Enjoying This Year in Anticipation of “Next Year”

The NBA Draft is next week. One of the league’s major events will take place as dozens of bright young stars walk across the stage to fulfill what for most has been a lifelong dream. It’s a favorite event for fans who get to feel excitement about change and promise coming to their favorite team.

But what’s most interesting about this to me this year is that I had absolutely no idea it was happening this soon. I guess intellectually I knew it was next week on some level because it’s always right after the Finals, but the Draft has been so far from my consciousness that I probably couldn’t name the top five prospects on most draft boards. (Let’s see…that big guy who renamed his middle name Trill, Russell from Ohio State, the big Duke kid, the Duke kid who people compare to James Harden, and that other guy who decided it was a better idea to play overseas somewhere than play for Larry Brown. Does that count as “naming” five guys?) What’s even crazier is that when I started this blog two years ago nearly every article I wrote was an NBA Draft piece leading up to the Cavs No. 1 drafting Anthony Bennett, the one guy I didn’t seriously consider for the Cavs and therefore didn’t write about…I’m counting this as a victory for me. But this year…this year the stories are different. And there has not been much, if any, draft talk around Cleveland for these past months. Guess there must have been something else going on. 

_______________

It was an unsatisfying end to the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers season that was really so much fun. The team went through so much change over the past year and by the time they reached the Finals that group of players had really developed a bond with the fans and community at large. We wanted to believe they could win because in many ways they embodied the city in their play on the court. But it wasn’t meant to be. In the end, the Warriors were just the better team. Golden State has been the best team in the NBA all season, winning 67 games in what was one of the best regular seasons in league history. They were also the beneficiary of some good luck as they stayed healthy throughout the playoffs despite a few scares to their star guards. They also had the luxury of playing teams along the way that were all missing key pieces which most of the time included their starting point guards. You need a little bit of luck and a lot of talent to win the NBA Championship and the Warriors had both. The Cavs missed out in the luck department.

For some fan bases, especially ones mired in long losing droughts such as ours, this would be a time to complain about poor officiating, bad coaching, players choking, or just general bemoaning of our state in life. But that’s not the attitude that got me out of bed this morning to sit here and write.

I lead with the mentioning of the Draft to underscore the point that where we’ve been this year is so much more enjoyable than where we were the previous four years. It was fun in a sense to have three No. 1 picks in four years and to have all those first round selections. The debates are always a lot of fun. But to get there, to have those top picks in the draft, you have to suck on the court…which is no fun at all and lasts way longer. I mean, those teams were terrible to watch. Losing to that level is no fun. The 2014-15 Cavs had the most success of any team in franchise history. They may not have won as many regular season games as the 2008-09 and 2009-10 teams which both went over 60 games, but those teams didn’t even reach the Finals. And while the 2007 team had that wild exhilarating ride through the Eastern Conference Finals they were swept in the Finals against the Spurs. This year’s team, despite losing two All-Stars, three starters, revamping the team on the fly during the season (remember when Joe Harris was on the court getting fourth quarter crunch time early in the season?), and starting an undrafted Australian at point guard to match up with the league MVP, won two games in the Finals and took most of the rest down to the wire. In the end, the Cavs didn’t have the luck or good fortune of health that the Warriors enjoyed. But that’s not a fact to bemoan. It’s something to take pride in and something to remember for years to come. This team came together in a hurry and got mixed around in the process. By most respects they shouldn’t have even made it to the Finals. But they did. And that’s something to cherish, because as we well know, these things don’t happen every year.

I hope that it isn’t lost on any fans of the NBA, and Cavs fans specifically, just how amazing of a performance that was in the Finals by LeBron James. It was easily one of the greatest performances of all time in Finals history: 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 8.8 assists per game…all while carrying a group of role players who were literally lost without him. The fact that the Cavs managed to win even two games is a testament to how great LeBron played.

And that’s why I really thought he deserved to win MVP of the Finals. I don’t want to belabor this point because winning the championship is what really matters. But everyone knows about Jerry West winning Finals MVP despite losing, a fact that has come to define his greatness as a player. It’s not a normal thing to win an individual award like that in a team game when you lose. And if you won you must have done something spectacular. And that’s exactly what LeBron did. I wanted him to be MVP so that when future generations of fans look back they’ll see that abnormality of take notice of what an amazing Finals he had. It would forever cement his place in these Finals…something that deserves to happen because of how great it was. It’s not like Andre Iguodala outplayed LeBron. He made him work, sure, and he may have been the key to the Warriors winning if you look at his on/off the court plus/minus stats. But the only reason Iggy scored any points at all was because the Cavs basically didn’t guard him and sold out on defending their offensive stars—the right strategy and one that worked for a while when guys like Iguodala and Draymond Green were missing their shots. LeBron was the best player in these Finals and it wasn’t really close at all. I wish that fact would have been cemented by giving LeBron the MVP.

The other reason that this is not a time for sorrow but one of excitement is that the future is incredibly bright for the Cavaliers. There is some uncertainty about a few players’ futures in Cleveland. But the Cavs certainly want to bring Kevin Love back and if he really wants to win there isn’t a better place to do it (while making more money than he can get from anyone else) than right here in Cleveland. And he certainly went out of his way to give signals to this is where he wants to be. The Cavs also hold matching rights on restricted free agents Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert, both of whom you’d assume the Cavs will keep. JR Smith says he wants to be back. Timofey Mozgov is on the books for cheap. Anderson Varejao will be back. Brendan Haywood’s $10.5M expiring contract is extremely tradable.

There is every reason to believe that the 2015-16 Cavaliers will be a force to recon with. They are already the odds on favorite in Vegas to win the title next season. Considering everything we’ve been through to get us to this moment—the greatest team in Cavs history—it is something to be remembered and enjoyed.

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss 

“Wait till next year” isn’t just a perfunctory Cleveland sports expression anymore. It’s one of anxious believing anticipation.

Next year.

The Team, The Moment, and the Greatest Win in Cavaliers History

My family moved from Connecticut to Northeast Ohio when I was ten years old in the fall of 1995, which, if you know anything about Cleveland sports history, was a pretty monumental time for the team on the south shores of Lake Erie. The Indians were on their way to the World Series. The Browns were on their way to Baltimore. And down in Columbus Eddie George was running all over the Big Ten on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. It was not very difficult for young kid who already had a pretty sizable love for sports to get hooked on the local teams. To that point I had never been much of a basketball fan, but I figured if I was living in Cleveland I might as well make the Cavs my team.

I don’t remember which year it was that I went to my first game, at what was then called The Gund Arena, whether it was 1995-96 or the next season. Either way, at the time the Cavs young up-and-coming player was a white kid out of Florida State named Bobby Sura. And it was something this young exciting player who would go on to compete in the Slam Dunk contest did that stands out in my mind forever as the only thing I can recall from that first game (other than the random fat guy sitting next to me offering me his binoculars so I could look at the cheerleaders). It was an unassuming moment in the game, not high pressure or anything, and the ball was being inbounded from the baseline to Sura to bring the ball up court and initiate the Cavs offense. Without any pressure from a defender, Sura dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds. I didn’t know a ton about basketball back then but I knew enough to realize that was about as embarrassing as it gets. 
I also knew in that moment and remember thinking “Well, this is my team. For better or worse.”

The interests of kids can be super fickle and it’s certainly not unheard of for pre-teen’s rooting interests in sports to shift from year to year. And I will willingly cop to the fact that I had a string of different favorite NBA players and none of them played for Cleveland. I loved watching Hakeem play. Then it was Iverson. Then Tracy McGrady. I got really into Darius Miles (who did eventually come to Cleveland and was terrible—turns out it’s usually pretty good if your shooting guard can, you know, shoot) and that super fun Clippers team that also had Quentin Richardson, Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, and Lamar Odom. But in spite of having favorite players sprinkled throughout the league, there was never a question that my favorite team was the Cleveland Cavaliers.

And let’s be honest, can you really blame me? Those Cavs teams weren’t exactly littered with stars. We had Terrell Brandon for a while who was really exciting until they traded him to get Shawn Kemp who then got fat. Big Z was always injured. Andre Miller was certainly good but his cerebral talents were wasted on a team that started Chris Mihm and Lamond Murray among other middling players. As I got into high school the Cavs drafted “the next Shaq” in Desagana Diop who, spoiler alert, didn’t exactly live up to that billing. The next season they drafted “the next Allen Iverson” Dajaun Wagner who also didn’t end up being anything close to that (though, no real fault of his own thanks to some really bizarre injuries and illnesses).

It was into this quagmire of perpetual losing and going-nowhereness that the Cavs found new life. They finished tied for the worst record in the NBA my senior year in high school and everyone knew who the prize was for winning the draft lottery. I’ll never forget, we had a baseball game that day and instead of taking the slow ride on the bus back my dad drove me home from the game so I could get back in time to watch it. When the cards were unveiled and it was realized that my hometown team had just won the right to draft the hometown superstar it was like my fandom for the Cavs finally had meaning and purpose.

Fast-forward 12 years. I don’t need to rehash everything that’s happened since then. It’s was great until it sucked. Then it was the worst. And now…

Now is the best.

Winning the “LeBron Lottery” was really exciting. Winning the Eastern Conference Finals by knocking off that defensive machine of a Detroit Pistons team was unreal at the time. LeBron announcing he was coming home last summer was beautiful and surreal.

But none of those moments compare to last night, which easily was the biggest win in Cleveland Cavaliers history.

The Game 3 win over the Golden State Warriors was something of a microcosm for this entire Cavs postseason run. Some guys got injured along the way (Shumpert went out for a while, LeBron came up limp and had to call a time out, Delly had to sit for a while in the fourth before going to the hospital for dehydration after the game) but through it they kept on playing and looked unbeatable when they pressed their lead out to 20 late in the third quarter. Then, as it often happens against this Warriors team, things turned seemingly in an instant. In the blink of an eye the lead was down to one and it looked like Steph Curry had re-gained his confidence. But when everything seemed like it was slipping away, the Cavs beared down and gutted out another tough win, staking themselves to a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals.

What this Cavs team has been able to do since losing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving is nothing short of incredible. Going into Game 2 the Warriors were 6.5 to 1 favorites to win the title. People were predicting a sweep. No one knew how the Cavs could possibly muster enough offense to beat this great Warriors team.

But while analytics and predictability and conventional wisdom are all saying one thing, this Cavaliers team has refused to believe any of it. This gritty identity they’ve bad-lucked themselves into has taken on a life of its own and it’s proving to be the Kryptonite for Golden State. The relentless defensive pressure, dominance on the boards, and slow plodding pace has worn down the Warriors players who thrive on playing fast and loose. It got to the point in Game 3 where Steve Kerr broke that “In Case of Emergency” glass that has held David Lee for most of this season. That change had a big impact on the game and Lee played well on offense but I read that as a positive sign for Cleveland—the Warriors are the team grasping at straws, trying to keep a hold on the series as it slips away. Dramond Green, so instrumental to Golden State’s identity (especially on defense) this season, has been rendered almost useless. Andrew Bogut can’t match up with Mozgov who is basically eating the former No. 1 overall pick’s lunch. The Cavs have basically told Green and Andre Iguodala that they can shoot as much as they like because they aren’t the ones who can really hurt the Cavs in the long run. Harrison Barnes is a complete waste at this point and it shouldn’t shock anyone to see him get benched in favor of Iguodala, who can at least play defense. When Barnes has been matched up on LeBron the Cavs star has been able to get really whatever shot he wants. And Barnes isn’t doing anything on offense to make up for his negative defensive play. Check out Barnes stat line from last night (warning, this may be NSFW and if there are children in the room you may want to have them leave): 19 MIN, 0 PTS, 0-8 FG, 3 REB, 0 AST, 0 BLK, 0 STL, 3 TO, 2 PF, -14 +/-. Klay Thompson is the only Warriors player who has performed with anything resembling what he did in the regular season and playoffs leading up to the Finals, but even he disappears for stretches under the hounding of Iman Shumpert.

Matthew Dellavedova, while he may not be a “Steph Stopper” per se, is certainly making life miserable for the insurance salesman and he’s doing it on both ends of the court. For a guy who is generally even-keeled emotionally, Curry’s body language screams frustration. His body is slack during dead ball situations and he shakes his head whenever something doesn’t go his way—which has happened quite often thus far. It’s as if he can’t come to grips with the fact that an undrafted Australian kid with no basketball pedigree is giving him this much trouble. Delly can’t stop Curry because no one can really do that. But he’s making everything as difficult as possible and that’s been one of the biggest keys to the Cavs success in this series.

But that fourth quarter last night is of course what you always worry about with the Warriors…they can look completely broken and then in an instant they’ve snapped themselves back to life. Had they not gotten hot in the fourth quarter and put up 36 points after mustering only 55 through the first three quarters, they may not have been able to find the will to win another game in this series. So nothing is over.

Even still, many of their players appear to be teetering on the edge. And that is likely due in large part to the fact that the Cavs never seem down. Cleveland led wire-to-wire last night, which is almost unheard of in a Finals game. But this rag-tag bunch of overachieving misfits believes that it’s better than it is. Is that all attributable to LeBron? Probably a lot. David Blatt certainly deserves some credit, especially for the defense. And while one could quibble with some of the match-ups and decisions that Blatt has made, no one can make the case that he’s made a panicked decision or that something he’s done has really cost the team to this point.

LeBron is obviously the best player in the world and without him the Cavs wouldn’t be here. But what makes LeBron the best is that, more than any player, he makes everyone around him better. And not just “better” in the sense that they look better because they’re playing with LeBron. He helps them to perform better. This team is the living embodiment of “a team that is better collectively than the sum total of its parts.” Prior to the series most people would have ascribed that title to the Warriors. If fact, coming in and especially after the Cavs lost Kyrie, many people called this a battle of a great team against a great player. And while that’s true in a sense it continues to belittle what makes this Cavaliers team so great and so much fun to root for. Because it isn’t just one guy. It’s one guy driving a collective team to outstanding success. As great as LeBron is he couldn’t do this without other great perimeter defenders like Delly and Shump. He couldn’t do it without outstanding rebounding coming from Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. He couldn’t do it without dangerous shooters in JR Smith and James Jones. He couldn’t do it without a locker room full of players who have been there before like Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins, and Brendan Haywood. He couldn’t do it without rookie Joe Harris who carries everyone’s luggage. He couldn’t do it without a coaching staff that has empowered him and has put the right pieces on the court and orchestrated a great defensive scheme. He couldn’t do it without a GM that was willing to make some tough decisions on some moves that have proved masterful in putting a complete team on the court in spite of numerous injuries that would cripple most teams.

LeBron is great, and he’s carrying huge load, but isn’t doing it all himself.

__________

One of my favorite podcasts is The Moment with Brian Koppelman. On his show Koppelman (the writer of Rounders, a couple of the Ocean’s movies, among other things) interviews accomplished people from all walks of life from athletes to chefs to comedians to writers and musicians. (Among the seemingly unconnected people he’s sat down with are Baron Davis, Seth Meyers, and Dave Ramsey.) He likes to examine the inflection points (or “moments” as the title aptly describes) in their lives where things could have gone one way or another. Inevitably, each individual went a direction that lead him or her to accomplish great things. Koppelman’s over-riding theory is that people who accomplish great things process the inflection points in their lives differently than most people. He believes that they are, in some way, driven by adversity or obstacles or the doubts of others to achieve great heights where others may have given up on their dreams.
The “moment” for this Cavaliers team, I believe, were the two days after Game 1 of the Finals. Golden State had played a bad game but were able to pull out the win in overtime because the Cavs blew a late fourth quarter lead and then couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean in OT. Almost every single talking head brought up that that was the game Cleveland needed to win because there was no way the Warriors were going to play that poorly again. And then it was announced that Kyrie had suffered a broken knee cap and was out for the rest of the series.

So here are the Cavs…they had come into the series undermanned without Kevin Love and as underdogs. Then they blew a game they should have won. Then they lost their second best player. Talking heads wondered aloud whether Dellavedova might be the worst player to ever start an NBA Finals game. A sweep was almost expected by most and the thought of the Cavs winning was almost laughable.

No one would have blamed the Cavs players for believing they couldn’t win and basically played out the string and went home. How could anyone win with what was left on the team? They could have blamed curses or just bad luck and said “better luck next year” and packed it in.

But they didn’t. They accept that they had been dealt a crappy hand but they made the best out of it. If any of the Cavs players actually believed that they didn’t have a chance they certainly didn’t play like it. They took the challenged, listened to the disrespect and allowed it all to serve as fuel for the court. They hit the moment, that inflection point, and have only gotten better as a team because of it.

__________

After Game 3 we of course heard the predictable stats about how the team that wins Game 3 when the series is tied 1-1 goes on to win the series however many times out of whatever. That stat, along with any notion that the Cavs are sitting pretty because they stole homecourt advantage, is of course mostly useless. Both the Cavs and Warriors were in this same position in the second round that Golden State now sits in being down 2-1 after “losing” homecourt advantage. Both teams not only went to win those series (obviously, because they’re in the Finals) but they did so winning three straight. So while it’s better to be up 2-1 than down 1-2, this series is far from over. Every game is huge in the playoffs, especially in the Finals.
On the importance of every game in the NBA Finals, LeBron summed it up well last night: “The next game is the most important game.”

And I believe the Cavs will win that game. Because I believe in this Cavs team. They’ve embodied the heart and soul of the city of Cleveland and have imposed their will upon their opponent. I’ve maintained it the whole time…

Cavs in six.

Believeland.

The Pharoah and The King

“Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”
John Blutarsky

I have only ever watched horse racing a handful of times in my life. Sometimes it will be the Kentucky Derby just because, but usually it’s the Belmont Stakes those times where there is a horse that is on the verge of winning the elusive Triple Crown. There is almost no reason why I should really care about these horses outside of the fact that I’ve been watching sports long enough to have it ingrained in me that this is something important. The Triple Crown’s importance, in large part, lies in the rarity of it.

Leading up to the race in NBC’s interminable coverage was a short little piece with interviews of various athletes from other sports who recounted the great satisfaction of finally winning the big event in their sport after years and years of working, failing, and waiting. They showed Dale Earnhardt Jr., John Elway, the New York Rangers, and the Boston Red Sox among others. This was applicable of course because the world of horse racing had been waiting 37 years for another Triple Crown winner.

If you have followed the coverage of the Triple Crown at all over the years you’ve heard the reasons for the drought. Horses are mostly bread to be sprinters now and the Belmont is a longer track. The winner of the Derby and the Preakness is typically a sprinter. The eventual winner of the Belmont is almost always a horse that didn’t race in the Preakness and is therefor fresher. Many horse racing enthusiasts and analysts had surmised over the past several years that we may never see another Triple Crown winner for these very reasons. It’s just too hard to win it. The deck is stacked against it.

Well, that clearly wasn’t the case. Because long droughts are meant to come to end.

It’s fair to say that American Pharoah captivated the nation yesterday afternoon. Maybe because I’ve had it drilled into me for 30 years that this is something of importance I was glued to the TV for those two and a half minutes and even made my three-year-old son stop what he was doing to watch, because he may never see another one of these in his lifetime. After being slow initially out of the box Pharoah charged to the lead and held it steady all the way through the final turn where he turned it on. And in the moment in the race where the horse who had run three races in five weeks should have yielded to fresher horses who hadn’t, Pharoah pulled away in was really a truly exciting moment. I didn’t know that I would care or get that excited until it actually happened.

But this is not a blog about horse racing. This is a blog about Cleveland sports, which has been mired in a losing drought even longer than that of the world of horse racing.

With the Cavaliers in the Finals that drought had as good a chance to end as any until Kyrie Irving went down early in overtime Thursday during Game 1 and was summarily ruled out for the remainder of the series with a broken knee cap. This news was met predictably with reaction that focused mostly on the Cleveland Curse or the general quip “Of course, because, well…Cleveland.” If Bill Simmons weren’t on hiatus we likely would have seen his typical “God hates Cleveland” tweet.

The national media has decided that the series is already. Cleveland just doesn’t have enough to win against a great team like Golden State. In their declarations of series finality they bemoan the loss of what could have been a great series as if it something they were robbed of. Never mind that Cleveland fans are being robbed of their first championship in over 50 years but whatever.

Do you think American Pharoah listened to all the “smart” people saying he couldn’t win the Belmont? Saying he was overmatched against horses fresher and bread to run longer. Do you think he listened? Do you think he cared? Did that keep him from getting into the box and running?

No. Because he’s a horse and horses don’t really know how process information like that, nor do they really care. Maybe his trainer figured out a way to convey to him what being a “stud” in the world of horse training is all about and that was his motivation for running like never before.

But the point remains! American Pharoah did what many thought could not be done, and won the Triple Crown. And just as the pharaohs of old ruled the ancient Egyptian empire, American Pharoah rules the empire of competitive horse racing.

Cleveland has its own pharaoh, only we call him the King.

And this is why the series is not over. This is why no declarations can be made. Because LeBron James, the King, still has a say in the matter.

The Warriors essentially told LeBron in Game 1 that he was going to have to beat them all by himself. They allowed their defenders to play him one-on-one with essentially no help at all for fear of him finding the Cavs’ open shooters out of the double-team. LeBron and the Cavs came up just short of pulling off the upset in Game 1 and you can bet that Steve Kerr will stick with that strategy for the rest of the series, especially with Kyrie out.

That’s an outright challenge to the greatest basketball player in the world. And now that everyone is telling him the series is already over after only one game, he’s been challenged even more.

You can’t do it all by yourself, LeBron. Steph Curry is the MVP, you can’t beat him this year. It’s one man against a whole team. You can’t win. It’s over.

I realize the odds are not in our favor. The Warriors have jumped out to -650 to win the series, a huge jump from just before tip of Game 1. Vegas, like the rest of the world, thinks this series is over.

But if there’s any player you want on your team for a situation where everything is going against him and his team, where you need one man to proverbially throw the team on his back and carry them to victory, its LeBron James.

Nothing is over until the King decides it is.

Always (deliriously delusional) Believeland.

NBA Finals Preview: The Cleveland Underdogs

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.”
Vince Lombardi

I generally don’t consider myself a brilliant writer or anything. I enjoy writing and a couple people have told me that I’m not terrible at it, so that helps. But every once in a while I stumble upon something that even I think is kind of smart.

That is how I feel about the post I wrote ahead of the Eastern Conference Finals. The point of the piece was that this Cavaliers team, beat up and broken and with some unexpected pieces playing major roles, is the exact team that both Cleveland as a city and LeBron James as a player deserve.

The common narrative going into the Hawks series (which continued even during and after) was the idea that it was a matchup of the “team” (the Hawks) against the “individual” (LeBron). And while LeBron was clearly the best player in that series dismantling (averaging nearly a triple double) what bore out through those four games is that this Cavaliers squad is more than just one player. They really are a team. It takes a team to pick up the slack when you are without two All-Star players. It takes a team to play stifling defense and shut down the “machine” that the Atlanta offense was up until they ran into the Cavs. It takes a team to be tougher both mentally and physically than your opponent. It takes a team to sweep a conference finals series.

Cleveland, as a city, is never the favorite for anything. Put aside for a moment that we haven’t won a major sports championship in 51 years. Cleveland from an economic, cultural, political, and societal standpoint is an underdog. About the only thing we’re really good at is being cheaper than other cities for The Avengers to set up shop, destroy, and pretend that they’re saving New York City.

It’s only fitting then that going into the Finals, against a very formidable foe in Golden State, the Cavs actually are the underdogs. As if any team heading into the championship of their given sport—let alone a LeBron-lead one—needs an added incentive to play great, it never hurts to be the betting underdog in Vegas. The Warriors are greater than 2/1 odds to win the championship…which is just fine. Because these Cavaliers were born to be underdogs.

The underdog role suits Cleveland and suits those who call it home. It’s an interesting paradox that the most famous person who calls Northeast Ohio “home” is the one person who is the opposite of an underdog. From the time people began to learn the name LeBron James he was expected to be great. And more than probably any other person with lofty expectations placed on them from an early age, LeBron has met and exceeded them all. And yet, LeBron loves to play the underdog role, and it’s a large part of what makes him great. (That and the fact that God made him 6’8”, 250 pounds with absurd speed, strength, and quickness.)

LeBron’s humble beginnings in the projects of Akron with a single mother struggling to makes ends meet is well documented. The hard work and determination and need to rely on others for help is what LeBron has credited driving his great success. He’s the athlete that you would create in a lab, made to physically dominate all on-comers, and yet he understands what Lombardi was talking about in that quote I used as the intro to this post: it takes a team to win. LeBron didn’t have a team around him when all was said and done a year ago in the Finals as his Heat teammates crumbled under the pressure of the what was the epitome of a team in the 2014 Spurs. LeBron recognized it early on with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters (RIP) and pushed the individuals on the team to work as one unit. LeBron has done for and with Iman Shumpert and JR Smith was Carmelo Anthony never could—he’s made them part of something bigger than their individual talents. This Cavaliers team has played this postseason with the tenacity and teamwork of an underdog. And the fact is, the individuals who make up the team are underdogs in their own way.

We’ve already covered how LeBron is (and also is not) an underdog. Kyrie is probably the least uderdoggy player on the team outside of LeBron because of his immense skill and everything he’s already accomplished in his young career. But put up against Steph Curry? That’s a different story. Especially given his injuries struggles Kyrie will have a really hard time matching up with Curry defensively, let alone trying to match is scoring production on the other end.

Tristan Thompson, for starters, is from Canada (and no pun was intended equating “Starters” and “Canada” I swear—Pew! Pew!) and no offense to the great white north but it hasn’t exactly been hoops hotbed for very long. Add that to the fact that he’s not super skilled, relies heavily on his energy and hard work, and only recently discovered he’d been shooting with the wrong hand his whole life, and Tristan is the prototypical underdog on the team…if it weren’t for a certain Aussie.

Matthew Dellavedova is from another country (also a place not known for pumping out ballers), went to St. Mary’s, went undrafted, and has only barely held onto a roster spot on this team if you believe Twitter during the regular season. Like Tristan, Delly also has to bust his butt for everything he gets. Only that character quality has been sullied by people who aren’t willing to work as hard and want to call what he does “dirty” which remains the stupidest thing I’ve heard these entire playoffs and I’ve had to listen to a lot of Reggie Miller, Jeff Van Gundy, and Mark Jackson so that’s saying something.

Shumpert and JR were midseason cast-offs from one of the worst teams in the NBA. The Knicks considered them sunk costs and only got back cuttable contracts and a second round draft pick in return—so basically nothing. Shump and JR were considered essentially worthless to the largest market team in the NBA, but have proved to be invaluable to one of the smallest. The two shooting guards have done nothing but thrive since they’ve come to Cleveland and have been (and will continue to be) huge parts of the Cavs’ success this postseason.

Timofey Mozgov is still best known for having his last name turned into an action verb by Blake Griffin. And despite recently being buried on the center depth chart in Denver behind JaVale McGee of all people, Mozgov has looked like the missing piece to the Cavs defense. He’s the anchor. The rock. And with Tristan he makes up part of a terrifying duo on the boards. Don’t sleep on him in those pick and rolls either.

And then, just like everyone expected when they signed him for the minimum this past summer, there’s James Jones. I, like many other NBA fans I expect, was a little surprised to learn after the close of the sweep of the Hawks that Jones, along with LeBron of course, was also headed to his fifth straight NBA Finals. Given that he never saw the court the past several seasons in Miami I had no idea he was still on those teams. You could have told me he’d been cut two years ago off that team I never would have known the difference. He couldn’t get on the court for those teams and even with this Cavs team they clearly signed Shawn Marion and Mike Miller to play bigger roles. And yet, there’s James Jones, still firmly in the Cavs rotation this late in the Playoffs and still knocking down shots. Jones won’t play a huge role in these Finals I don’t think, as he’ll probably only get single digits in minutes per game. But to call the fact that Jones has ANY role in these Finals “unexpected” coming into the season would be an understatement.

No discussion of underdogs or people who were not expected to be here would be incomplete without including the Cavs coach, David Blatt. Never mind that he’d only ever coached overseas before this season and that he had to deal with a constantly developing roster throughout the season…if you believed the national and local media this guy was supposed to have gotten canned back on New Year’s. Only that never happened. And all Blatt has done since is lead this team to play extremely well since mid-January all the way into the NBA Finals. On his way to the Finals Blatt’s team has swept Brad Stevens (who finished 4th in Coach of the Year voting this season), dismantled Tom Thibodeau (finish 7th this season and won COY in 2011), and also swept this season’s COY Mike Budenholzer. All those great coaches combined to only with two games over Blatt’s team. He know has a shot at Steve Kerr who finished a close second.

Throughout this postseason Blatt has made the right decisions with the rotation and matchups. He held out Kyrie when he was ailing, knowing that the team would be fine without him. He put the ball in the hands of his best player and surrounded him with shooters. He’s opted for defense at almost every turn, knowing that is the true key to success in the playoffs. Every series he has out-coached guys that finished ahead of him in the Coach of the Year voting. Go ahead and keep discounting his coaching ability though. Something tells me that Blatt enjoys being the underdog as well.

  
These moments don’t come around all the time, as we well know. It’s been eight years since that magical 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit when LeBron led the underdog Cavs to beat the Pistons almost entirely by himself (with the help of some Boobie Gibson threes). That team wasn’t supposed to make the Finals. The 2009 and 2010 Cavs, however, were…and didn’t. Nothing is given, as LeBron reminded us this summer. You work for everything you have.

So I’m going to enjoy this moment. Cleveland is in the spotlight. It’s a great time to be someone who calls Ohio “home” (even while currently living 500 miles away).

Cleveland has always been an underdog city. Why should that change for these Finals? Own it. Embrace it. Cleveland pride.

Bring it home, boys.

Cavs in six.

Believeland.

Cleveland’s Faith Rewarded: Cavaliers are Going to the NBA Finals

It was Friday, April 11th, 2014 and I sat about 12 rows behind the Cavaliers bench in Milwaukee as they squared off against a Bucks team that was looking at finishing with the worst record in the league. With only three games remaining in the fourth of four consecutive losing seasons, the squad from Cleveland already knew they were not going to make the playoffs…and they played like it.Sitting next to my brother, we watched as our beloved hometown team played like a bunch of worthless individuals who hated each other just about as much as they hated their coach. That’s the cool thing about sitting so close behind a bench is that you can really get a feel for how the team interacts with one another. It was painfully obvious that Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters were not going to be going on vacation together that summer. Their on-court chemistry was as frosty as it appeared to be off. They both made a handful of fantastic individual plays that drew some “ooh’s” and “ah’s” from even the opposing fans but they weren’t playing anything that even remotely resembled team basketball. (The duo combined for just five assists in over 60 minutes of playing time.) Or winning basketball for that matter.

The starting small forward in that game for the Cavs was Alonzo Gee, a man who suited up for 250 games in the wine and gold from 2010 to 2014, earning a starting nod in 166 of those contests. Gee, through no real fault of his own, is probably the most emblematic figure of those four dark years of Cleveland basketball. Gee has only started nine games outside of Cleveland in his career and for good reason. Yet, while he was here, there was never really anyone else to play the unfortunate role of filling a position that had previously been held by a hometown hero who just so happened to be the greatest basketball player on the planet. For four years the Cavs tried to rebuild a team that was left in ruin when LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010 and yet, at the end of that fourth season, the man who was left playing the King’s former position was someone called Alonzo Gee.

For four years Cavs fans had to endure the likes of Alonzo Gee trotting out on the court in a futile attempt to win basketball games. Earl Clark (still trying to inbound that ball), Andrew Bynum, Henry Sims, Donald Sloan, Omri Casspi, Samardo Samuels, Manny Harris, Kevin Jones, Jeremy Pargo, Anthony Parker, Ryan Hollins, Semih Erden, Luke Harangody, Lester Hudson (#respect), Mychel Thompson (Klay’s brother who somehow started 3 of the 5 games he played in for the Cavs), JJ Hickson, Christian Eyenga, Joey Graham, Jamario Moon, Jawad Williams, and Leon Powe—just to name a few—all played “significant” roles for the Cavs over that four-year stretch. I put “significant” in quotes because, well, one could make the case that no one played a significant role because the team never accomplished anything significant.

The bright spots were few and far between. Kyrie was obviously spectacular often and gave some hope. Dion did fun things quite often and enjoyed himself quite a lot in those times. Tristan Thompson wasn’t as bad as the other two big guys taken just before him in the draft. And Baron Davis had one of the most entertaining 15-game cameos you could expect from a washed-up former All-Star on a crap team.

But the darkness was what overwhelmingly prevailed. Anderson Varejao spent more time in the trainers room than in the paint. Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson moped around like 8-year-olds whose dad had just put down their dog. The aforementioned collection of “basketball players” got into games the team was allegedly trying to win. Antawn Jamison was the “best” player on the team at one point…I guess. Former All-Star Luol Deng came over from Chicago and immediately decided he hated everyone and wanted to leave. Byron Scott stood, arms folded, scowling at the court for three years, refusing to call time outs. Mike Brown came back for some reason. (Keep gettin’ dem checks, Mike!) And while winning the draft lottery three times was exciting and all (while being a bit bittersweet because, you know, you kinda have to suck to be in position to win it that many times), it yielded probably the most disappointing individual of all those years in Anthony Bennett—who likely will go down as the worst number one draft pick ever.

Four years…and it didn’t seem like the tunnel was getting any shorter. The light was still barely perceptible in the distance. Sometimes it felt like the night was never going to end.

And yet, as the great fictional philosopher turned district attorney Harvey Dent once said in the movie The Dark Knight, “But the night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.”

The dawn finally came on July 11, 2014, just three months after I sat and watched that garbage of a basketball team play out the string in Milwaukee, when LeBron announced “I’m coming home.”

The jubilation and disbelief in that moment that it actually happened is being felt once again tonight. The Cleveland Cavaliers are headed back to the NBA Finals.

I have to sit here for a couple minutes and just stare at that last sentence and let it sink in because I don’t know if I fully grasped it until just now when I wrote it…The Cleveland Cavaliers—an organization that posted a record of 97-215, fired the same coach twice, used the first pick in the draft on Anthony Bennett, and started Alonzo Gee 166 times over a the previous four seasons—are headed back to the NBA Finals.

David Blatt (maybe the luckiest man in the world to have LeBron dropped in his lap his first season coaching in the NBA) put his arm around LeBron standing by the Cavs bench, while Kendrick Perkins and Joe Harris played out garbage time of the dismantling sweep of the 60-win Hawks, and told him that he “deserved this.” LeBron certainly made sacrifices and took a considered step of faith in coming back to Cleveland leaving a stable organization that had just gone to four straight Finals. But LeBron came back home for his fans and for the “unfinished business” of winning Cleveland its first title in over 50 years. He knew it was going to be hard and it was going to take work and it wasn’t going to be magically great overnight. But LeBron was patient and kept grinding and teaching and leading. And as the squad came together through the bold moves of David Griffin, the play on the court crystalized into something special…a team.

LeBron certainly does deserve this. I wrote as much prior to game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. But he’s not the only one who deserves this.

Cleveland deserves this.

We deserve this team for never giving up over the past four years. Sure some bandwagon fans jumped off and have predictably found their way back. What of it? They can enjoy it too. But no one will enjoy these Finals more than the true fans. I’ve had NBA League Pass for the past four years. I watched almost every minute of every game during that four year stretch. Maybe because I like to torture myself…but more likely because I love Cleveland and I love the Cavaliers. And because I had hope.

I’ve written in the past about the delusion of hope that plagues fans, particularly Cleveland fans. I kept watching the Cavs through all the terrible players because I believed in that hope that it would get better. Sure, I’ll admit that as I sat watching Kyrie and Dion pay zero attention during a Mike Brown timeout on that Friday evening last April that I felt as suckered into believing in “Hope and Change” as everyone who voted for Barack Obama (twice) probably feels today looking at the mess that America is right now. (Political humor!)

But the Cleveland fan’s faith has been rewarded. The prodigal son came home and is bringing his hometown team with him back to the Finals, a place he’s going for the fifth straight year.

Cleveland deserves this team because their grit and determination in spite of the many changes and difficulties that came along the way are an embodiment of the character of the city that cheers them on. Cleveland deserves this team because they never gave up on their goal just like the fans never gave up on the jersey no matter what D-League player was wearing it. Cleveland deserves this team because we’re going back to the Finals.

There’s still a long way to go and the test the Cavs face in the Finals is going to be harder than anything they’ve faced all season. Winning the championship will not be easy by any stretch and chances are the Cavs will be the underdogs when the matchup is set—which will bring some added “us against the world” intensity, for sure. But that shouldn’t keep us from enjoying where we are tonight. This is only the franchise’s second trip ever to the Finals of course…a place they have yet to actually win a game. So this is still an accomplishment worthy of celebrating.

Remember that long list of crap players? Of course you do…like me, you also watched them flounder around the court for four years. Well that group of (no offense coming from the 5’7” kid who couldn’t get off the bench of his high school team) worthless players has been replaced by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Timofey Mozgov, James Jones, Kevin Love (in a suit), Anderson Varejao (who stuck around but is also currently wearing a suit as well), Shawn Marion, and Mike Miller—a team Cleveland deserves and can be proud of.

Still four more wins to go, starting on June 4th. But for now, we’ll enjoy where this long dark night has brought us.

The sun has come up in Cleveland. The Cavaliers are headed back to the NBA Finals.

Believeland.

The Team Cleveland and LeBron Deserve

When LeBron James announced last summer that he was returning to Cleveland, the key theme of his Sports Illustrated essay with Lee Jenkins was summed up in the second to last paragraph: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”

In the piece James laid out how his final great mission as a professional basketball player was to win Cleveland that championship it’s been yearning for for over fifty years. He tempered any perception that he was making a promise or a declaration by stating that the team was not ready to win this year. That it would be “a long process.” 
Yet only a few weeks later when the Cavaliers traded for Kevin Love all that tempering of expectations went out the window. NBA pundits were falling all over themselves declaring the Cavs to be the favorites to win the 2015 Finals. And, truth be told, most Cavs fans allowed themselves to believe this as well. And why not? We were bringing back LeBron, the best player in the world. We had Kyrie Irving, All-Star and FIBA MVP winner. We had Love, a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA player. Some even were willing to go as far as to call this new “Big Three” even better than the one LeBron joined with in Miami in 2010.

As the team hit their stride in January and essentially rolled over all on-comers through the end of the regular season and into the first round of the playoffs against Boston, it looked like the 2015 championship was the Cavs’ to lose.

And then Love’s arm got ripped off. And then JR Smith cold-cocked Jae Crowder (after Crowder had body-checked Smith in the lane and thrown his forearm into his back a half dozen times). Kyrie hurt his knee. Then he hurt his ankle. Then he hurt his knee again. Iman Shumpert hurt his groin. LeBron got banged up. And suddenly the Cavs didn’t look anything like a lock to even make it to the Finals anymore, let alone win yet.

And yet, here we are, in the Eastern Conference Finals, with LeBron essentially carrying the team on his back, just like he did the last time he donned the wine and gold in the playoffs five years ago. This probably is not what LeBron wanted or expected when he came back to Cleveland.

There are plenty of people who never truly bought into the “Coming Home” narrative of LeBron’s return to Cleveland. Many believed it be a nice publicity stunt to mask what was really just a smart career move in trading in his banged-up and aging former “Big Three” partners for younger and hungrier versions in Kyrie and Love. Instead of carrying Wade and Bosh like he did last year he would be able to lean his younger running mates and in turn win more championships while prolonging his career. For the skeptics, it was the same motivation that took LeBron to Miami—manufacturing an easier path to championships by creating a super team—that took him back to Cleveland. The fact that it was his former team made for happy coincidence and a chance to do a little cleanup of his public image—especially in his hometown.

Well things certainly have not gone according to plan. And the Cavs quest for a championship this season will be anything from easy. In all likelihood, they probably won’t win. Especially given how unstoppable the Warriors have looked out West.

But in an odd way, this actually the team that Cleveland, and LeBron, probably deserve right now.

Sure, Cleveland fans, having been deprived of a championship squad for half a century would love nothing more than to have the juggernaut of a team that we watched from mid-January through the Boston series. We would love any team that wins us a championship. But something about winning that way is almost too easy. It wouldn’t have felt earned.

But winning without Love and with a hobbled Kyrie? That would certainly feel earned.

Because what LeBron said in that letter really is the truth. Northeast Ohio isn’t the easiest place to live. It’s cold and hard. It’s not as productive and extravagant as it once was. It’s a place where people work hard for what they have without taking shortcuts. And that’s why winning with this team would mean more.

The Cavs didn’t dispatch the Bulls because they were so much more talented. Sure, a big part of it was the simple fact that we had LeBron and they didn’t. But the Cleveland squad outworked Chicago’s. They busted their butts on defense (as evidenced by the final three quarters of the deciding game six), killed the boards, and scrapped for every lose ball. The Bulls won just two games in the series. They took Game One when the Cavs were trying to learn on the fly how to play without two starters, and the other when a career 30% three point shooter hit an off-balance, fading 30-footer with a hand in face on an unintentional bank (read: “lucky shot”). The Cavs, in the end, proved to be the better team not just because they had LeBron but also because they Tristan Thompson, Shumpert, Smith, Mozgov, Delly, and even James Jones. Those guys were the difference in the series.

And it’s going to take more of that kind of team play to get to the Finals. The Cavs are going to need LeBron to carry the load offensively to set up his teammates and score himself. It’s going to be old-school LeBron. As long as Kyrie is hampered with his leg injuries LeBron won’t have another star to lean on when things get tight like he had with Wade and Bosh. And that’s why this is the team that LeBron really deserves.

He’s already recognized as the best player in basketball. He’s widely accepted to be at least a top five player of all time if not top two. But there will always be some who discount his accomplishments (read: “championships”) because he had other stars to help him. He didn’t do it all by himself like Jordan (who had Pippen and Rodman), Bird (McHale and Parish), and Magic (Jabbar and Worthy). Look narratives are mostly stupid contrived media crap. But they can skew public opinion because there are people who are still dumb enough to listen, care, and actually give credence to anything that Skip Bayless says. LeBron’s the best but still somehow hasn’t won the league MVP for three years because people have come to expect more of him. But if LeBron wins with this team as it currently sits? No one gets to say anything anymore. If he wins with this hobbled and broken team LeBron will be further cemented as an All-Time great, possibly leading being the All-Time Great. It will become the lead of his career profile instead of his time in Miami. For a guy who has already had like a dozen career-defining moments, this championship would be THE defining moment. Because the perception will be that he did on his own…and maybe even more so because he did it for Cleveland. 

And that’s where this whole trip really takes on a great significance. I love Kyrie. He was our shining light during a very dark four years. He’s magical.

I love Kevin Love. I mean, he’s white, obviously I love him. I’m kidding, I’m kidding…but seriously.

The other cast of characters on this team are so lovable. Tristan’s workmanlike effort. Mozgov’s exuberance. Delly’s scrappiness. Shump’s hair. JR’s pipe. But in the end it all comes back to LeBron. Because we wouldn’t be here without him. And the great significance and spotlight that has shined on Cleveland and on the Cavaliers over the past twelve years wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for our prodigal son.

The Diddy song “Coming Home” became ubiquitous for obvious reasons this past summer and even culminated with Skylar Grey playing her signature chorus at LeBron’s homecoming celebration in Akron. The third verse of that song reads as follows:

It’s what made me, saved me, drove me crazy

Drove me away then embraced me

Forgave me for all of my shortcomings

Welcome to my homecoming

Yeah it’s been a long time coming

Lot of fights, lot of scars, lot of bottles

Lot of cars, lot of ups, lot of downs

Made it back, lost my dog

And here I stand, a better man!

LeBron came home claiming to be that better man and we embraced him both because we’re a forgiving people who could never truly turn our back on one of our own, but also because we needed him even more than he needed us. We have a better chance of winning if we have the best player in the world on our side.

So this is what we both deserve. For the hopes of a championship to rest on the shoulders of our native son as he’s surrounded by a group of beat-up and cast-off guys who want it more than their opponent. It’s a chance for LeBron to showcase the strength and grind and determination of this region that made him who he is.

Cleveland deserves this team.

LeBron deserves this team.

The Draft, Love, Jinxes, and Cleveland’s Curse of Hope

“Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of men.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

A lot can happen in 50 years. 

I could go on and make a long list of amazing accomplishments or advancements in society like the rotary phone morphing into the iPhone and the price of gas and all of that stuff you see all the time. But there has been one thing that has certainly not happened in the last 50 years…

Cleveland has not won.

I cannot lay claim to having suffered as much as most Cleveland fans. My fandom extends only back as far as 1995 when my family moved from Connecticut to the suburbs on the east side of Cleveland. But my indoctrination into Cleveland’s sports futility did not take long to manifest. Within one month of my family taking up residence in the state of Ohio the Indians lost the World Series and the Browns announced they were moving to Baltimore. It was a weird thing for a ten-year-old kid who loved sports to get dropped into.

I don’t remember a specific instance, but someone back then probably (or at least should have) warned me about getting involved in this whole “being a Cleveland sports fan” thing. Because being a Cleveland fan is not for the weak of heart.

It’s a crazy thing sports. All we have as fans in the end is hope. Only one team can win any given sport championship each year. Odds are that it won’t be our team this year. But we can always hope that maybe “next year” will be the year. But for the Cleveland fan that hope is eternally unfounded. 

Hope must be built and founded upon something of substance. To do otherwise is just plain stupidity. And that’s what is most maddening about being a Cleveland sports fan…we tend to put our hope on something of substance only for it crumble into utter demise.

That feeling of hope is probably never more real and prescient than at the NFL Draft…which just so happens to start today.

Drafts are glorious things. We spend months upon months pouring over mock drafts, scouting reports, YouTube highlights, and every other bit of information we can get our hands on to inform ourselves about who our team should or should not take. And while there are certainly exceptions to the rule and it’s obviously important for every team to do their due dilligence, drafts often wind up being wild crap-shoots. First round picks flop and third-day selections become cogs of Super Bowl winning teams with regularity.

And yet that won’t stop us from plopping down on our couches and losing our minds over this stuff for the next three days. Because that’s what hope does to us when it’s all we have. We cling to it like a drowning man on a life preserver. 

And it certainly never hurts to inject this steaming bowl of hope with some added spices like “the Browns are going to package their two first round picks and trade up for the next savior quarterback.” Nothing gins up more hope than a quarterback, especially since we haven’t had one in decades.

Marcus Mariota might be a great NFL quarterback. He also might not. And while it would certainly be exciting to get a guy of his stature and accomplishments, we’re only a year removed from losing our minds over drafting Johnny Manziel. Which was only a year after everyone went nuts over hometown heart-throb Brian Hoyer. Which was only a year removed from drafting Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden in the first round. Which was only a year after we thought Colt McCoy was the answer after he looked great in preseason. You see how this goes? Do you see what hope does to us? We’re looking at a solid five straight years of believing the “new” guy is going to be “the” guy. But that’s hope for you. It’s delusional.

Granted, the people who are delusional enough to think that trading two first round picks (and maybe more) for a QB who clearly needs time to develop and dropping him onto a team that will probably start him on day one but is starved for talent and could really stand to benefit from using those two first rounders on several other spots of need are no more delusional than I am for thinking that Johnny Football can still be a star in the NFL and lead the Browns to a Super Bowl. But we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Misplaced hope can also be spurred on by other things than media-driven hype. It can also come from a major sports magazine placing outsized expectations of winning the World Series on the local baseball team. Which, now that I think about it, is really just another form of media-driven hype.

We are exactly one month removed from Sports Illustrated declaring that the Indians would win the Fall Classic this season…a declaration that, at least to me, was utterly shocking considering that the team didn’t even make the postseason last year, only made the Wild Card game the year before, and hasn’t really added much besides another year’s experience. And yet, all it took was that cover of a jovial Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley to suck me and get me excited about the Tribe again! It gave me hope.

And as I sit here today the Indians sit in last place in the division with only the second fewest wins in all of baseball. It’s still early, is what everyone likes to say and it’s a long season, yada yada yada. Well even though it’s “still early” it won’t be very long before it’s not early anymore and it certainly doesn’t help things to already be back seven games in division this “early” in the season. It also doesn’t help when you don’t have a single qualified hitter with an average above .300 and only have one guy with an on base percentage above that number. And while the pitching hasn’t been terrible, it hasn’t exactly been lights out either.

The reality is that we never should have gotten our hopes up in the first place. This was a team that hadn’t accomplished anything of real value yet. Maybe we should have waited to see them win a postseason game first before planning a parade. But that’s what hope does to you, especially when you’re starved. It doesn’t matter if it seems too good to be true. I might as well dive in head first because if it is true then it’s gonna be awesome and don’t bother me with the details about what might happen if it’s not.

Of course, when it comes to placing hope in something Sports Illustrated has espoused only to have it bashed you can always blame “the Jinx” (or jixes).

But when it comes to placing your hope in a juggernaut of a basketball team that has been rolling everything in their way since the middle of January only to have one of their stars get his arm ripped off…who do we blame then?

This year’s Cavaliers team is almost certainly the solidest foundation that hope has been built on in this town in a long time. While they didn’t win as many games in the regular season as they did back in 2009 and 2010, this team was certainly built to do bigger and better things in the Playoffs. Cleveland fans had every reason in the world to believe that this team would win a championship. It wasn’t delusional at all.

And then that long haired dope on Boston had to “accidently” get his arm “tangled up” with Kevin Love while going for a lose ball and now the Cavs are without an integral cog of thier offensive attack and maybe more importantly their rotation for the rest of this postseason. And that’s the problem as always I think for Cleveland sports fans. We hope without ever considering that something could go wrong. (It’s not like it’s ever gone wrong before, right?)

The saying is “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” But we never seem to do that, though, do we?

And that goes back to the Nietzsche quote at the beginning of this piece. Hope, in reality, is just a dream. It isn’t a reality at all. And maybe that does make hope “the greatest evil of all” because it only furthers and deepens our pain when hope proves unfounded. Maybe we should accept that nothing good is ever going to work out for Cleveland sports. Maybe, as Bill Simmons likes to joke, God really does hate Cleveland. Maybe we should give up hope altogether.

This brings me back to Johnny Manziel.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

I don’t think there’s a player in Cleveland sports outside of LeBron James who has stirred more hope in me than Johnny Manziel. I watched almost every game of Manziel’s college career. The kid was electric on the field, and passionate on the sidelines. He played with a flare and enthusiasm that I hadn’t ever seen in a football player, particularly a QB. He was magic. He was the antithesis of everything that I had seen from the Browns since they came back in 1999. I wanted that fire on the Browns more than anything.

And then it happened. It was like a wonderful dream. I’ll never forget the buzz of that night from the disappointment of trading down and then taking a defensive back, only to trading back up to grab the Texas A&M quarterback. It was amazing and exhilerating. And in a world where LeBron was still in Miami and the Cavs were still in the lottery this was better than anything I could imagine.

Then it all cratered. And as seemingly everyone was jumping off the bandwagon in droves I was hanging in there…still hoping…still believing.

I refuse to give up on the belief that the amazing things that Johnny Football did in the vaunted SEC can be done in the NFL. I refuse to accept that a game and a half is enough to know what we have in a player. I refuse to accept that a 22-year-old kid can’t grow up. I refuse to accept that I got my hopes up for nothing.

And you know why? Because I don’t know if I can handle putting my hope in another college phenom quarterback to be the great savior of the Cleveland Browns. I don’t know if I can handle another dream being crushed. I don’t know if I can kling to another visage of hope. Because no matter how much I enoyed watching Marcus Mariota in college and no matter how much intellectually I understant what makes him a viable QB, he’ll never give me the hope that Manziel did.

“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.” 
― Langston Hughes

Until the day that Johnny Manziel is either cut from the Browns or he raises the Lombardi Trophy wearing “CLEVELAND” in big, bold, gaudy lettering accross his chest, I will continue to hold onto this dream. I will continue to hope.

I choose to believe that Johnny Football can reclaim that magic in Cleveland.

I choose to believe that despite losing Kevin Love, having LeBron and Kyrie is still good enough to win a title.

I choose to believe that it is still early in the season for the Tribe…for just a little while longer.

I choose to believe that Cleveland will win a championship, and that that day isn’t far away.

You can mock me all you want. Call me delusional. Call me a dreamer.

It’s not gonna bother me at all. Without hopes and dreams we’ll never fly.

We don’t call it Believeland for nothing.