Dining on Ashes

As I watched my Cavs bleed out on the very ugly parquet
floor of the new Boston Garden, all I could think was “It’s just not fair.”

We had home court throughout the playoffs. We had the best
player on the planet. We had an owner who was willing to put pieces around him.
We had a deep bench. We made some great acquisitions in the off-season. We
pulled off an amazing deadline trade.

This is our year.

Instead, we got the shit kicked out of us and made an early
exit.

When you root for teams in Cleveland, you get used to this,
but you never really get used to it. You know it’s going to come and yet you
watch and hope against it anyway. You understand you’ve picked a horse that’s
likely to break down in the stretch, but you are so excited about picking it,
you can’t help yourself.

It’s been that way for 40 years.

Unlike Moses in the desert with the Israelites, however, we
never seem to make it to the Promised Land.

The team that launched the Miracle at Richfield couldn’t do
it with guys like Bingo Smith, Austin Carr and Nate Archibald. In fact, the
Miracle year was about all they had in the 1970s and 1980s. As far as miracles
go, that was pretty weak: they beat the Washington Bullets to advance to the
Eastern Conference Finals. Center Jim Chones broke his foot in a practice
session and that was about all she wrote. The Cavs lost to the Celtics in the
Eastern Conference Finals.

Things only got worse for Cleveland.

How many franchises had owners who were so inept that the
league had to adopt a rule to keep them from killing their own franchises? Only
Cleveland, which had Ted Stepien, who traded away first-round draft picks for
such shitty players that the NBA stepped in and prohibited teams from trading
first-round picks in consecutive years.

Stepien’s brilliant ideas included threatening to move the
team to Toronto, attempting to rename his team the “Ohio Cavaliers” and to propose
that the team play home games in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo (New York) and
Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). In case you’re counting, two of the four cities the
“Ohio” Cavaliers would play in weren’t even in Ohio.

When I fell in love with the Cavs in the late 1980s, Stepien
was gone and we had a great team, but it didn’t matter. Basketball at that
point was owned by the individual, in this case Michael Jordan. You could (and
some would argue that for years they did) put about seven stiffs, three
marginal guys and one sidekick around a star and you’d be fine.

Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price couldn’t break
through against Jordan and his Supporting Cast. The Big Three paled in
comparison to the singularity of Jordan in that era where star players got six
steps to the basket and breathing on one of those guys got you a two-shot foul.

Today, that Cavs team would win 66 games a year and never
lose in the playoffs, thanks to the team concept and the way hand-checking is
now called. They’d be the 2008 Boston Celtics. Instead, they were another
footnote in Cleveland misery.

I stuck with them through the dark days of the 1990s, where
they’d trade for a petulant star, watch that star lose his game and then try to
find someone stupid enough to take him off their hands for 10 cents on the dollar.
Shawn Kemp begat Derek Anderson begat Ricky Davis, who once shot the ball at
his own basket in an attempt to earn a triple-double.

I stuck with them when they moved out of Richfield and into
downtown as part of a revitalization project. Even that ended up being a
ridiculous endeavor, as the team priced the regular fans out of the seating at
first.

Then, of course, there was the name of our state-of-the-art
facility:

The Gund Arena, named for team owner Gordon Gund.

It is a beautiful place to play, but it sounds like
something the doctor gives you a shot of penicillin for and tells you to stay
away from “those girls.”

I watched year after year of Fratello-ball, a time in which
we were low on talent and low on scoring. Mike Fratello’s answer: grind the
game to a screeching halt by passing the ball so often that even Norman Dale
was screaming “Will someone fucking shoot?”It was the perfect method to build a mediocre team: Win
enough to make the playoffs, lose early and go home. Then, get a mid-first
round draft pick that isn’t good enough to improve you in any way, shape or
form.

I stuck with them as they drafted foreign players whose
games were as foreign as their names. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Vitaly Potapenko and
more. It was like we were trying to cheat at Scrabble instead of win ballgames.

We drafted guards when we needed big men. Then we drafted
big men when the guards didn’t pan out. We made horrible signings and we
finally bottomed out. The only hope was the 2003 draft, in which a young man
from Akron was anointed “the Chosen One.”

We almost fucked that up as well, winning a meaningless game
at the end of the season to cut back on our odds of landing the first pick in
the draft. However, of all the things that went wrong for this franchise, one
finally went right.

We got LeBron James.

I watched him emerge from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School
and imagined him to be the answer.

And he was.

He brought back respectability to a team that had to look
that word up to see what it meant. He helped drag this team back into the
playoffs and kept dragging it until he could literally drag no more. He was the
Dan Marino of the NBA: an amazing talent in the time of a team game without a
team to help support him.

In 2007, they pulled into the NBA finals on the strength of
pure will. LeBron James essentially moved into “there’s no effing way we’re
losing this game” mode against Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In the finals against the Spurs, they faced the exact
opposite situation that those 1980s Cavs teams had: The Cavs had the star, but the
Spurs had the team.

It was a different era. The Cavs were swept.

Each year after that, we fell apart in a new and different
way.

Each year after the defeat, owner Dan Gilbert would go out
and buy people to fix the problem.

In 2007, James had a shitty supporting cast with no defense
and the Spurs killed the Cavs.

In the off-season, Gilbert got Ben Wallace for defense and Wally
Szczerbiak for offense.

Neither panned out and both were gone soon after.

In 2008, they realized no one was handling the ball and that
teams were sending 173 guys after James on every possession.

In the off-season, Gilbert pulled off a trade for point
guard Mo Williams, who later would make the All-Star team, but couldn’t perform
under pressure. His rim-bending shooting essentially killed them in the
playoffs.

In 2009, they blew through Detroit and Atlanta before
getting creamed by Orlando. Dwight Howard was the Magic’s center and no one on
the team could handle him one-on-one. When they doubled him, the three-point
shooters were open and deadly. The Cavs lost in the Eastern Finals, 4-2.

In the off-season, Gilbert traded for Shaquille O’Neal, a
shell of the four-time NBA champion he once was, but a load in the post who
could handle Howard.

In 2010, they had it all and Gilbert had done them one
better: instead of waiting to get fucked in the playoffs and fixing it later,
he pulled off a trade for a 20-10 guy in Antawn Jamison.

It didn’t matter. Cavs lost in the Eastern semis 4-2 to an old-as-hell
Celtics team that is going to get killed in the Eastern Conference Finals. My
great hope is that Rajon Rondo goes careening down the lane for one of his
cutsy little layups and Howard flattens him so hard that they have to send out
a search party for Rondo’s ACLs.

The buzz now surrounding Cleveland will come from every
asshole with a newspaper column, TV slot, blog, Twitter account or Penny Saver
Ad. The loudest noise will come from those in the largest of cities:

LeBron is LeLeaving Cleveland and his coming here.

For those of you who don’t own a TV, a newspaper
subscription, an Internet connection or don’t get the Penny Saver, “here” is
usually New York, as that’s where everyone wants to live.

Probably Chicago if not New York, because that’s where all
the cool people who can’t live in New York live.

Cleveland? Nah. No way.

If it’s true, and I’m praying it’s not, we’ll see our
Greatest Hope leave and likely win 10 championships some place. We’ll go back
to those Stepien-Fratello days of 22-60 teams and pinning our hopes to the
draft lottery.

LeBron will return, however, just like Bingo, Nate, Austin,
Mark, Brad and Larry did, to have his number raised to the rafters after he
retires some day.

He’ll speak of his fondness for the city. He’ll express
regret that he couldn’t win a championship for us. He’ll thank us for
supporting him.

And then he’ll be gone. And we’ll still be looking for the
Promised Land.

And we’ll all be thinking the same thing.

“It’s just not fair.”

10 thoughts on “Dining on Ashes

  1. Dan says:

    Doc, you should know by now – the only way for LeBron to win a title is to leave. You don’t seriously think Cleveland sees a championship underany circumstances, right? The options are not-win here or maybe-win elsewhere.
    You sound about a quart low on your fatalism.

  2. Geeno says:

    As a Buffalo sports fan, I feel your pain.

  3. Nora says:

    I feel your pain, Doc, and I hope you won’t hold it against me that I grew up (in the 1970’s) as a New York Knicks fan.
    You are absolutely right about the Jordan era — at least six steps to the basket and if you LOOKED at him, he got a two shot foul.
    No longer a Knicks fan — there’s only so much pain a woman should be expected to suffer in her lifetime — but I have nothing but respect for your long-suffering faith in your team.

  4. Swoosh says:

    One-man teams may win a few games, but they never win a series.

  5. hoppy says:

    The bit about Jordan and his ability to take 6 steps without a single referee seeing the last three, reminds me of Shaq and his “skills”, which are still there, but have become visible to the referees now. Shaq invented the jump plus 4 steps method of getting closer to the basket for a dunk. It continues to amaze me that if a guard were to try that the whistle would blow before they even took the second step. But, Cleveland had the privilege of getting Shaq just as the referees discovered that they could see Shaq’s feet. Sorry about that.
    I got Boston in 6 games over Orlando. You underestimate the team game.

  6. Bikelib says:

    With all due respect to your suffering, I must take issue with one statement: the Cavs do not have a deep bench. They have a shitty bench. And their other four starters (except Jamison) would all be reserves on quite a few other NBA teams.

  7. Lex says:

    Doc, I suffered with the Atlanta Braves from 1966 through 1990 (and have been suffering again in recent years). I have suffered with the Carolina Panthers from, literally, the franchise’s first game. I put up with the old Charlotte Hornets until I and everyone else got sick of their owner.
    I went to Davidson before Stephen Curry. Well before.
    Which brings me to the one bright spot in this silver lining: Maybe, somehow, Golden State will snag LeBron. Curry may or may not have had a better season than Tyreke Evans, but he definitely improved more than Evans did, and he is becoming the kind of point guard that free agents want to play with — the kind who will make them look good.
    It ain’t much, for you OR me. But if James goes to Golden State, they’ve got the nucleus of a championship team right there.

  8. hoppy says:

    Lex, LeBron is the nucleus of a championship team. That is the story here. I think he should go to the Sacramento Kings because…I like the Kings. Somehow I suspect neither of us is going to get the privilege off cheering for him as a home player. He will end up in either New York or Los Angeles.

  9. BlackSheep1 says:

    Doc,
    Trust me. I feel your pain.
    I live in Texas. I cheered for the Spurs this year.
    (Nowitzki no more, and I’ll cheer for the Mavs again.)
    But, y’know, Phoenix has THE best point guard in the NBA this year.

  10. Lex says:

    hoppy, if that were true, the Cavs would be champs. But as to where he ultimately will end up, I suspect you’re right.

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