Monday, June 20, 2016

True confessions, Cleveland style

Confession time . . .

When the Cavaliers took on the Golden State Warriors for the NBA championship Sunday night in Oakland, skepticism ruled my every thought.

No way were the Cavs going to knock off the defending champions, especially on their home court. After coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the series to tie it at 3-3, it would be just another big buildup leading to an even bigger letdown for Cleveland sports fans.

After all, no team had ever come back from being down 3-1 to win an NBA title. Might as well get used to coming close only to fall short. Been that way for damn near 52 years.

Many Cleveland sports fans can rattle off the litany of failures with little or no trouble. Who can forget The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, Jose Mesa choking in the 1997 World Series?

Forget the Browns’ championship in the 1964 National Football League championship game. That was seemingly eons ago and not remembered by a large portion of fans who follow Cleveland sports, many of whom had not yet been born.

For whatever reason, Cleveland seemingly was not meant to win a major sports championship ever again. Coming close does not count. And that is why I knew the Warriors were going to blow up Cleveland’s latest attempt at sports glory.

I steeled myself against the disappointment that was certain to come. Prepared myself mentally to deal with yet another frustrating moment in Cleveland sports history.

So what would it be this time? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson going wild for the Warriors, raining three-pointers from just about everywhere? Draymond Green playing the game of his life? 

These were the Golden State Warriors, the history-busting 73-9 Golden State Warriors, the invincible Golden State Warriors. 

So what else portended a loss? LeBron James finally wearing down? Kyrie Irving suddenly losing the magic touch that enabled the Cavaliers to square the series? A sudden collapse of a defense instrumental in the comeback? What would it be this time?

My mind-set entering the game assured that no matter what happened, it could be dealt with. I was emotionally prepared for the Cavs to lose. Much easier to handle a loss that way. That’s what 52 years of frustration can do.

So when the teams went at it Sunday night like a couple of heavyweight boxers trying to knock the hell out of each other, I felt good. At least the Cavs weren’t being blown off the court. Even when they fell behind early by as many as eight points, they somehow found another gear to battle back.

At one point, it seemed as though Green was the Warriors’ only offense, hitting on just about every shot while Curry and Thompson were being effectively neutered by the Cleveland defense.

The Cavs’ offense, meanwhile, hit on only one of its first 14 three-pointers, a sure sign that would ultimately prove the club’s downfall.

But a calmness, a refusal to panic, a stoic resolve to not let this one get away seemed to silently pervade the Cavaliers’ psyche. And yet, one just knew that somehow, some way this one was going to slip away, anyway.

Isn’t that the Cleveland way? The Drive, The Shot, The Fumble, Jose Mesa . . . what now?

That calm, which James numerous times mentioned following the game, paid off with a 93-89 victory in a game that undoubtedly will go down in the annals of Cleveland sports history (hyperbole alert) as the greatest game ever played.

Yes, even greater than the 1964 NFL championship. Even though the Browns shocked the pro football world by shutting out the Baltimore Colts (I was at that game), it was only one game. No playoff games back then. This one was the culmination of a 21-game playoff journey.

And yet when it was over, when there was no doubt the Cavs had triumphed, I found it difficult to openly celebrate even though the curse had been lifted. I felt that same calm James had mentioned. Happy? Indeed. But in a reserved way. Maybe it was the surreal nature of the feeling. It was a feeling I wasn’t used to.

They didn’t lose the big one. Finally. Truly surreal.

Cleveland winning a major sports championship? Really? How does one waiting for 52 years for this night celebrate? James sure knew how in the most human of ways.

When the Cleveland superstar hit the floor on his knees and elbows shortly after at the final horn, buried his face in his hands for what seemed like minutes and allowed a flood of tears to emerge, you knew he connected with every frustrated Cleveland sports fan who had longed for this day.

James’ mission when he returned to his native northeast Ohio two years ago this month was to bring a championship to Cleveland. Finally accomplishing that feat clearly overwhelmed him.

Those were genuine tears of joy, of fulfillment, of accomplishment. He knew exactly what this meant to fans back home. You could see it in his face, hear it in his words. “Cleveland, this is for you!” he joyously and tearfully declared.

It also affected coach Tyronn Lue, who took over this team last Jan. 22 following the surprising firing of David Blatt. As his team celebrated, Lue remained on the bench, hunched over, his face in his hands, his shoulders quivering from weeping. More tears of joy.

And just how did the Cavs win? By refusing to lose (an apt cliché). By displaying a resolve the Warriors had problems handling.

It was Kevin Love, playing stout defense in the finale, grabbing 14 rebounds and making a big difference even though he scored only nine points (he was also +15 while on the floor); it was Irving making clutch shot after clutch shot, including the three-point dagger in the final minute that nailed the outcome.

It was James with another triple double, a statistic that did not include spectacular chase-down blocks of shots by Curry and Andre Iguodala; it was J. R. Smith finally igniting a three-point fusillade in the second half; it was Tristan Thompson hitting on three of four foul shots; it was Richard Jefferson coming off the bench and contributing quality minutes.

It was Lue strategically putting James at what amounted to point forward in game five and letting Irving, a natural point guard, become a shooter, his strongest asset. He basically inverted the offense when both were on the floor. The strategy paid off handsomely. The Warriors could not handle it.

It wasn’t like last year at this time when Golden State took advantage of a physically wounded Cleveland team that played without Irving and Love and still pushed the Warriors to six games, due mainly to the heroic efforts of James, before succumbing.

It was as though James had willed his team to a not-this-year attitude toward the Warriors in this series. And even though the Cavaliers lost three of the first four games, James made certain his team kept the faith, not the ye-of-little-faith stance taken by me and undoubtedly many others.

When I was fortunate enough to work in Cleveland radio for 22 years, one of my favorite topics (usually once a year and generally when there was nothing else to discuss with any degree of intelligence) was what Cleveland team would finally break the curse and win a championship?

The Indians were terrible until the 1990s, when they frustratingly failed twice to win a World Series; the Browns knocked on the door several times with Bernie Kosar & Co. in the 1980s but couldn’t knock it down thanks to John Elway; and the Cavs came close on a few occasions in the Lenny Wilkens’ coaching era, but ran into Michael Jordan.

The topic engendered many telephone calls, often times wall-to-wall for three straight hours. It was a fun topic that enabled fans to vent their frustration of being a Cleveland sports fan for at least one day.

So now the correct answer to that question can finally be uttered, proudly, after 52 years: The Cleveland Cavaliers.

Cleveland is really Believeland now. No longer a dream. No longer a loser. No longer the Mistake on the Lake. What a great feeling.

OK, Indians and Browns, your turn.

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