My Point After in Sports Illustrated this week is about the Cleveland Cavaliers and the rather remarkable way that the city has tolerated the longest losing streak — and perhaps the least competitive team — in NBA history. Here are a few thoughts behind the column.
It is always fun to go back to Cleveland. The temperature was 9 degrees when I landed, though nobody around seemed to notice. This is a beautiful part of my memory of growing up in Cleveland — by February, the weather has been so absurd for so long that you no longer even think about it. There’s no complaining. Nobody talks weather. It’s just cold, and it will always be cold, and there’s snow everywhere, and there’s more snow coming, and there will always be snow on the ground, and it will never melt, it will never ever get warm or green ever again. That’s why spring always felt like a beautiful surprise. There is no better season on planet earth, I am convinced, than spring in Cleveland (or Buffalo or Detroit, etc). The best weather days in my memory was always that first semi-warm day of Cleveland spring when I could wear tennis shoes outside and I felt like I could jump four feet in the air.
I was coming back home to see how the city was taking the collapse of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs had the best record in the NBA the last two years. And this year, when my plane touched down, they had lost 25 games in a row, the longest losing streak in NBA history, one of the two longest in the history of American professional team sports. What struck me about the losing streak was how uncompetitive the Cavs had been. They had not forced even a single overtime game during the losing streak. They had lost to the Los Angeles Lakers 112-57, then two nights later they lost by 22 at Utah, and the night after that they lost by 28 at Denver. They were as overmatched as any NBA team ever.
This was, of course, the nightmare scenario. When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach, everyone understood that the Cavaliers were about to have a great fall, one that would baffle all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. But nobody knew for sure just how bad that would be. The Cavaliers started off by beating Boston, and after 16 games they were 7-9, and at that moment it seemed like they had at least an outside chance of being a lousy-but-not-too-lousy team that would play hard and beat the dregs of the NBA.
And a few days later, LeBron James and the Heat came to Cleveland, humiliated the Cavs in front of a passionate crowd, and nobody was left with any illusions after that.
“The problem,” former Cavs star (and one of my childhood heroes) Jim Chones said, “is that we have a lot of guys on this team who didn’t understand what he did. They didn’t appreciate how hard he worked. They thought they were pretty good, and didn’t realize that he was the one making them look pretty good.”
Chones said this without hesitation — though as you can see Chones went to sometimes comical lengths to not say the name “LeBron James.” The Cavs utter collapse isn’t entirely about James. Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal were contributors, and they left too. Anderson Varejao was almost certainly Cleveland’s second best player, and he got hurt during the losing streak. But the collapse is ALMOST ENTIRELY about James. And everybody around the team and the city knows it.
Then again, I didn’t go to Cleveland to write about LeBron James. I went to see how my city was handling once again having the worst team in the NBA … and so soon after having one of the best. And what I found, I must admit, surprised me.
The city seems to be handling it just fine. More than that … Cleveland is sticking with this team in a way that seems kind of remarkable.
“I think it’s impossible to say that that Cavs fans haven’t been exceedingly tolerant of this team,” says Peter Pattakos, a Cleveland lawyer who writes the Cleveland Frowns blog. I really wanted to go to Peter on this one because he often has a different take on these things. In this case, we really seemed to sense the same thing. Cleveland can be a savage sports town. Cynicism comes with the weather. But there’s something about this Cavaliers team that seems to capture the hope of the city.
“Just compare to the Browns of recent years,” Peter says. “This is unquestionably a football town first, and folks were ready to run Eric Mangini only a few weeks after he got here in ’09 even though everybody knew it was an obvious rebuild year with the roster in tatters. There’s nothing close to the same feeling toward Byron Scott and the Cavs here, and they have to be setting some kind of record for ‘losingest team with the best attendance’ or something like that.”
At last check, the Cavaliers were third in the league in attendance. Now, certainly a lot of that was due to the LeBron hangover. But they were also seventh in TV ratings, which tells you something. And Cavs president Len Komoroski told me that they are well into the upper half in merchandise, which is certainly not all just leftover Lebron momentum.
More, the fans at the games don’t boo much. Hardly at all. I was there for the Cavaliers-Pistons game last week, and it was one of the saddest displays of pro basketball I have ever seen. The Pistons were on the second of back-to-back games, they were on the road (where they had won just six times all year) … and the Cavs were never even in the game. You almost never see an NBA game where one team doesn’t make at least one serious run or take the lead in the fourth quarter or something.
But the Cavaliers played … here’s the rather astonishing phrase that comes to mind: Arrogant basketball. They played as if they thought this game was in the bag. They had lost TWENTY FIVE GAMES IN A ROW, and they played as if they were overconfident, as if the Pistons were an easy win. It was staggering. The loss was so embarrassing that even Byron Scott, who had been a pillar of bland “just get me through this season” stability, flashed some temper. “I’m mad as hell,” he said, and though he didn’t finish it off with an “and I’m not going to take it anymore,” it was something.
But the fans pretty much took it all in stride. The signs were almost all of the “We’re with ya!” variety. There were only a smattering of boos at the end, and even that was barely a smattering. There was a lot of cheering, even when the game was clearly out of reach. A friend remembered one Cleveland Indians game at the old stadium where fans halfway through started cheering for the Detroit Tigers because it had gotten that ridiculous. I can remember Browns games where the fury toward the home team was so intense that you would NEVER have known these were actually Browns fans. My school bus driver every Monday after a Browns loss would spend the entire ride screaming about how much he hated the Browns, meaning of course that he loved them. That’s Cleveland.
But the Cavaliers are drawing a different emotion from the fans. Before the game — and I found this amazing — Nicki Minaj’s “Blazin'” played over the sound system. Of course, I did not know the name of the song, I had to use my Shazam app. But the reason I even used my Shazam app was because I heard the words: “As long as I’m in the game, you’ll never win.” That really seemed a strange thing to play at that moment. Then I looked up the lyrics and saw this in there.
Before the storm comes the calm.
Hope you can take the heat, like LeBron.
Am I wrong? That seems like a very strange thing to play before the Cavaliers go out to try and break a 25-game losing streak. But, nobody seemed to mind. The timeout entertainment mostly seemed to revolve around rewarding people who had renewed their season tickets. Nobody seemed to mind. The Cavaliers played dismal, uninterested basketball. Nobody seemed to mind.
“I think that part of that is definitely due to Clevelanders being good sports fans generally, but that most of it is due to what we’ve been through with LeBron,” Peter says. “To the latter, it’s not just the bad feelings that many folks have toward LeBron, because even if LeBron would have been lost to injury, or something more ‘natural’ than the Decision, it’s still hard to let go of something as special as what the LeBron era was here for the last seven years.”
I think that’s right. I think in part LeBron made himself the enemy when he went on television and snubbed the city that loved him, and if LeBron is the enemy then the players wearing Cavaliers uniforms — no matter how bad they might be — are the allies. “Like family,” former Cavs star Campy Russell told me, and I think that’s probably pretty close to right. We all have family that, in one way or another, are like the 2010-2011 Cleveland Cavaliers.
But I think there’s something else. The LeBron years were fun. The last two playoffs were frustrating, but in general LeBron was brilliant and Cleveland was the center of basketball for a few years. Fans got to watch one of the greatest players ever at his peak for a few years — an Akron native, no less — and the scene in the arena was as wild and wonderful as anyplace in Cleveland in the last 50 or so years.
LeBron’s decision turned those years into mud for many … but that impulse of being in the middle of it all, that hunger for championship basketball, that doesn’t go away. Cleveland, I really believe, is a city of realists. Miracles happen elsewhere. Worst to first happens elsewhere. You’re not going to wake up one morning and find that a foot of snow in the driveway has miraculously melted. The only way for this Cavs team to again compete for a championship is to land a couple of stars in the next couple of drafts. And the best way for that to happen is for this Cavs team to lose spectacularly. Which is what they’re doing.
I did not get a good feel for where the LeBron anger is at now. My sense is that, unlike the Art Modell anger which never stopped boiling, the LeBron anger is only at about medium-high. I’m sure it will pick back up during the playoffs, but as mentioned I’ve long thought of Cleveland as a town of realists. Think it’s cold today? Wait until that blizzard hits next week. The Browns are starting over again. The Indians look pretty dismal. The Cavaliers lose 26 in a row.
“You know what’s true about Cleveland,” an old friend of my said. “It makes you tough.”
I think that’s right. And because of that I don’t think Clevelanders will exactly FORGIVE LeBron. But maybe over time, those years of LeBron playing his heart out, rosin flying, the warmth of the arena making the blizzard outside go away, maybe all that will feel like good memories again. Maybe over time, these Cavaliers — who seem committed financially and structurally to do everything to become a great team again — will rebuild into a special team.
Maybe it’s just another long winter. Two days after I watched the Cavaliers lose their 26th in a row, they beat the Clippers at home in front of a pretty rowdy and hopeful crowd. The officiating seemed a tad one sided in that one, but hey, whatever it takes to break an absurd losing streak. Two days after that, in case anyone had forgotten just how bad the Cleveland Cavaliers are without LeBron, they became the first team all year to lose to the Washington Wizards at home. They were losing by 22 at halftime in that one.
“We just need a go-to scorer,” Jim Chones told me. “And a guy who can set up the offense. And we have to keep them off the glass. And we need to play smarter. We’re really pretty close to turning this around.”
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Postscript: Just watched the Cavaliers beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a rather shocking development — yes, the Lakers team that had beaten them 112-57 earlier in the year. The Cavaliers played inspired basketball, particularly Ramon Sessions (32 points, eight assists, three steals) and J.J. Hickson on the glass (9 offensive rebounds), and Kobe Bryant played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play — 8 of 24 shooting, seven turnovers, looked completely out of sorts — and the thing just kept kind of going and going, the crowd getting more and more into it, the Lakers looking more and more uncertain. It doesn’t change anything important, of course. But it was nice for a night.