New year, same hope: a title for my hometown (finally)
The city of Cleveland has not won a sports title in 44 years
The LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers may be good enough to win it all
Some Cleveland fans are already preparing for LeBron to leave his native Ohio in 2010
The beautiful thing about a new sports year is that it gives us another chance to appreciate all of the same old things. So here is 2009 coming right at you, and it's a whole new chance to:
-- Moan about the absurdity of the college bowl season.
-- Go out of our minds trying to avoid the Super Bowl hype.
-- Complain about how much money the New York Yankees spent.
-- Fill out tournament brackets and watch the team you decided would be upset in the first round go all the way to the national championship game.
-- Learn the names of every college offensive lineman likely to go in the top five rounds of the NFL Draft.
-- Marvel at the how long the NBA playoffs last.
-- Turn off the television when a golf tournament is on and Tiger Woods is not playing in it.
-- Spend half the evening trying to find the channel that has the hockey game on.
-- Enjoy the anniversaries: The unveiling of the Eiffel Tower (100 years ago), the amazing Yankees-Red Sox pennant race in the summer of '49; the first Daytona 500 and Jack Nicklaus's first U.S. Amateur title (50 years ago); the Miracle Mets (40 years ago), the Year of Pittsburgh (30 years ago, the Pirates and Steelers won and "The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh" hit theaters) and my high school graduation (25 years ago -- there is no way).
-- Root for the Detroit Lions to win a game*.
*This has nothing whatsoever to do with the column but it must be mentioned ... the Detroit Lions, after winning precisely zero games this year, responded to this bitter humiliation by looking hard in the mirror and then promoting Martin Mayhew to be the new general manager. Martin Mayhew, you might know, was the right hand man of former Lions GM Matt Millen for the last FIVE SEASONS. I mean, no offense to Mayhew, who I'm sure is a fine football man, but isn't this more or less like promoting Gilligan to rebuild the S.S. Minnow? If you know any Lions fans, be kind, send them a card, let them know you're thinking about them.
And as 2009 begins, I find myself with the same hope I had when 2008 began, and 2007 and 2006 and every other year going back to my earliest memories: Peace on earth, goodwill toward all, and may this be the year that my hometown of Cleveland FINALLY wins the first championship of my lifetime. No city in America has suffered such sports pain.
That championship could happen this year. The Cleveland Cavaliers have that look. They have the driven superstar, Lebron James, playing his best basketball. They have the veteran guard, Mo Williams, who can control the tempo of games. They have the big man, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who is playing his pleasantly awkward game with the added bonus of sinking the occasional three-pointer. They have Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejo to grab rebounds and anchor a stifling defense. They have depth. They have that ferociousness that you see in good teams that have decided to become great. It really could happen.
Of course, it also could end with heartbreak because this, after all, is Cleveland and that's the way the story always ends. Yes, I was born in Cleveland exactly two years and 12 days after the Browns beat the Baltimore Colts for the 1964 NFL Championship. That was the last time any Cleveland team has won any championship, a 44-year walk through the desert that included a fumble, an interception, a drive, a blown lead in the ninth inning of a Game 7, a Michael Jordan jump shot over Craig Ehlo, and countless other smaller humiliations that left the city reeling and may or may not have involved John Elway.
The Cavaliers have been, in many ways, a minor character in The Cleveland Story. They came along much later than the Indians or the Browns, and they have had an odd and ever-shifting relationship with the city. They were nicknamed "Cavaliers," which never has fit the team or the city. For years, the team's orange logo was of a rather unimposing musketeer type with a feather in his hat jabbing a sabre between the C and A in "Cavaliers." The only distinguishing feature of the name is that it allowed people for years to cleverly refer to the team as the "Cleveland Cadavers."
The Cavs played their first game October 14, 1970 -- and they lost. In fact, they began their existence by losing their first 15 games by an average of 19 points per game. The beautiful thing is they then won their first game -- 105-103 over the Portland Trail Blazers -- and then promptly lost 12 more in a row.
In 1974, the Cavaliers moved to an amazing place called Richfield Coliseum, amazing because it was supposed to be exactly halfway between Cleveland and Akron but both cities claimed is was much closer to the other. The Richfield Coliseum was also amazing because it was the first arena in America to have luxury boxes. This might lead you to believe that Richfield was way ahead of its time, but, comically, the luxury boxes in at Richfield were BY FAR the worst seats in the house. They were, more or less, in the area on the top deck where you might temporarily hold a fugitive if you happened to catch one during the game.*
*It was while looking way up at the Richfield luxury boxes where I first heard the line: "Man, from up there you have to cheer by messenger."
The Cavaliers had a brief burst of glory in 1976, when I was 9 years old. They made it to the Eastern Conference finals (where they were pretty rudely dispatched by the Boston Celtics). I loved that team, of course: Jim Chones, Campy Russell, Dick Snyder, Austin Carr and my favorite player, Bingo Smith (who was famed for his shot, dubbed by radio announcer Joe Tait as "The Bingo Rainbow"). Chones was the star, and he got hurt in the first-round playoff series against Washington, leading everyone to believe the Cavs were finished. Instead, they shocked everyone by beating the Bullets behind a fading, 34-year-old Nate Thurmond. Even now, in Greater Cleveland that series is called "The Miracle of Richfield," which tells you all you need to know; a first-round playoff victory is, even more than 30 years later, known as a miracle.
Not long after that, the Cavaliers entered their blue period. The team was bought by a colorful advertising man named Ted Stepien who was so basketball incompetent that the NBA had to step in and stop him from making any more preposterous trades. They did not stop him, however, before he had traded Bill Laimbeer to the Detroit Pistons and the No. 1 overall pick to the Lakers (which they used to draft Hall of Famer James Worthy). The highlights of Cavaliers games in the Stepien days were the rather under-dressed cheerleaders called the "Teddy Bears"and the world-famous-in-greater-Cleveland act "Fat Guy Eating Beer Cans," who was, you know, a fat guy who ate beer cans.*
*Stepien also made the Cavaliers fight song a polka, which meant my Uncle Lonka could play it on the accordion. This is not a joke. I have an Uncle Lonka. He played the accordion at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
After Stepien got out, the Cavs became a very good team. In 1989, they won 57 games and, as any Cleveland fan can tell you, they beat the Chicago Bulls all six times they played during the regular season. But in Game 5 of their playoff series, Jordan made that shot over Ehlo, the one you still see in the Gatorade commercials, and that single shot set the NBA on its course for the 1990s. Jordan became the greatest ever. The Bulls won six titles. The Cavs were just good enough to be forgotten.
After all that and a few more down years, LeBron entered the picture -- he's the first truly iconic athlete to play in Cleveland since Jim Brown. He's so good, in fact, that his time in Cleveland feels temporary; already it seems like on a daily basis you read about how soon LeBron will play for the Knicks, or he will go to Greece, or he will spin off from the NBA and start his own team the way Meadowlark Lemon did when he left the Globetrotters.
Of course, that's just the price you pay for getting to cheer for having one of the one-named deities -- Peyton, Kobe, Tiger, LeBron. Of course LeBron is treasured and beloved in Cleveland, but he is so good that, you understand in some ways, he belongs to everyone.
That's why it's so urgent that he brings a championship to Cleveland before he becomes a citizen of the world. LeBron grew up in Akron -- as close to Richfield Coliseum as anyplace else -- and he knows what it would mean to bring that championship home. He also knows what it would mean to NOT bring it home.
It won't be easy for the Cavaliers; this looks like the most competitive NBA season since forever, with the Celtics playing otherworldly basketball, with the Lakers and Kobe up in that stratosphere, with Orlando and New Orleans and Houston rising and Detroit and San Antonio clinging to past greatness.
But it has to happen at some point. Cleveland has to win. Charlie Brown won. Susan Lucci won. Peyton Manning won. The Chicago White Sox won. Philadelphia won. It's time. But then, it has been time for decades now. Another year begins. Another chance. It like my old Ohio buddy Spoon used to say: Bad things are probably coming. But you might as well hope.