On the night the Cavaliers lost their 26th game in a row—matching the NFL's Buccaneers for the longest losing streak in the history of North American major pro team sports—a young woman bounced nervously in the second deck of Quicken Loans Arena in downtown Cleveland and shrieked, again and again, "Don't give up, Cleveland!" She held a large cardboard sign above her head to amplify her message. The sign said, DON'T GIVE UP, CLEVELAND!
"We love you!" the woman screamed, while down below Cavs point guard Ramon Sessions turned the ball over again. Cleveland trailed the Pistons by 10 at that moment, and though the Cavs would make one of those cosmetic comebacks that mark many meaningless February NBA games, they would never threaten to take the lead. "Don't give up, Cleveland!" the woman yelled again (and again). "We love you!"
Here is one of the stranger stories in the NBA: They do love this team in Cleveland. How can a city remain devoted to a team that loses 26 straight games? How can its fans carry a torch for a team that goes almost three months without winning a game in regulation time? How can the Cavaliers—"three useful players and a collection of D-Leaguers," according to an NBA executive—be ranked third in the league in attendance, seventh in local TV ratings and first in fan sympathy? "The fans don't boo," former Cavs star and current director of alumni relations Campy Russell says in wonder. "All year, they haven't booed. It's amazing. It's like: We're a family, and we've got your back."
Well, it might not be exactly like that. But there is no question that fans have stuck with the Cavaliers. Why? Well, this gets to the heart of the city where I grew up: Cleveland, Ohio, knows how to get off the mat. "They understand," another former Cavaliers player, Jim Chones, says, "that it's going to take time without him."
Him—and people around the Cavaliers rarely utter the name—is, of course, LeBron James, the most remarkable player ever to wear a Cleveland uniform. James almost single-handedly led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007 and to the best record in the NBA the last two seasons. Then, in July, he went on national television and announced that he was taking his talents to South Beach. Cleveland's population has dropped by 300,000 since 1970. The city took this one loss especially hard.
"I personally guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA Championship before the self-titled former King wins one," owner Dan Gilbert wrote in an open letter to fans on the team's website after James had abdicated. Gilbert's proclamation came in for a lot of abuse nationally, but locally his approval rating soared. The display of raw anger seemed to be exactly what many people needed to hear. Cleveland is always coming back from something: a financial crisis, an environmental crisis, a heartbreaking loss, a foot of snow. This is what Cleveland is all about: coming back.
Gilbert's defiance in the face of all logic seemed oddly sensible the first month of the season when James's Heat struggled and the Cavaliers won seven of their first 16 by playing awkward but scrappy basketball. Then LeBron came to Cleveland on Dec. 2 and took the city's heart one more time. The arena was as charged as on any night in Cleveland sports history. And the Cavaliers lost by 28. They lost their next eight games. They lost their hardest working player, 6'11" Anderson Varejão, to a season-ending injury. And after beating the Knicks on Dec. 18, they lost 26 in a row, the last to Detroit in front of an oddly supportive crowd led by the woman shouting, "Don't give up, Cleveland! We love you!"
"We're all mad as hell," Cavs guard Daniel Gibson said after the game, but it seems that nobody—not the fans, not the players, not management—is really all that mad. The fire has burned down to dying embers. What's left is the grim task of rebuilding. And, well, Cleveland has been there before.
"Cavaliers fans are great professional sports fans," rookie general manager Chris Grant says. "They really understand what we're doing here, and how we're going to get there." Well, there's not too much to understand. The Cavaliers will try to spend money ("You will never hear the Cleveland Cavaliers called a small-market team," president Len Komoroski says), and they will draft high, and as Gilbert has repeated again and again in every forum he can find, they will keep working hard.
"Cavs Fans," Gilbert tweeted on Jan. 21, "each setback grows our resolve. The pain IS our motivation. I have learned patience. Don't like it but accept it.... NOTHING ... will deter our mission to deliver to you the goods."