate for the damage Stepien did. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Stepien’s antics affected the team’s performance on and off court. On the court, the Cavs won 28 games in Stepien’s first year as owner. That was their high point. The won 15 games the next year, closing the season with a 19-game losing streak which, when added to the team’s losing its first five games the following season, constituted the league’s second-longest losing streak ever at 24 games. Off the court, the average game attendance dropped to a pathetic 3900 at an arena with over 20,000 seats.
Stepien, of course, took a logical look at the situation and brought in the best basketball minds in the business to improve everything. Psych! He actually whined and bitched, which in the sports world tends to manifest as a threat to move the team to Toronto. In this case, it became a hollow threat when George and Gordon Gund came in and bought the team. They decided to keep the Cavaliers right in Cleveland.
What came next was a transitional phase. Although coach George Karl got the Cavaliers back to the playoffs in 1985, they still got whupped by the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Celtics in the first round. But in 1986, the Cavs started collecting their shit. They got ahold of players like Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, and Larry Nance. They also found Lenny Wilkens to coach, and what followed for the next nine years was a fighty, hard-to-beat team that made the playoffs in eight seasons. Although the Cavaliers were finally enjoying a stretch as a team that could be legitimately called good, they also sort of cemented Cleveland’s reputation as a hard luck sports city. The NBA makeup of the late 80’s featured the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers at their peak; a Boston Celtics team two years removed from fielding the greatest team in NBA history; a Detroit Pistons squad which was as scary good as it was just plain scary; a deep and talented Trail Blazers team which went on to win two Conference Championships; and a Chicago Bulls team which was led by the greatest player and greatest coach in NBA history. Yeah, the Cavs were good, but so was everyone else. And it was the Bulls who would antagonize Cleveland with one of the city’s signature loser moments. The Cavs were matched with the Bulls in the first round of the 1989 playoffs. The playoff format for the first round was best-of-five back then, and in the fifth game of the Cleveland/Chicago series, both teams were basically even. With three seconds to go, Cleveland managed to score on a drive to go up by one. The ball was inbounded to Chicago’s Michael Jordan – the aforementioned greatest player in NBA history – who hit a jumper with Craig Ehlo trying to block him. Time expired, and the Bulls walked off the court with a victory and Jordan’s first real signature moment in the bag. The Cavs hit their peak during the 1992 season, when they won 57 games and fought their way to the Eastern Conference Finals, only to be done in by Michael and the Jordanaires again. (This will be a recurring theme for NBA teams in general.)
The window was effectively closed after that. Sure, the Cavs won 54 games in the 1993 season, but Daugherty, Price, and Nance were all soon gone, and Wilkens left to take a slot coaching the Atlanta Hawks afterward. Mike Fratello came in to replace Wilkens, and under him and point guard Terrell Brandon, the Cavs fielded a very good defensive unit. The offense, however, played slowball and wasn’t the kind you could depend on to bail the defense out when it failed. The Cavs were still a regular playoff team, but their first round loss to Chicago in 1994 summed up their fate for the next several years. It wasn’t as if they weren’t trying; they revamped their lineup a few times, acquired players like Shawn Kemp, Derek Anderson, and Carlos Boozer, and never managed to get off the ground. Their first round exits devolved into a series of lottery picks, which hit their nadir when the Cavs won just 17 games in 2003.
What happened to the Cavs in the 2003 draft seems to be a nearly supernatural stroke of fate. Down the road from Cleveland, in Akron, a high school player named LeBron James was tearing through the varsity leagues in Ohio. He was named Mr. Basketball of Ohio. He was named to USA Today’s All-USA First Team. He was a sophomore when he did both – the first sophomore to do either. He appeared in Slam. And Sports Illustrated. And was the Gatorade National Player of the Year. And… Okay, well, let’s just shorten it by saying LeBron James kicked ass. Lots and lots of it. And in the 2003 NBA draft, he was selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Deemed King James, he became an immediate star who more than doubled Cleveland’s win total in his first season. The following season, the Cavs started with a lot of promise until they fell into a spiral that led to coach Paul Silas getting fired. Although they missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, they still won 42 games. But it wasn’t until the next season that James truly announced his presence as a force in the NBA. The Cavs went to the playoffs for the first time since 1998, beat the Washington Wizards in the first round, then fell into an 0-2 hole against the Pistons in the second round before rebounding to win the next three games. The Pistons forced the seventh game and booted the Cavs from the playoffs, but the impression of the playoffs from that year was James setting records everywhere during Cleveland’s run.
The next season was the breakout. The Cavs won 50 games, good for the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Their playoff matchups were more than favorable: They played the Wizards again in the first round, sweeping them; the New Jersey Nets in the second, winning 4-2; and, after falling into another 0-2 hole against the Pistons, were able to take the next four games to make their first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals. It wasn’t their fault that they ran smack into a nigh-invincible San Antonio Spurs team which easily swept them in four games. Two years later, the Cavs won a whopping 66 games – their best record ever – but couldn’t get past the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. The next year brought the league’s best record again, and another playoff upset, this time to Boston.
In 2010, LeBron James made the worst decision of his career. It was so bad, it requires use of “the” as a qualifier: The Decision. Okay, it might not have been so bad if James had merely walked away from the Cavaliers to sign with the Miami Heat. But what made it unbearable for fans is the fact that he felt the need to televise it on a one-hour ESPN special. The fans were pissed, and they had every right to be: LeBron was a local boy, and the best player in the NBA. He was THAT GUY: The guy who made every opposing coach an insomniac the night before big games. And here he not only left the place everyone in the world had come to associate with him, he had done so on national TV, humiliating his old fans. And after he left, he did a hell of a job showing just how valuable he was to the Cavs; between him, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, the Heat went to the Finals every year for the next four years, winning twice. James finally had his titles, but they were worthless and hollow because he wasn’t leading his home team – he had made a super team for the least deserving sports city in the United States. As for the Cavaliers, they took a nasty spill in the standings. They went from first to worst. In 2010, they won only 19 games, and they set the longest losing streak in the history of American professional sports at 26. A bright spot was finding the brilliant Kyrie Irving, but good as Irving was, he couldn’t fill the slot left by James. The Cavs continued to struggle for the next four years.
James, though, despite acting the role of a headless dodo in the aftermath of The Decision, managed to recover. He conducted himself in such a way that he got back into the good graces of NBA fans. After four years in Miami, he had apparently been thinking he let his home fans down, and his home fans granted him a level of forgiveness not thought possible in The Decision’s immediate aftermath. After a couple of years, speculation began that James was thinking of maybe, just maybe, returning to Cleveland to finish what he started. And in 2014, that’s just what happened. Cleveland forgave LeBron, and King James wrote an apology in a local newspaper saying he was coming back home. Teamed with Irving and the newly-acquired Kevin Love, the Cavs were expected to be an immediate contender again. And they were! The first year of LeBron’s return, the Cavs went right back to the Finals. It wasn’t their fault they ran smack into a nigh-invincible Golden State Warriors team which was among the greatest NBA teams ever fielded. James rose to the occasion and played spectacularly, and the Cavaliers even held a 2-1 lead in the series after three games. But any dreams this offered to Cleveland fans were snapped after the Warriors won the following three games – the final two of them pretty decisively – for a 4-2 Finals victory.
The following year, the Cavaliers won a sterling 57 games, which made them the first seed in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs charged through the Pistons and Hawks in the first two rounds. The Toronto Raptors offered a greater challenge in the way of resistance, digging themselves out of an 0-2 hole to tie the series before finally falling in six games. That earned the Cavaliers their second date with the Warriors. Now, the Warriors of the previous year was a team that many onlookers believed exemplified basketball perfection. But the Warriors of 2016 left everyone in shock and awe. They started the season with 24 straight wins, eclipsing the previous best start in NBA history by a good nine games. Dating back to January of 2015, the Warriors also set a record with 54 straight home wins. Warriors coach Steve Kerr was Coach of the Year, Stephen Curry was league MVP for the second straight season – and the first unanimous MVP in league history – and he crushed every record for three-point goals in a season by scoring 402. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson were All-Stars. Curry won the scoring title and led the league in free throw percentage and steals. The Warriors won a record 73 games during the regular season, 88 games overall, and are by all accounts one of the greatest teams the NBA ever saw no matter what. The Finals were a damned write-off. Which made what happened a true shocker. Golden State appeared to have set the tone with a 104-89 win in game one. Then they outperformed themselves in game two by winning 110-77. The Cavaliers finally got on the winner board in game three, taking it 120-90, but that was supposed to be a hiccup; Golden State brought things right back to normal by pounding the Cavs yet again in game four, 108-97. LeBron James and Draymond Green got into a bit of a scuffle during the fourth quarter of game four, during which Green hit James in the groin. Green was suspended for the next game, and the Cavaliers took advantage of his absence by winning 112-97. It was another event which could have easily been written off. After all, one of Golden State’s stars was missing. Game six was coming, and with Green back in the lineup – and the Cavaliers going the other way, Kevin Love having been sidelined since game two with a concussion – Golden State was surely going to close the series out. But the Cavs came out running, scored the first eight points of the game, led 31-11 after the first quarter, 59-43 at halftime, and Stephen Curry was thrown out of the game with a shade under five minutes to go. Cleveland won 115-101, and what was supposed to be impossible suddenly looked like it could happen. The Cavaliers were the first NBA team in 50 years to force a seventh game in the Finals after being down in the series 3-1. Game seven was must-see basketball which featured 20 lead changes and 11 ties. The Warriors had a 49-42 halftime lead. The Cavs came screaming out for the third quarter. The Warriors matched them every step of the way. But during the game’s final four minutes and 39 seconds, Golden State’s dangerous perimeter shooters suddenly went silent. The Warriors never got another point on the board. LeBron James created a signature moment just as memorable as The Shot, this time one which favored Cleveland, by blocking a layup attempt by Andre Iguodala which would have given the Warriors the lead. James was fouled with 10 seconds left and sank one of his two free throws, and that was the game. For the first time in 52 years, a Cleveland team was on top of the pedestal as a champion.
LeBron James is probably going to be Mr. Cavalier from here on out. Cleveland is going to build a statue to him bigger than the Statue of Liberty. After all, he did what he was drafted to do, which was bring that elusive sports title to Cleveland. There’s no doubt that his number will one day be joining those of the Cavaliers’s other retired numbers: Those of Bobby “Bingo” Smith, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Larry Nance, Mark Price, Austin Carr, Nate Thurmond, and Brad Daugherty. Broadcaster Joe Tait is also honored. That’s not a half-bad all-time roster. Some of the other notable players who have suited up in a Cavaliers uniform include World B. Free, Shawn Kemp, Shaquille O’Neal, Walt Frazier and Lenny Wilkens. Frazier is famous for being one of the field generals on the bright New York Knicks teams of the early 70’s. Wilkens was both a player and a coach for the team. Chuck Daly coached the Cavaliers from 1981 to 1982 – that was Daly’s first job as a head coach, and it serves as a case of what could have been. Granted, his tenure in Cleveland ended when he compiled a putrid 9-32 record, but look what he became afterward. Daly was hired as head coach of the Detroit Pistons in 1983, when they were a team which had never recorded two winning seasons in a row. Daly remade the Pistons into a dominant team which won three Conference Championships and two NBA Championships.
James is the one who dominates Cleveland’s accolades. He’s a two-time league MVP – they don’t give the league MVP out to just anyone in the NBA. He was also Rookie of the Year and a regular on the All-NBA First Team. But James’s teammate and lancer Kyrie Irving has won some respectable awards too. He was a Rookie of the Year, was on the All-Rookie First Team, and on the All-NBA Third Team. Actually, the Cavs have had 11 players on the All-Rookie First Team, including Austin Carr, Brad Daugherty, and Ron Harper. Larry Nance made a couple of All-Defensive teams, both First and Second.
The Cavaliers’ mascot is Moondog, and I’m pointing that out because he has a connection to a unique aspect of Cleveland’s history. Despite Cleveland’s reputation as an also-ran, it does have a worldwide designation as The Rock and Roll City because it was where the phrase “rock and roll” was coined and popularized. The deejay who first used the phrase was Cleveland deejay Alan Freed, who referred to himself as the Moondog and to his listeners as Moondoggers.
It’s funny to think that Cleveland sports have been as visible as they are. For everything wrong with the three big league professional sports teams that exist there, all of them have wide followings. The Browns and Indians, of course, are inheritance teams with multiple generations of fans behind them. The passion for them goes from parents to children and stays with the fans no matter where they go, which is how Browns Backers Worldwide became a prominent fan organization with 305,000 members between every major city in the United States, foreign countries as diverse as Egypt, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Israel, McMurdo Station in Antarctica, and many Military bases everywhere in the world. The team itself has trouble warranting such devotion; they’ve been a trash fire since 1999. The Indians are also a team with a respectable national following – their games have aired in many places on the Rust Belt that don’t have MLB teams as weekly features, beating out other close teams like the Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Cincinnati Reds. The Cavaliers were once the inconspicuous team out of Cleveland, but LeBron James helped change all that. The Cavs now have one of the larger national followings in the NBA. A recent survey which showed data on what places will watch the most of what sports whether or not their team is involved showed that the people in Cleveland watch more basketball than anyone even if their team isn’t playing.
It’s hard to get a firm grasp of the fans, though. I tend to imagine they’re very serious, devoted, and knowledgeable because Cleveland is so much like my hometown of Buffalo. The sports fans are alike, right down to the point where we can share heartbreak stories with each other. The Cavs spent a long time on the back burner because the follies of the Indians and Browns were always a lot more visible and famous. But just because they haven’t been publicized, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. We just didn’t see them until recently because the NBA was always placing its marquee teams up front. Not necessarily the good ones, just the ones with the glamor names that would reel in national audiences: The Celtics, Lakers, Knicks, Bulls, and a grab bag of others that happened to be doing well at the time.
If you’re looking for an NBA team, though, you’ll never see a better time to hop on Cleveland’s bandwagon. Hell, they may emerge permanently and become one of the league’s mainstay ticket teams in the same fashion the Bulls did when Michael Jordan was with them. If that happens, wouldn’t it be cool to tell your descendants about how you got to see LeBron James pull the Cavaliers out of the riffraff, the same way your parents talk about the Jordan Bulls?
King James is the best player in the NBA; they just proved they can beat anyone, no matter how bad it looks; jubilant fans might have just turned Cleveland into a permanent basketball city; big three core is still pretty young and has good years left
Media is speculating on LeBron’s departure again; sports pundits are speculating on whether the style of James, Love, and Irving will keep working again; honestly, did you know ANYTHING about the Cavs before LeBron?
Should you be a fan?
Every sports team has a history – even the NHL’s Las Vegas Aces or whatever the league is going to call them has a history now. Trouble is, the Cavaliers don’t have an especially visible history. Yes, there seems to exist the very real possibility that the Cavaliers are going to light up stadium signs and stay in sight long after LeBron James is gone, but it’s also possible they’ll disappear right back into innocuousness. That’s something you may want to consider before adopting the Cleveland Cavaliers. Like the other teams in Cleveland, this is going to be a lifetime adoption which you can expect to pass on.