How The Cleveland Cavaliers Restored My Hope In Humanity…And The Cleveland Browns
When a friend asked me this past spring if I’d consider writing a Weelunk.com article on my Cleveland Browns fandom, I told him ‘sure thing,’ already having a pretty good idea how this particular tome would effectively write itself. The Cleveland Browns were in the midst of their biannual full blown, dumpster fire rebuild; the Cleveland Indians were playing some average ball, sure to end up a middling sub-.500 team; and the Cleveland Cavaliers – the darlings of Northeast Ohio – appeared to be headed for a likely finals rematch against one of the strongest teams ever assembled…the same team that had most recently handed the Cavaliers their collective butts in a 132-98 blowout. I started to keep notes to reference when it came time to write this article and really hash out the misery – the albatross – of being a Cleveland sports fan.
I had the good fortune to live with my grandparents while growing up, just across the river from Wheeling in rural Ohio … in fact just over the hill from the birthplace of one of the greatest Browns of all time – Lou “The Toe” Groza. My grandfather was my best friend and my biggest fan. More than the gifts, and more than the sage advice he offered, the thing he gave me that I treasure most is my Cleveland sports fandom. He was a lifelong Cleveland fan and I regret that he did not live to see another major Cleveland championship after the last one he witnessed in 1964 – a full two decades before I was born.
This a good time for me to address how Cleveland sports fans are made. I realize we live in an area dominated by Pittsburgh sports fans – I get that – but I also refuse to believe that all of them have been Pittsburgh fans from birth. Do you know why the Steelers have so many fans? Because the Steelers have so many championships. No one – and I mean no one – wakes up and decides they’re going to be a Cleveland Browns fan. This is something you’re born into. A birth rite handed down from one generation to the next. I’m concerned that the Browns struggles of late are losing them an entire generation of young Browns fans. Kids that are today looking at colleges haven’t known a winner during their lifetime. No kid wants to root for a loser, but while they may stray during their formative years (I may have rebelled for ONE early 1990s season with a Yancey Thigpen jersey), they’ll eventually come back to what they were born into.
My Browns fandom didn’t fully mature until I moved into my fraternity house in college. I lived with a few dozen miserable Steelers fans…and two diehard Browns fans. We hated those Pittsburgh fans and they hated us. I became truly rabid after moving to Washington, DC – distance makes the heart grow fonder. This was also the time I started dating a beautiful, if not misguided, Steelers fan who would later become my wife. I love her dearly, but to this day we can’t watch games together – even when the Browns and Steelers play each other. We have a beautiful four year old daughter, and while she’d tell you today she’s a Steelers fan, I started her young as a Browns fan. Remember what I told you about a birth rite? She’ll come back to it…
My beautiful baby girl, ca. 2012, rocking the Orange & Brown
In 2008 I took a job in Pittsburgh, of all places. It was akin to working behind enemy lines. It was living in Pittsburgh that absolutely took my fandom to a new level. I wear my teams on my sleeve – literally and figuratively. I proudly sported the Orange and Brown throughout Pittsburgh. I wore my colors to the lion’s den – Heinz Field. While in Pittsburgh I had people cuss, sneer and even spit in my general direction. Some of the nastiest names I’ve ever been called in my life came while standing in line at Heinz Field for the 2011 edition of the annual Browns/Steelers beat down. At Primanti’s on the South Side, the waitress refused to pick up my Cleveland Browns credit card, instead grabbing it with a napkin and holding it away from her as though it was a dirty diaper. Really, people? Really?
We moved back to Wheeling in 2012, but it hasn’t been any easier being a Browns fan here. It hasn’t even been fun. Sure there are more of us here, but instead of outright hatred, you fans from other teams (particularly the Steelers) look down us with a big brother mentality. I don’t want you feeling bad for us because we lose – I want you to hate us because we kick your butt up and down the field.
But let’s face it – since returning to the league in 1999, things haven’t gone well for my Browns. We’ve burned through coaches and quarterbacks at an unprecedented rate. I’m sure you’re all familiar with one of our favorite Cleveland celebrities….
More than coaches, the Browns have missed on draft picks. The NFL draft is my Super Bowl…it’s the one big NFL to-do every year that the Browns actually get to participate in. You have to draft smart and develop talent to be competitive in the NFL. With this week’s trade sending Barkevious Mingo to the Patriots, the Browns have 2 – TWO – pre-2015 first round picks still on the roster. I can rattle off a baker’s dozen who don’t even play football anymore. We’ve had guys in jail; guys in rehab; and Johnny Freakin’ Football, who is bound to end up in both. That’s a bad look, guys.
Like most struggling Browns fan, I’ve been clinging to the one team who could deliver our fan base a championship – The Cleveland Cavaliers. I vividly remember attending my first Cavaliers game in the early 1990s, during the Mark Price and Brad Daugherty days. But let’s be real, the 1990s weren’t kind to Cavaliers. Fast forward to 2001…I remember LeBron James dominating the basketball court and the headlines during high school, and remember the perfect storm – the destiny – that landed the first lottery pick in the Cavaliers’ lap in 2003. You could tell this kid was destined for greatness, and he was ours.
No matter how great one player is, it takes a team to win an NBA championship. And no matter how much LeBron would carry them (all the way to the finals in 2007), you could never really believe that his supporting cast could help enough to push them over the top. In 2010 LeBron left…’The Decision.’ There was a part of me that I thought could never forgive him. To this day, one of the most meaningful (though completely hollow) wins of my Cleveland fandom was the March 29, 2011 win when the Cavaliers – a bunch of ragtag guys that no other teams wanted – defeated the mighty Miami Heat. LeBron’s two subsequent championships in Miami were salt in a festering wound.
Fast forward to July 11, 2014. I’m enjoying a lunch at Vagabond Kitchen when my phone rattles off an alert – “I’m Coming Home.” I jumped up from the table cheering, clapping – I think I even let out a Rick Flair. Now he knows how to win. Now he can bring us a championship. And LeBron’s prediction of “Everything is earned” couldn’t have been more true – the 2014/2015 campaign still wasn’t the year for Cleveland. A bevy of injuries to key position players and a strong opponent in the Golden State Warriors. It wasn’t our year, and I could live with that…but wait till next year.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were scary good this past season, but I’ll be damned if the Golden State Warriors didn’t get even better. Historically better. I’m talking greatest team in the history of the NBA better. But this is Cleveland…this is what we have to live with. The 2016 NBA finals started out just like the year before – the Cavaliers look overmatched, overwhelmed. They quickly go down 2-0 before snagging their first game at home. And then the unthinkable…they lose game four at home, going down 3-1 to those bums from Golden State. No one had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit. The world wrote off the Cavaliers, and honestly…so did I. Golden State is just too damn good. I was steeling myself ahead of another epic ESPN montage of the Cleveland Sports Curse. You know what I’m talking about – Red Right 88; The Catch; The Drive; The Fumble; The Shot; The Move; The Decision.
And then a funny thing happened. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving willed the Cavaliers to wins in Games 5 and 6, setting up an epic Game 7 in Oakland on June 19. I’d also realized the error of my ways. This is the way it has to be. This is what it takes to break a curse. The Cleveland Cavaliers were going to do something that had never been done before – come back from a 3 – 1 deficit to win the NBA Championship. My wife came upstairs a few minutes before tipoff to find me mid-prayer…nothing could be left to chance.
She will tell you that I didn’t say much during the game, if anything. I didn’t look at my phone and I didn’t sit in one place too long. As the seconds ticked off the clock I felt the air rush out of my chest. I started to cry – hard, and for several days. Frankly I still get teary eyed talking about it. Good defeated evil, right prevailed over wrong and Cleveland as finally on the right side of history with a 93-89 win. The curse had been lifted, and my outlook on Cleveland sports, life in general, and this article took on a decidedly different tone.
It’s so Browns to say that a basketball team saved our football team, but I think in many ways it has. Even the tone with which people say the word ‘Cleveland’ has changed since winning a championship. The same people who troll me with their anti-Cleveland rhetoric flooded my texts, voicemails and inbox with congratulations. I’ve received Cavaliers apparel in the mail – to this day I don’t know who from. I’ve seen more people wearing Cleveland gear and given and received more high-fives than ever before.
This all bleeds over to the Browns. The monkey is off their back to save the city and the region. These guys can go out there and play and have fun, knowing that Cleveland is once again the City of Champions. The Browns have a new coach – surprise, surprise – but he’s arguably the most talented and well respected that they’ve had since 1999. The Browns have a new front office (as usual), but they’ve brought in some of the most intelligent individuals not only in the NFL, but in all of professional sports. They brought in a quarterback who, though injury-prone, knows how to win and, more importantly, will help develop the younger talent behind him. They have a trio of fast, young receivers and an able running game. By all accounts they had a successful draft, acquiring some impressive talent while also making savvy deals, setting up a near record number of picks for next year’s draft. The Cavaliers ownership and organization made the commitment to spend the money, develop the talent and put the right people in the right place to win a championship, and I can’t help but think that the Browns are following suit.
Is it going to get worse before it gets better? Probably…it usually does. The Browns are ranked dead last in most categories with the season just a few short weeks away. There’s a chance they’ll win even less games than last year, but don’t sleep on these guys. The Cleveland Browns know how to find ways to lose – I think over the next few seasons you’ll see them finding ways to win. They watched the 1000000+ fans line the streets of Cleveland for the Cavaliers victory parade, and don’t think for a second they don’t want that for themselves, and right now.
At the date of this writing the Cleveland Cavaliers are the NBA Champions. The Cleveland Indians are 13 games over .500 and look like strong contenders for an October run. As for the Browns…well, no one expects much from the Browns this year. For the first time in a long time, I’m OK with that.