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.