By Rich Levine
CLEVELAND I was walking through downtown Cleveland about an hour before tip-off on Thursday night, aimlessly searching for a bar that I didn't have the slightest clue how to find.
It was cold. It was getting late. So after a few unproductive laps around the block, I knew what I had to do. I really didn't have a choice. I was a stranger in a strange land of soda pop and tennis shoes, and I needed to find a TV. It was almost time for LeBron.
So, I sucked it up, swallowed my pride and asked a random couple for directions fully expecting that they wouldn't be much help or, at the very least, that I'd be in store for an awkward interaction.
Why? Because I'm from Boston not exactly the world's friendliest place. You ask a question like that in Boston, and you're liable to get the Rajon Rondo treatment. A one-word answer. Maybe a sentence fragment if you're lucky. For better or worse, that's how we do things back home. Most people are only as friendly as they have to be, which more often than not, isn't that friendly.
And it didn't help matters that in this specific situation I was going to a place called Harry Buffalo.
"Excuse me, do you know how to get to Harry Buffalo?"
Awkward, right? Didn't you cringe just reading that? Or maybe that's just me cynical Bostonian.
"Oh yeah!" the girl in the maroon Cavs jersey says, with an exuberance that I myself haven't displayed since Super Bowl XXXVI. "Hey, you know what? We're going over in that area! You want to hop in a cab with us, and we'll have the guy just drop you off?"
Um, OK. Wasn't expecting that. And even stranger, I didn't even get the vibe that her boyfriend instinctually hated my guts. He was actually pretty cool. This was an odd feeling.
The boyfriend hailed us a cab which turned out to be a mini-van and just as we were getting in, another random couple screamed at us from across the street:
"Hey, you guys going over to the Q?"
"Yessss!," said the girl. "Come on over!"
Then we all drove over to the bar one big, random happy family. It was crazy. They'd never met, but were already good friends. On the way, they talked about how excited they were for the game, how crazy it would be with LeBron, and how all they really wanted from this season was to win the game.
It had become a clich for outsiders to claim that this game held the importance of an NBA Finals Game Seven for Cleveland, but those exact words came out of these fans' mouths.
"We will hoist the banner if we win this game," said boyfriend No. 2. "This is our championship."
We finally got to the Buffalo, where I said goodbye to my new BFFs, left the cab, and instantly knew that my expectations for this trip were grossly misguided. That the instincts which inspired me to wake up at 5 a.m. and spontaneously book a 9 a.m. flight for that same morning were wrong.
But I headed into the Buffalo anyway. What else was I supposed to do?
The bar was packed. Three floors of Cavs fans. Most of televisions were tuned into TNT's pregame show, but the audio was still from the jukebox, and the TVs went largely unnoticed. In one random corner of the bar there was a lone screen playing a video montage of what looked to be every bad play of LeBron's Cavs career just a constant loop of Lebron getting dunked on, crossed over and air balling jumpers. It was wildly entertaining. I probably watched the whole thing three times in a row. But honestly, I think I was the only one. No one else seemed to care. Everyone else was having too much fun.
Walking around, there were subtle jabs at LeBron sprinkled throughout the space you know, a couple Delonte jerseys, a few novelty t-shirts ("King Without a Ring", etc.) and, my personal favorite, one girl who was wearing a Cavs No. 23 jersey with the name "Vagina" embroidered onto the back but it was hardly out of control. There were far more people in traditional Cavs garb than those looking to hate on James. After a while, I went off into a corner to think about everything I'd seen, and everything I'd expected to see, and tried to make some sense of it.
Basically, when I arrived in Cleveland, I expected to find anarchy. From all that we'd been led to believe, the city was vicious, scorned and foaming at the mouth in anticipation of getting a shot at their former hero. I figured downtown would look like a bizarro Mardi Gras, with angry hordes filling the street in the name of bringing down the King. I expected chants, rallies, burning jerseys. Isn't that the vibe you got over the past couple weeks? Were you expecting any different?
Well, it was very different. But as the night went on, it started to make sense.
The audio had now been switched to TNT feed, and LeBron was introduced to a smattering of boos. I know that the reception inside the Q was intense, but at a crowded bar barely a block from the arena, it was pretty contained. The boos picked up a little as 'Bron tossed his chalk into the air. There were a few more vulgarities thrown at the TV. One very large woman was inspired to get off her seat and start preaching to the bar:
"Now that was dirty! Now that is a dirty man! That's just a kick in the face!"
He, and the game, now had everyone's attention, and as things got underway, the crowd was transformed. Honestly, it's the closest thing I've ever seen to a March Madness atmosphere during an NBA game. Cleveland was the scrappy No. 14 seed with nothing to lose but everything to gain; Miami the exact opposite. As the first quarter played out, the boos for LeBron were still there, but they were no match for the applause and excitement brought out by the Cavs. The 'Bron booing got a little old as time went on, but every single Cleveland hoop was a celebration. Each one was the most important basket the team has ever scored.
Sure, hating on LeBron was a big part of why everyone had come out that night, but it was now apparent that it wasn't the only reason or even the biggest. These fans were just happy to root for the Cavs again. They were happy to come out to a bar and watch an NBA game that meant something. This really was their championship. They didn't care about LeBron, how well or poorly he played. The Cavs were more important.
Seriously, imagine if you woke up tomorrow and the Celtics were no longer a contender. Imagine KG was gone, Pierce, Ray and Rondo all left, and we were back in 2006. How much would you miss everything we have right now? The nationally televised games, the lure and anticipation of the playoffs, the perpetual winning! How much would it kill you for it to just disappear?
That's Cleveland right now. It's bad that LeBron is gone, but it's worse that the Cavs are gone. Or at least the Cavs they've grown accustomed to. The ones who won 127 combined games the two regular seasons but might not win 27 this year. I know LeBron's absence and the absence of a contender are related. But the second part is worse. You can always find another superstar. And when Cleveland does, they'll feel better. But for now they're stuck in a world where suddenly there's no more meaningful basketball. They're where Boston was back in 2006. You can feel their pain.
Thursday night was it for them, and they soaked up every second of it.
Unfortunately, it only lasted for about a quarter.
But as Miami started to pull away, and LeBron started putting on a show, the Cavs fans hardly unraveled. Sure, they were upset some more than others but it didn't feel like a soul-crushing loss. It just felt like a reality check. A reality they've all adjusted to, one they knew would eventually rear its ugly head.
You know that surge of promise and excitement you get when you start to scratch off a lottery ticket? You know, maybe you scratch one of the numbers, see a million dollar prize and think for a second, just a second, that everything's about to change. Maybe you even take a break from scratching and envision how great your life is about to become. Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, when you continue and obviously don't win the money, it's a letdown, but nothing disastrous. You knew it was a pipe dream, and even then, you've already made peace with your reality. Getting your hopes up, and then down won't lead you into depression. You just shake it off and get back to your normal life. The first quarter was the potential prize. The rest of the game was reality. And the adjustment wasn't very difficult.
"Did we have to get our asses kicked?" one guy asked his friend at the end. "Couldn't it have at least been a close game?"
"Yeah," his buddy said, "that woulda been nice."
Yeah, it would have been nice. But in retrospect, I think the Cavs fans were at least content with that temporary return to the NBA spotlight especially given the limits of their current reality.
Maybe the hate didn't extend as deep as I, or many people believed that it would. But you know, that's not really how they do things in the Midwest. They're kinder and gentler people, and probably have a lot more trouble sinking to the collective depths that we do in Boston, New York or Philly. They're instinctively more considerate and caring.
Considering that LeBron's from the Midwest, I guess that makes him a big exception, but in the end, not even his string of selfishness and arrogance could bring the absolute worst out of Cleveland.
It wasn't the result I expected, but it's certainly one I respect.