The Season That Almost Was (Yet Still Is)

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Cleveland did it again. Of course by “it”, I mean losing. For the 34th consecutive time in my tenure as a Cleveland sports fan, we’re packing things up with no trophy. After the game last night, the internet was happy to let me know that this is how the last 144 seasons in Cleveland have ended, which is — of course — the longest streak in the nation. If you were born after December 27, 1964, you have not been alive for a Cleveland championship.

And that’s how it goes. Cue the Misery Montage.

As I always do, I watched the funeral. Every second. Being a Cleveland sports fan is inherently masochistic, so I wasn’t going to let the latest failure slip by without my eyeballs glued to the TV. I stuck around to see JR Smith wearily tossing in three pointers in a futile attempt to close an insurmountable gap with no gas left in the tank. I stuck around to see LeBron checking out of the game with the familiar I-Just-Lost-In-The-Finals look on his face that I cherished up until 11 months ago. I stuck around to see Steph Curry dribbling into the corner and triumphantly whipping a basketball 40 feet into the air as the final horn blew on the best season in Cleveland Cavaliers history. I’ve fantasized about Kyrie doing the same thing for the past four years, and LeBron doing it for seven years before that.

As the opposing team celebrated a championship on Cleveland’s floor, Mike Breen, Mark Jackson, and Jeff Van Gundy were quick to congratulate the Warriors and their fans for breaking the 40-year championship drought. I’m sure it was especially liberating for a city whose baseball team has won the World Series three times in the past five seasons. Bay Area sports teams have won 15 championships since Cleveland last brought a trophy home. There’s something poetic about coughing up another opportunity and having our championship drought storyline bestowed upon a city comparatively drowning in success.

Growing up, your parents tell you that life isn’t fair, but being a Cleveland sports fan just feels really, really unfair.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Don’t get me wrong, seeing LeBron drop a superhero stat line of 36 points, 13 rebounds, and nine assists in 46 minutes per game only to have the Finals MVP go to the guy guarding him was like pouring hot sauce into an open wound. In a fashion that few other teams in NBA history can understand, the Cavs were robbed of three Opening Night starters, two of which are among the best players in the entire league. Staring down one of the better regular season teams of the last couple decades, the task looked almost comically insurmountable. On paper, the Cavs were lambs for the slaughter.

Instead, LeBron happened. Tristan Thompson happened. Timofey Mozgov happened. Against all odds, Matthew Dellavedova happened. The Cavaliers hung in for six games, but it wasn’t enough. And that really sucks.

But it feels different this time. This was not the soul-crushing loss of The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, or Red Right 88. This was not the despondent feeling of the 2005 or 2007 Indians, or the 2007 Cavaliers. I said it last night, and I meant it: I’m not sad. This season was pure magic.

In case you missed it, here’s what happened:

Dan Gilbert hired David Griffin, the Cavs somehow won the draft lottery, and David Griffin hired a jewish guy named David Blatt without a day of NBA experience. The Cavs drafted future star Andrew Wiggins, Kyrie re-signed, and LeBron came home. The Cavs signed Mike Miller, James Jones, and Shawn Marion, and traded future star Andrew Wiggins for current star Kevin Love.

The Cavs lost in LeBron’s homecoming, started with 19 wins and 20 losses, Varejao got hurt, and LeBron got hurt. The Cavs traded for JR, Shump and Timo, the team went bowling, LeBron got healthy, and then won 12 straight. 18 of 20.

Kyrie Irving scored 55 points against the Blazers, and a franchise-record 57 points against the defending champion Spurs, including a buzzer beater three-pointer to force overtime, allowing the Cavs to win. LeBron won back-to-back Player Of The Month awards, David Blatt won Coach Of The Month, and the Cavs won the division. For the first time in five years, the Cavs were in the playoffs.

The Boston Globe published actual garbage, Kelly Olynyk tore Kevin Love’s labrum, and the Cavs swept the Boston Celtics.

Joakim Noah talked trash before forgetting what little he knew about basketball. Derrick Rose hit a buzzer beater, LeBron hit a buzzer beater, Matthew Dellavedova hit everything, and the Cavs crushed Chicago on their home floor to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Kyrie got hurt, Korver was trash, and Matthew Dellavedova somehow became public enemy number one. LeBron triple-doubled, the 1-seed Atlanta Hawks got swept, and JR took a selfie. For the second time in franchise history, the Cavs were in The Finals.

Kyrie got healthy, Kyrie got really hurt, and the Cavs lost Game 1. LeBron took over, the Cavs won the first Finals game in franchise history on the road, and turned around and did it again in Cleveland.

Then LeBron and the misfits ran out of gas and lost three straight. And now we’re here.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a blast. Pouting after the season ends is for losers. I’ve been the loser a lot in my time as a sports fan, but now is not one of those times. This season was way too fun.

Being a Clevelander means constantly toeing this weird line between scorching pessimism and delusional optimism. When Kevin Love went down against Boston, it was a familiar storyline that had a foreseeable ending. The optimism comes when I look towards next season. It’s hard to envision the Cavs doing anything but returning to The Finals. And that’s not even delusional.

I’ve attended Cleveland playoff games twice. Once to see the Indians final home game of the 2007 playoffs against the Boston Red Sox, and once against the Chicago Bulls this year. Both were losses, but both were pretty special.

Neither compared to the scene downtown for Game 4 of these Finals. I’ve never seen a city more electrified. Cleveland was magical that night. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a sea of people on E 4th Street circling the set of SportsCenter, chanting the name of an un-drafted kid from Australia. Of course, it wouldn’t be a magical night in Cleveland without a debilitating loss. But that doesn’t matter.

A familiar trope in these parts is “waiting for next year”. Like it or not, it’s been the unofficial slogan of Cleveland for the past 144 seasons. And so we’ll wait. One day it’ll happen, right? That day is coming. We got ’em next year.

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