CLEVELAND -- In this hell of a season
Give me more of a reason
To be with you.
Look, I'm a fan but not a drooling idiot. I realize that Golden State, basking in a season-long pink of health, was a far better team than the injury-depleted Cleveland Cavaliers, who, as LeBron James understated, had "a lot of talent sitting in suits." No team playing without two all-stars (Kyrie Irving, whose left kneecap was shattered, and Kevin Love, whose left shoulder was practically yanked off) and its original starting center (Anderson Varejao, who's been missed more than people think) has any rational chance at winning the NBA Finals. Hell, no team like that has ever made it anywhere near the NBA Finals.
This team had to settle for a moral victory, probably a memorable one, but what people already seem to be forgetting is that the Cavs came bizarrely close to an actual victory. Or at least to being up in the series 3-0.
So, fine: the outcome now seems to have been inevitable all along, the Cavaliers' effort valiant and doomed. LeBron's performance was historic. He entered the playoffs as a part of anyone's NBA Mt. Rushmore conversation and finished them as an imminent threat to Michael Jordan's reign as the greatest of all time.
And, my god -- only a year ago, the Cavs were a lottery team with Pollyannaish hopes of taking a step forward and a vacant head-coach job that no one seemed to want. Even when they won their stray games, they were one of the most brutal teams to watch in the entire league.
Instead, we just saw one of the most entertaining seasons any team in any sport could hope to mount, first in its variegated, high-drama storylines and then, after a midseason roster overhaul, even in its style of play.
We saw the Cavs get to the Finals by sweeping the Celtics and then, without Love and largely without Irving, not just beating Chicago and then Atlanta, two teams many favored, but by breaking their spirits. And we saw the Cavs score the two biggest wins in franchise history (which is probably a safe thing to call its only first two Finals wins ever).
So let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Seriously, please, I beg you: Over the next few days, if you have a Cleveland fan in your life, a lover of that great, cheap-shot-riddled city and its fate-pummeled sports teams, or if you see one of us on the street, unshaven and hung over and muttering, staggering around in yesterday's wine-colored, mustard-stained ALL IN T-shirt, please, when the impulse to talk about how fantastic the Cavaliers stand to be next season -- just shut up.
Speaking personally, I hereby renounce all responsibility for whatever vulgar comments or thrown punches I may be unable to avoid directing at the big fat face of the next theoretically well-meaning yutz who expresses any variation of the dread cold comfort of Wait'll Next Year. (For the record, as I write this, my T-shirt is actually coffee-stained and reads GOD HATES CLEVELAND SPORTS.)
And so, for now, I come neither to praise the Cavs' wonderful and excruciating year nor to bury it. It was -- to cite The Black Keys song that blared from the rafters of Quicken Loans Arena last night immediately after Golden State won the game on Cleveland's court and, with it, the 2014-15 NBA championship -- a "Hell of a Season."
In both senses of that.
For now, I need to stumble around here in Cleveland a little while longer, pondering this season's "many chapters" (as LeBron described it last night) and this team's cruelly unmet date with destiny.
Because, see, this was the team that was supposed to flip Cleveland's wretched script. These guys, absent their teammates in suits, were a much weaker team than the Warriors. But even better! Because these guys, on several levels, felt like Chosen Ones.
What I see
Is killing me.
Nowhere does Wait'll Next Year, that hollow cliché, ring more hollow than along the banks of the Cuyahoga River, the city they cleave, and those whose hearts cleave unto both that city and its sports teams.
Believe me, we've heard it, and said it, more than pretty much anybody. Consider:
• The Cleveland Indians last won a World Series in 1948; the next 66 (and counting) ended with Wait'll Next Year.
• The Cavs debuted in 1970; every damned season (some more damned than others) ended with Wait'll Next Year.
• From 1946 to 1964, the Browns won eight championships, more than twice as many as anyone in pro football (four in the AAFC, four in the NFL; those four NFL titles alone are still more than anyone else has in that period). Since then, 46 seasons have ended with Wait'll Next Year; another, 1995, ended with There Will Be No Next Year, as Art Modell moved his team (which we foolishly considered our team) to Baltimore, the Cleveland of the east coast. For three seasons, there were no Browns. We waited three years for the expansion Browns, who've proven to be an object lesson in Careful What You Wish For. (Their record from 1999 to the present is the worst in the NFL.)
• The NHL's Cleveland Barons debuted in 1976, contributed a single, unpersuasive Wait'll Next Year to the cause, played a second season and then ceased to exist (Technically, they merged with the Minnesota North Stars to become, well, the Minnesota North Stars. The team is now the Dallas Stars.)
Here's another way to look at it: As of last night's Cavs' loss, Cleveland teams have now played 144 seasons without winning any of them. No other city has a streak even close.
To make matters even sadder, only five of those seasons featured a team that even played for a championship. (Worse yet, perhaps, the two franchises that left, the original Browns and the Barons, won championships as, respectively, the Baltimore Ravens and the Dallas Stars.) The 1965 Browns were shellacked by Philadelphia. The 1995 Indians and 2007 Cavs were just happy to be there and played like it.
Only twice, in all those years and seasons, did Cleveland seem like no underdog. Like it really might be home to the best team in the sport that year. The 1997 Indians were heavy favorites to beat the Florida Marlins. It took the Tribe seven games and a two-outs-away choke job not to do so.
Cleveland's other non-underdog was, of course, this recently vanquished Cavs team, at least in the homestretch of the season and coming into the playoffs. Had everyone stayed healthy, many people -- most people, I think -- would have favored them over Golden State.
Once Love went out, they became an underdog. Once Kyrie went down, they became a preposterous longshot.
And yet: Cleveland endured. For a glorious time, we endured.
It's my curse
I can reverse
I'm still waiting for you.
Everything with this team and season began and ended, of course, with LeBron James, with The Letter, with finishing up his four years with the Miami Heat and Coming Home. The impact of LeBron's return on Cleveland's economy was millions and millions of dollars. A co-manager of the Green House Tavern on E. 4th told me they'd made more than $100,000 more this year than last "largely because of LeBron;" the other co-manager added that when she was offered the job last year, her husband and teenaged son didn't want to move to Cleveland from Columbus but changed their minds when LeBron announced he was coming back. "Cleveland's a great place, with a lot going on," she said, "but all of a sudden, there was this electricity."
Walk around Cleveland anywhere, anytime these days and ask around: people with stories like this are everywhere.
With LeBron in the fold, the roster was remade after that, and, for a time, the Cavs looked like one of those phony purchase-a-winner teams you see in Florida, L.A. and New York -- and utterly despise unless you live in Florida, Los Angeles or New York.
For a time, too, it seemed like they might never figure much of anything out.
Their 19-20 start was, to be sure, hellish.
But then things turned around, and this team came suddenly into focus -- and with it, it seemed, the very hand of destiny.
To our wondering eyes, we saw that Cleveland (where much of "The Avengers" was filmed, just around the corner from the Q) was avenging the suffering inflicted upon it by past nemeses.
Take that, Miami! For winning the 1997 Series and for taking LeBron in the first place, we're taking him back and watching you miss the playoffs!
Take that, New York! For obstructing the 1940s and '50s Indians from winning the many World Series they should have won, we will fleece you (and Phil Jackson!) of J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and you will get nothing and like it!
Take that, Denver! In recompense for the Fumble and the Drive, we hereby relieve you of one Timofey Mozgov, a massive Russian rim-protector who turned out to be a lot better player than anyone (but the Cavs) seemed to think.
Take that, Boston! Remember the 2007 ALCS (not to mention countless indignities at the hands of the Celtics)? Consider yourself swept!
Take that, Chicago! Remember how bad Jordan made us look? Well, now LeBron owns you.
Take that, Atlanta! Remember the 1995 World Series? Consider your Hawks exposed and broken.
And then came Golden State.
Home of the Raiders, who beat this Cavs' team's only competition for most beloved in this half-century of blight: the 1980 Kardiac Kids Browns.
The Raiders beat the Browns (actually, the Browns beat themselves) and went on to blow out Philadelphia in the Super Bowl. The Browns had the Raiders all but beaten. That should have been the one.
And now it's gone.
And it's all because of The Overtime.
Say you'll be better.
I'll keep waiting forever.
Let me stop you right now.
Yes, maybe next year will be better.
Yes, maybe the Cavs will re-sign the right guys and jettison the right guys, too.
Yes, maybe the 2015-16 Cavs will stay healthy.
And, yes, I know that in the NBA, the norm is for a team to come painfully close to a title before winning it the next year. (And, yes, I know it's whining to complain that the Warriors didn't have to do that.)
But if that doesn't happen, I'm afraid that The Shot, The Drive, The Fumble, et al. has a new evil cohort.
The Cavs go into Game 1 in Oakland with a six-game winning streak. They get Kyrie Irving back and he looks to be 80 percent of himself, which is very good.
With the score tied at 98, seconds left in the game, soon-to-be Finals MVP bridesmaid LeBron James shoots from just inside the left arc, over soon-to-be Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, a shot that looks good -- utterly in keeping with the improbable miracle of his Coming Home season.
Somehow, he misses.
Somehow, the ball finds its way into the corner, where a wide-open Iman Shumpert heaves a 3 that everybody watching is absolutely sure is good.
Somehow, it bounces out.
Somehow, before you could catch your breath, in an overtime that feels like it never should have been played, the Warriors were blowing Cleveland out and Kyrie Irving was suffering a season-ending injury and the Cavs score zero, zip, nothing until LeBron glided in at the end of the game for a pointless, uncontested layup.
Either shot goes in, game over. Cavs win. There's no overtime, and Kyrie doesn't get hurt.
The Cavs won the next two games without him; presumably, the presence of their second-best player wouldn't have changed that.
Sure, maybe the Cavs then become the first team ever to blow a 3-0 lead. If a thing like that happens, no one would be surprised if it happened in, and to, Cleveland.
So look, Cleveland: many worse things could have happened.
The season could have been better, but it couldn't have been much better. It was one hell of a season.
Can't wait for the next one to start.
Mark Winegardner covered Cleveland sports teams for several years as an award-winning columnist and feature writer for the Cleveland Edition and the Cleveland Free Times. He is the author of several books, including the novel Crooked River Burning, which Cleveland Magazine named the best book ever written about Cleveland.