View from the Porch Becomes View from Loudville

Sometimes you get an offer you can’t refuse. That happened to me earlier this week when a good friend of mine flew in from Las Vegas and had an NBA Finals Game 4 ticket for me. Admittedly, I am not a big Cleveland Cavs fan. In fact, I was throwing shade at LeBron before it was cool and long before he took his talents to South Beach.

It’s not that I have anything against the Cavs, necessarily, I just don’t have an affinity for the NBA and there’s probably a certain level of jealousy there. The jealousy lies in the fact that the Cavs play in a league in which 16 of the 30 teams make the NBA playoffs and the NBA Eastern Conference is a joke. It also lies in the fact that the Cavs are in the Finals and the Indians have not made one since 1997. I was 11 years old and I don’t have a strong recollection of the series. The Cavs have made two Finals since then, due in large part to some fortunate Draft Lottery luck. Major League Baseball isn’t quite that simple and it’s very hard to build a consistent winner in baseball.

Regardless, I understand the desire for a championship in this city. Just because it’s not the one that I want, most fans will take any championship, and this is exactly the one that some people want. Knowing that, I was excited to go. Not because I was emotionally invested, but because the atmosphere was easily worth experiencing. My Indians fandom runs so deep that I am emotionally invested in regular season interleague games on Tuesday nights, let alone the key weekend matchups or the rare playoff game. It’s a major departure from my feelings on the Cavs. I had been to one game since eighth grade prior to going on Thursday night.

It lived up to the hype from the start. The Gateway District and the surrounding bars were full of palpable excitement. After years of going down to sporting events with no buzz, no hype, no crowd, and no enthusiasm, to see downtown energized like that filled me with pride in my city. We’ve endured a lot on a lot of different levels. Cleveland fans wear sports disappointments like scout merit badges. Like they are accomplishments that have been unlocked in a video game. Like they are part of “the Cleveland fan experience”. Red Right 88. The Drive. The Shot. The Decision. The Stop Sign. The Overnight Departure. The trading of consecutive Cy Young Award winners. If the Cavs lose the NBA Finals, who knows what we’ll call it. Somebody will have a name. It will stick. It will be the epithet for all self-deprecating sports commentary until another chance to be disappointed emerges.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s been increasingly disheartening to see Cleveland fans play the roles of cynics and pessimists. It’s understandable, given that the Cleveland Browns have been the laughing stock of the NFL basically since they returned. The Indians have not consistently strung together much of anything and have exactly five playoff wins since 2001. The Cavs have been Cleveland’s best hope, a fan base dragged behind the last car on a roller coaster since 2003 when a wunderkind named LeBron James fell into the organization’s lap. But Clevelanders use their sports disappointments as a crutch and as a predictor of future performance. To me, it’s no longer a badge of honor. It’s an addiction to pain and suffering that is easier to fall victim to than to persevere through by supporting the teams in the city. There is only one winner in each league. It hasn’t been Cleveland since 1964. That doesn’t mean that everything is a failure. That doesn’t mean that Cleveland is cursed, irrespective of what the anecdotal evidence states. It simply means that a Cleveland team has not been great enough. There have been good teams. There have not been great teams.

Right now, the Cleveland Cavaliers are barely bordering on good. Injuries have decimated the lineup and the team’s depth, so much so that the world’s greatest player can’t make it through one half of basketball without looking like he just ran a marathon. While nobody has been paying attention, the Indians have made it a point to piss away the league’s best starting rotation by not being able to field or get hits with runners in scoring position. Somehow, it’s almost a microcosm for how Cleveland wants its sports. One team experiences success, though they may ultimately fall short, and one team, serving as a fallback option, is struggling and could allow fans to utter the “wait ‘til next year” expression we’ve all come to know and love/hate. That way Cleveland fans can spend the summer lamenting the close call rather than getting lost in another playoff chase.

Deep down, I feel like there are segments of the Cleveland sports fan base that secretly want the Cavs to lose. What will those individuals do without their “woe is us” attitude to fall back on? I don’t think any of those people were in attendance on Thursday night. In today’s highly-polarized society, finding even 10 people in a room with a common sentiment is hard to do. On Thursday night, probably 20,462 of the 20,562 in attendance were “All In” for the Cavs.

Even the dormant Cavs fan in me got caught up in the moment before the game and during the 7-0 run to start the game. Unfortunately, that was about all the excitement that the game provided since the Cavs trailed the vast majority of the night and got within three at 73-70, but got no closer. The crowd gradually sensed what was going on and started to sound and feel as defeated as the team looked.

I spent most of the game analyzing, because that’s my nature. I appreciated the environment for what it was, though I certainly felt a sense of emptiness in the fact that I wasn’t as engaged in the game the same way that the other people around me were. On a different level, I was content with that because I was able to process the game in a much different manner. It wasn’t a “here we go, again” mindset like most people probably had, especially after LeBron went down in a heap after getting domed by a camera. My mindset was more pragmatic. Fans held out hope. I wanted LeBron and the other starters benched much earlier than David Blatt sat them down because Game 4 had clearly gotten away. It’s a tough sell to openly punt a game like that on the home floor, but it would have been the right decision.

The experience was undoubtedly worth it for all involved, even if the outcome didn’t live up to the atmosphere. The Cavaliers may lose the series. They’re tired. Circumstances have put David Blatt in a bind. He cannot adjust the way that Steve Kerr can. They may also defy the odds and win the series, adding to LeBron’s legacy and snapping the title drought in one fell swoop. Whatever happens, this is a team to be proud of and a city to be proud of.

Cleveland has always had a negative perception. It’s the butt of all jokes, even though the material has been old since 1969, when the mighty Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Nobody mentions how Cleveland instituted major environmental reforms in light of the fire. People are just now starting to mention Cleveland’s rapidly-growing food scene and far more attractive downtown areas and neighborhoods like Tremont and Ohio City. We’ve always been against the odds in more than just sports. The decline of American industrialization left Cleveland’s economy in dire straits. Major companies left downtown and the metro population of Cleveland declined as a result.

On Thursday night, I saw the best of Cleveland. I saw the optimism. I saw the hope. I saw 20,000 foam light-up sticks waving around a dark arena before the game. I saw Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley supporting their Gateway District neighbors. I saw businesspeople. I saw children. I saw young couples and old couples. I saw all races and all ethnicities. I saw over 20,000 people brought together by a common interest.

It was exhilarating. I won’t remember the game, per se, but I will remember my presence. I will remember Usher’s national anthem and the unnecessarily detailed, two-sided card that was used to color the stands red, white, and blue during the anthem and wine and gold afterwards. I will remember who I went with, where I sat, and the feelings I had when the arena crowd reached peak decibel levels.

I won’t watch the remainder of the series. I’m just not that interested. It’s nothing against the Cavs. It’s nothing against the city. I have strong opinions about being a fan that include being there through the good times and bad and I practice what I preach. If they win it, it will be the stuff of legend and Cleveland will be one giant party.

If they don’t, Clevelanders will dwell on the negative. They shouldn’t. They should celebrate the positive. It’s human nature to want more. It’s fair to wonder when a Cleveland team will come this close again. It’s fair to wonder what could have been with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor. But, it’s also fair (and deserved) to applaud the efforts of a team that was 21-20 midway through the NBA season. They were 32-9 over the final 41 games and are 14-4 in the postseason so far.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works. It will simply be another loss. Another disappointment. Another badge of honor. Another nickname in Cleveland sports lore.

Whatever happens, don’t take this playoff run for granted. (Take it from a diehard Indians fan.) That’s not the way to go “All In”. That’s the way to fold. Calling this season a disappointment if the ultimate prize went to somebody else is unfair. Cleveland will win a championship. Whether it happens on June 16, June 19, or sometime down the line, it will happen. After what I saw this past week, Cleveland will be ready when that opportunity comes.
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About Adam Burke

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