Bittersweet Sixteen

This is an extended story that appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 13 Cleveland Issue. Subscribe today!

Anyplace else, moments as iconic and heartbreaking as The Shot, The Fumble, The Drive and Red Right 88 -- each with pithy nicknames known not just locally but to sports fans everywhere -- would be the most painful moments in their city's sports history. But in the Cleveland sports pain bracket, they were all 2-seeds.

And they were all four on the outside, licking the wounds of even further defeat, when The Decision won it all over fellow top seed, The Move.

The 16-torment tournament came about after polite consultation with editors at ESPN and a tremendous amount of fatalistic brainstorming/commiseration/opening-of-old-wounds with a kitchen cabinet of my Cleveland friends and family, none of whom has any memories of a Cleveland team winning a championship -- not even those of us several years past becoming eligible for membership in AARP.

In the not-too-distant past, a contest like this would have been a cheap excuse for people around the world to laugh at Cleveland. But as the votes rolled in (flanked by tweets and other blips of social media), I sensed not mockery but empathy. Or at least heartfelt pity. What changed?

Well, in recent years, several accursed franchises -- the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, San Francisco Giants, New Orleans Saints, Chicago Blackhawks -- have been delivered from darkness. Each time, the if-it-can't-be-us-I-hope-poor-Cleveland-finally-wins vibes grew a little stronger. Maybe even from Steelers fans.

Now add to that the fact that every fan of an MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL team with a drought of 50 years or longer (the Chicago Cubs, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers) lives either in a city that's won a championship in other sports or in San Diego, a place too idyllic to warrant pity. All of which is to say that, in 2014, reveling in Cleveland's protracted grief (much of it mirroring some rough economic times) seems to have become as self-evidently ugly as rooting against an injured puppy trying to make it across a highway.

For which: Thanks!

But you don't know the half of it -- literally so -- when it comes to this bracket. Originally, the plan was to create a bracket of 32, because believe me: From the early days of rock 'n' roll to today, Cleveland's hits just keep on coming. Then, just as I finished putting it together, I was told to cut it in half because of the universe's profound indifference to Cleveland's anguish -- er, I mean, The Mag's space considerations.

I said I understood.

Here -- to help the newly sympathetic truly understand Cleveland's tortured soul (or simply to give non-Clevelanders an occasion to count their blessings) -- is a glimpse of what you missed:

• Only three times since the Browns won in '64 has a Cleveland team played for a championship (and lost, of course). Yet the 1995 World Series (vs. Atlanta) and the 2007 NBA Finals (vs. San Antonio) couldn't even crack the bracket.

• Immediately after leaving Cleveland, the Browns Ravens went from one of the worst-drafting teams to one of the best, kicking things off with Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Then in 2000, the year after the launch of the sad, expansion-team Browns, the Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV. This -- and the excruciating sight of Art Modell hoisting the Lombardi trophy and trying to dance like Lewis -- couldn't even crack the bracket.

• Speaking of departed franchises: the Cleveland Barons dominated minor league hockey for decades, often with teams that might have held their own in the (then) six-team NHL. When the league expanded, Cleveland was ignored. Finally, in 1976, the foundering California Golden Seals became the NHL's Cleveland Barons, but it was so close to the beginning of the season there was barely time to print tickets. Two years later, the Barons were forced to merge with the Minnesota North Stars. The departure of the NHL without giving the city a fair chance to support it? Couldn't even crack the bracket.

• From 1948 to 1959, the Indians boasted 11 winning seasons, finishing first or second eight times, a .590 winning percentage, and took two trips to the World Series, winning one in '48. In the ensuing 34 years, they had six (barely) winning seasons and never sniffed the playoffs. The transition was the handiwork of GM Frank "Trader" Lane, epitomized in two separate swaps during the spring of 1960, each of which sent an elite young slugger to Detroit: first baseman Norm Cash (who'd play 15 seasons and hit 373 homers for the Tigers) for third baseman Steve Demeter (who'd play four games for Cleveland), then right fielder Rocky Colavito (AL home run champ and most popular player on the team) for the decent if punchless 29-year-old Harvey Kuenn. This came to be known as the Curse of Rocky Colavito. Although in Cleveland this is perhaps the metaphor for all these decades of futility spiked with heartbreak, it couldn't even crack the damn bracket.

When it came to assessing the degrees of pain caused by the most famous/infamous gut-punch moments and/or high-profile embarrassments that did make the Bittersweet 16, the voters made perfectly defensible choices.

That said, dear voters, I want to take issue with three things.

First, you got the winner dead wrong.

It was both a foregone conclusion and the right choice that The Move and The Decision met for the title. Sure, both are wounds that have, to some degree, healed; both the Browns and LeBron James are, after all, back in Cleveland. Which is wonderful! Even though the new Browns have been a perennial laughingstock. And even though every seasoned Cleveland fan is struggling to tamp down the pit-of-the-stomach fantods that it's just a matter of time before some go-figure disaster befalls LeBron's looks-great-for-now second stint with the Cavaliers.

Back when they happened, though, The Move and The Decision each inflicted almost unbearable agony.

At the time, I was certain that the only reason The Decision became a TV show was to give drama to the nonstory of LeBron's staying in Cleveland -- that if he was going to go to, say, Miami, he'd have never gone before a live worldwide audience to break his hometown fans' hearts.

But no. It happened.

I was also certain, back in the '90s, that Art Modell was posturing. I didn't really think that a team that was perennially among the league leaders in attendance would sign a deal to move to a city (Baltimore) that once had the same thing done to it (even if the Colts didn't draw quite as well). And I certainly didn't expect it to happen the day before we (resoundingly!) approved a $175 million tax to renovate the team's stadium.

But no. It happened.

In both cases, the betrayals triggered isolated burnings (jerseys for LeBron, effigies for Modell) and seemed so profound that many, many Cleveland fans (myself included) more or less stopped following the NBA and NFL, respectively, at least for a year or three.

But look: With The Decision, it was one young man's lamentable but understandable choice that would have hurt Cleveland fans no matter what but became exponentially worse because (a) it seemed as if he'd quit on the team a couple of months earlier in the Eastern Conference semis against Boston (The Quit, which was a 4-seed and lost in round one to The Move) and (b) he delivered the news in the worst imaginable way.

With The Move, because of political disingenuousness and the greed of one old man, Cleveland lost a whole franchise, one it had supported extraordinarily well, one it was willing to tax itself silly to keep.

LeBron is back. The Browns still seem a little bit faux.

The Move should have won.

Here's my second beef (make it corned beef from Slyman's, corner of St. Clair and East 31st, as good or better than any you'll find in New York): While the brackets produced no outright Cinderellas (or should that be Wicked Stepsisters?), there were two upsets -- one of which was an utterly predictable mistake.

The Fumble, a second seed, beat top-seeded The Catch. Going in, this seemed probable. In Game 1 of the '54 Series at New York's cavernous Polo Grounds, with the score tied 2-2 in the eighth and runners on first and second, Cleveland's Vic Wertz hit a blast to center, a ball that would have been out of any other park in America ("including Yellowstone," a press box wag said) but which Willie Mays grabbed on a dead run. The Giants went on to win the game and (with what now seems like cruel inevitability) sweep the entire series. The Catch was a worthy No. 1 seed, in that it was the first time in MLB history that a heavily favored team had been swept and, more so, because it was the moment that perfectly foreshadowed what Cleveland had coming.

But in choosing The Fumble, voters got it right.

The Fumble hurt much more at the time and probably to this day. It came the very next year after John Elway engineered The Drive. It came as an answer to a drive Elway had just engineered in this game; this time, Clevelanders allowed themselves to think, "It's gonna be different." Earnest Byner took the handoff, and for a moment, almost everyone watching thought he'd scored the TD that would tie the game, putting the Browns that much closer to the Super Bowl.

But no. The Fumble happened.

As for the other upset, though, the voters utterly blew it by picking The Drive over the 1997 World Series.

Oddly, Jose Mesa's blown save and the rest of the heartbreak that happened in the extra-inning Game 7 loss to the fly-by-night, no-tradition Florida Marlins doesn't have a pithy two- or three-word nickname, as all its competitors do. Perhaps that's the only reason it lost. It's hard to think of a genuinely good one.

The Drive was awful, no question, but had the Browns beaten the Broncos, they'd have gone to Super Bowl XXI, where surely they, like the Broncos, would have been pummeled by the New York Giants. The Indians were two outs from beating the Marlins. Two blasted outs: by far the closest any Cleveland team since 1964 has come to winning a championship.

Had the Tribe pulled it out, it might have triggered the apocalypse. But the drought would be over.

My third complaint is more nuanced. More personal and profoundly more quixotic. An insider's lament. An upset that was never going to happen but should have. See, The Decision should have never even faced The Move.

It should have lost a round earlier -- to Red Right 88.

It didn't, because The Decision was far more recent and far more of a national event. To be fair, it also probably ran deeper and took much longer to heal. But again, it was a young man's blunder, one he seems determined to rectify. C'mon, people, who are we to hold a grudge?

But the 1980 Browns -- the so-called Kardiac Kids --were special, the perfect team to end the drought, one that played beyond its abilities in just the sort of charmed season that made them seem like a rightful team of destiny.

They were led by quarterback Brian Sipe, a former 13th-round draft pick, a Siddhartha-reading California surfer kid who'd go on to be that year's unlikely NFL MVP. "There's no way you can look at our depth chart," Sipe would marvel later, "and conclude that we were one of the most talented teams in the NFL."

Also looking back, coach Sam Rutigliano said, "Everybody played -- I don't care who they were -- to a level beyond their talent because they believed we could win."

In short order, the fans believed too.

The Browns went 11-5, including three wins (and two of the last three) via fourth-quarter comebacks.

In the AFC divisional playoff game, the Browns played the Oakland Raiders at home, in subzero conditions that, abetted by whatever architect was responsible for leaving the Cleveland stadium open on the Lake Erie side, were among the coldest in NFL history.

Down 14-12, Sipe had Cleveland well on its way to its fourth late-game comeback, driving the team 72 yards to the Oakland 13 with 49 seconds remaining.

Then, instead of running the ball to set up a short field goal (kicker Don Cockroft had a sore back and had missed two of four attempts that day) or even calling a safe sideline pass, Rutigliano chose a pass play, "Red Right 88," which was intercepted in the end zone.

The Browns, as it turned out, would prove to be by far the Raiders' toughest playoff opponent.

In Super Bowl XV, they'd have their Darth Vader way with the hapless Eagles, and Al Davis would bare his yellow teeth and hold up a Lombardi trophy that, if only cosmically, felt stolen.

I understand that Red Right 88 had no realistic chance to win this bracket. Just know that it's the Kardiac Kids who most deserved to be the ones who made this bracket never happen in the first place.

After Sipe threw that pick and came jogging off the field, you know what Rutigliano said to him? Only this: "I love you."

There's no Cleveland team in this whole bracket better loved than that team of thwarted destiny, those Kardiac Kids -- and no moment that's at once so hard to swallow and so easy to forgive as Red Right 88.