The Cavaliers and Emotional Detachment

I’m terrible at talking to women. This has been the case since I was a kid. In fact, if not for the internet, I doubt I would have mustered up the courage to first talk to my current girlfriend.

There are a myriad of reasons why this is the case for me, but I believe the foremost reason is my fear of having my heart broken. It was much easier on my nerves to avoid rejection, and thus avoid heartbreak, by never putting myself out there in the first place, even if it meant missing out on the chance to experience something great.

One of my first sports memories was also my first experience with heartbreak: Game Seven of the 1997 World Series between the Florida Marlins and my beloved Cleveland Indians. I remember Tony Fernandez getting the big hit in the third to put the Indians ahead 2-0. I remember Jaret Wright battling the entire night, teetering on the edge of giving up the Tribe’s two-run lead before making way for the bullpen. I remember going into the ninth thinking we were just three more outs from winning it all. I remember Jose Mesa giving up the sacrifice fly to tie the game, and I remember Charlie Nagy hopelessly reaching up as Edgar Renteria’s line drive flew past him to score the game-winning run. The whole thing is up on YouTube, presumably as a favor to the plethora of Marlins fans to enjoy while they avoid going to the ballpark to watch their team play.
I also remember crying like a baby after the game was over. I couldn’t believe what had happened. It didn’t seem fair that my team could make it so far only to come up short.

It was at that point when I should have realized that getting emotionally invested in a team’s success or failure was a painful endeavor and that simple math states that as a fan you have a 29 in 30 chance of the season ending in disappointment. Alas, I was just six years old in 1997, and as such had no comprehension of the emotional roller coaster that was to come. To me, it was only a matter of time before one of my teams won a championship.

Giving more credence to that idea was the presence of LeBron James in a Cavaliers uniform. I had zero doubts after the 2007 NBA Finals that the Cavaliers would be back in short order. I appreciated LeBron’s herculean effort in the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals while not even considering that the Cavaliers may not win a title in the coming years.

It wasn’t until the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals that I began to get antsy.  I fully expected the Cavaliers to beat the Orlando Magic in that series, and with the specter of the 2010 offseason looming, I began to wonder if when had turned into if for the Cavaliers.

Of course, the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals were an unmitigated disaster. I had expected the Cavaliers would have a championship by then, and I was dumbfounded by left-handed free throws and the overall lack of intensity shown by LeBron throughout the series.

Yet, through all the ennui produced by that series and the bevy of Chris Broussard and Brian Windhorst reports that followed, I never thought LeBron would leave Cleveland. I didn’t believe it, or didn’t want to believe it, until I saw LeBron say the words that fateful night on ESPN.

This was the first time I had my heart broken since I cried after Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. It felt like I had just been dumped on national television. I was no longer able to hold onto the thought that it was only a matter of time before a Cleveland team won a title, and my reaction was the same as it was in October of 1997: to cry. I got in my car, and drove out towards the countryside to cry because a basketball player decided he would rather play in Miami with his friends than in Cleveland.

I decided the next day what I should have decided the day after the 1997 World Series: I would never let a sports team or athlete break my heart like that again. I still loved sports, and I still planned on following them as fervently as I had before. But I needed to implement a level of emotional disconnect between myself and the results or else I’d leave myself open to even more heartbreak in the future.

When LeBron came back this season it felt awkward at first, like I imagine getting back together with an ex after four years apart would feel like if that ex had spent those four years having an incredibly fulfilling relationship in a much nicer city while I spent my time convincing myself that Dion Waiters was satisfying my needs.

The only way I can describe watching the opening night loss to the Knicks was strange. Strange to have LeBron back in my life, strange to watch him flanked by two all-stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love,  strange to be rooting for a team with championship expectations, and strange to be staring down the barrel of an  82-game regular season plus playoffs of caring greatly about the outcome of the games on a night-to-night basis.
Slowly it began to feel normal again. The Cavaliers traded for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov, and the team began rounding into form. As the playoffs neared I was doing my best to maintain my emotional distance with the Cavaliers, but it was getting harder and harder to do.

But after Kevin Love’s injury it became much easier. I had an excuse, a reason not to believe. I repeated to myself and to others how tough the road would be without Love and with Irving playing at less than 100 percent. I repeated it so much that I believed not only that, but that I had finally figured out how to be an emotionally dispassionate fan. I errantly believed that I was in some sense superior to other Cavaliers fans because I could see the inevitably of it all. I knew the outcome before the games even tipped off, and I was well-prepared for it.

Yet every step of the way the Cavaliers did all they could to try reeling me back in. They bulldozed their way through the Eastern Conference. They played Golden State neck-and-neck in Game 1, but when Irving went down for good I had finally felt justified. I knew things were too good to be true, that the Warriors, an all-time great regular season team, would dispatch with the Cavaliers in short order.
Then the Cavaliers won Game 2 on the road. They took a huge lead in Game 3 and held on to go up 2-1 in the series.

At this point, I had to believe again, at least a little bit. What other choice did I have? Winning one game in the series may be a fluke, but being up 2-1 was substantially. The Cavaliers had the upper hand in the series. There was no ignoring that.
So I let my guard down. I become emotionally invested just in time for the Cavaliers to drop the next two games and go down 3-2 in the series. Now all the old feelings of disappointment were flooding back to me. All the work I had done to insulate myself emotionally had gone for naught.

I can’t speak for every Cleveland fan, but to me anything less than a championship is a disappointment. I take no satisfaction out of how hard the Cavaliers have fought (they’ve fought really hard), or about how much more fun it was to watch this team than the previous iterations since The Decision (it has been much more fun). Those are moral victories; the equivalent to winning the Bon Jovi Toothpick when all I want are the Terrence and Phillip Dolls. They weren’t a satisfactory replacement for me in 1997, and they certainly are not aren’t one now.

The Cavaliers play the Warriors at home tomorrow night, and I’m fully expecting the Warriors to prevail. I’m also fully expecting myself to remain emotionally detached from the result, whatever it may be.
I already know, in true Cleveland form, I’m going to fall short of expectations.
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