Tag Archives: Cleveland

Life & Love: When Basketball is More Than a Game

LeBron hugs Larry O'Brien trophy

Those bracelets he’s wearing say: “I Promise.” And in a highly unorthodox and unexpected way, he kept a promise made long ago. The implications are bigger than just basketball. (Image/Jose Carlos Fajardo-Bay Area News Group)

Six years ago, I sat in stunned silence on the edge of my living-room sofa with my hands covering the bottom-half of my face.

I couldn’t speak.

I was three years away from getting divorced, so I didn’t know that feeling was a diet version of what I’d experience every day for months a few years later and that it would hurt so much that death would sound more like relief than something to fear.

That feeling.

It’s the life-transforming anguish that sometimes connects readers here to the words on the screen. You’ve either been so afraid, so sad, so angry—so hurt—that you feel mentally and emotionally lost, and spiritually dead, or you haven’t. And when you have, you obtain the superpower of empathy—the life skill of being able to share a moment with someone on a deep and meaningful level because you can feel what another feels, creating powerful and important connections with others.

Six months had passed since I lost my job on Jan. 1, 2010 as part of a corporate downsizing during the worst macroeconomic conditions I’d ever seen.

I was failing my pretty wife. She was sitting on the other sofa with two of our friends who’d come to share the moment.

I was failing my two-year-old son. He was asleep upstairs.

Life was getting hard. But at least we had hope. There’s always hope. Right?

I was still a college student in my home state of Ohio when I first heard about the Akron kid who played basketball like Magic Johnson—an artistic and unselfish facilitator, but could score like Michael Jordan—a hardcourt assassin.

From Ohio?!

From Ohio. “The Chosen One,” Sports Illustrated annointed him a month or so later. A skinny fresh-faced kid unapologetically wearing Jordan’s #23 on his jersey.

He was five years younger than me, and according to the SI article, had Jordan’s private phone number in his cell phone.

The Birth of Hope

It must be hard for non-sports fans to understand. I think it might even be hard for people whose favorite teams win a lot.

That’s not how it has been for sports fans in Cleveland, Ohio. Not since the 1960s.

I’ve heard the narrative—literally—my entire life, watching my favorite football team fumble away championship opportunities as a child. I cried, and my mom got upset because “it’s only a game.”

It’s no secret to anyone paying attention: Cleveland teams don’t win.

Still, we dream.

Still, we hope.

It was almost exactly 13 years ago when a series of events which included a lot of losing basketball and fortunate bounces of ping-pong balls allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to own the first pick in the 2003 NBA Draft where Akron high schooler LeBron James was the presumptive choice.

Northeast Ohio’s native son.

I sat in joyful silence on the edge of my living-room sofa a thousand miles south in my Florida apartment with my hands covering the bottom-half of my face when James became a Cavalier.

It felt like destiny.

The humble, but confident kid promised to “light Cleveland up like Las Vegas.”

This combination of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan was the chosen one. A force greater than some silly “curse.” This kid was going to save the downtrodden sports town.

This kid was going to win titles.

It was truly the birth of hope.

And Then the Death of Hope

Then it all went up in flames that night six years ago. The Decision.

Back in Ohio, but unemployed. Not enough alcohol. My little boy, who was supposed to grow up watching James and the Cavs win titles, was asleep upstairs.

My dreams of watching games, sharing moments, and celebrating with him—shattered.

It’s the same thing that happens to us when we divorce. We lose our partners. We lose our families. We lose our homes. But we lose something else you don’t hear many people talk about.

We lose our dreams.

We lose EVERYTHING. We lose yesterday AND tomorrow. Our past memories are poisoned and we realize our future plans are lies.

It’s devastating.

And yeah. It’s not up to the same level, but people who’ve never been divorced can’t tell the difference: You can feel that sitting on your living-room couch watching your favorite athlete tell the world on national television that he’s WILLINGLY dumping your favorite team, his hometown, and moving to the state you’d come back to Ohio from, to join another team.

You’re not allowed to tell me that it didn’t matter, or that Cleveland fans reacted poorly, or that it’s pathetic that adults would let something like a basketball player switching teams affect them so much.

If you’ve never felt totally out of control and as if your heart would stop while fighting tears and trying to remember to breathe at some really inopportune time like a conference room meeting at work, or at a party with friends, then you’ve never felt the crippling power of anxiety.

If you’ve never invested your emotions in athletes on a TV screen or from overpriced seats at a stadium or arena, then I wouldn’t expect you to get it.

It mattered.

This wasn’t just some basketball player moving to another team.

It was rejection.

It was embarrassment.

It was betrayal.

Friends were losing all those nights together at the arena. Local businesses were losing all that income from excited fans. Families were losing all those nights together sitting around the TV sharing the moment. Together.

Fathers had dreams for their sons. Gone.

The Cleveland faithful had taken to calling us Believeland. A laughable name used recently as the title of a film documenting the sports culture in Cleveland—one rife with heartache and disappointment.

Believeland?

Right.

Hope had forsaken these lands.

Our Unfinished Stories

People like to say: “Everything happens for a reason!”

I don’t agree with that because I don’t believe little kids get cancer “for a reason.” But I totally agree with the spirit of the phrase, because I’ve seen it play out time and time again.

As the stories of our lives are written, things which were hard to go through and difficult to understand at the time often prove to be these important pieces of the story which had to occur in order for future good things to happen.

So, it’s not: “Everything happens for a reason!”

It’s: Someday, something is going to happen. Something big and important and beautiful. And when that moment arrives, it will become apparent that the ONLY way that could have happened was for life to work out exactly as it did.

I know I’m just some asshole-nobody, but I like to tell myself that maybe some of the words here can help the right person at the right time. Maybe someone can be a better husband and father and save his family because the right sentence resonated in the right way.

Maybe the ONLY way for me to evolve into a man capable of raising my son to be a good man, or loving a future partner as they’re supposed to be loved, or writing something that matters, was to experience the worst thing that ever happened to me.

Maybe easy is bullshit.

Maybe difficult is the only way.

Maybe that’s where redemption lives.

The Long and Winding Road

When James joined the Miami Heat, a bunch of things happened.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert wrote a now-infamous letter assassinating James’ character. I haven’t read it in six years, but I remember Gilbert calling him “the self-declared former king.”

James teamed up with two NBA superstars and became the presumptive championship favorites every year. They went to the Finals all four years he was in Miami, winning the two in the middle.

The Cavaliers got terrible. Losing James created one of the largest freefalls from winning to losing the sports world had ever seen. But when you lose in the NBA, something else happens: You increase your chances of getting high draft picks to select the best players. Which happened.

The Cavs earned another first pick in the NBA Draft, which they used to select a 19-year-old Duke freshman named Kyrie Irving who only played 11 college games due to injury. They had the fourth pick too. They picked a guy from Texas named Tristan Thompson which excited approximately zero Cleveland fans.

Because LeBron grew up around here, and people know people, one of my closest friends told me a story that sounded plausible, if unlikely: LeBron James wants to come back to Cleveland.

Good things don’t really happen to Cleveland sports, so it was easy to dismiss as hopeful fantasy.

But then, another year went by and the whispers turned to internet rumors which turned to national stories: LeBron might come home.

I’d been divorced about a year. Things were mostly still shitty, but I was writing here and choosing hope.

And then it happened: LeBron James announced he was coming back to Ohio, rejoining the Cleveland Cavaliers, and committing himself to ending the 50-year stretch of misery that had become part of the very fabric of the region.

Redemption Song

LeBron James swallowed his pride to return to his homeland, forgiving all the hate and anger thrown his way four years earlier. He hoped fans would embrace him again.

We did, of course. He had us at “I’m coming home.”

He put his ego aside, agreeing to rejoin a team owned by a man who destroyed him in a venomous public letter that will live forever in Cleveland sports lore.

Because of the long and winding road full of unwritten stories, who could have known that the two players picked in the 2011 NBA Draft could have ONLY happened if James was not in Cleveland?

The Cleveland Cavaliers became instant title contenders.

In James’ first year home, the Cavs made it to the Finals. Two of our three best players were injured and couldn’t play. He makes a heroic stab at it, but the Cavs ultimately lose to the Golden State Warriors. Another bullet point on the Cleveland Never Wins Championships resume.

Enter 2016.

The Cavs are just okay. Clearly underachieving, but maybe this is just who they are. Not good enough.

The coach is fired halfway through the season. Meanwhile, the defending champion Warriors are having the best season in NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs (the only other franchise to beat the Cavs in the NBA Finals) is also having a historically great year. Either team looks poised to throttle the Cavs in a hypothetical Finals matchup.

Around the holidays, drink in hand at a birthday party, my friends and I laughed at the situation even though no one considered it funny.

“How CLEVELAND is this?! LeBron wins championships in Miami, comes back to Cleveland where everyone assumes we will finally win one, and then we run into the most dominant team in NBA history!”

Only. In. Cleveland.

People say that around here. People feel that around here.

But then things, just, happened.

The Cavaliers started playing better, dominated in the playoffs, and we found ourselves back in the NBA Finals with the team that knocked us out a year ago.

It was probably going to happen again, too, because this is Cleveland.

The Warriors won the first two games. We’re not good enough.

We won Game 3. Hope?

We lost Game 4 at home. Over. It’s never happened before. No one recovers from 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. All 32 teams who have tried—failed.

But then very non-Clevelandy things happened. One of the Warriors’ best players was forced to miss Game 5. LeBron and the kid we have only because LeBron left both scored 41 points.

We win.

Game 6 is back in Cleveland. LeBron goes for 41 again, because he’s not a normal person.

And then Game 7 was back in Golden State’s home arena, where they’d only lost four times during the entire season and playoffs to that point.

My Florida buddy texted me two days before the game. He was sitting in the room with me the night the Cavs drafted LeBron 13 years ago.

“Percent confidence for you that Cavs win Game 7?”

My brain said we had a shot. My heart damn sure wanted it. But this is Cleveland.

“49%,” I typed back.

I was on the phone with my dad before the game. He told me one of his friends had placed a bet on the Warriors.

I involuntarily said: “Good,” but I really meant “Screw that guy. I’m never talking to him again.”

I was invited to join friends at a big watch party in downtown Cleveland.

I declined. It was Father’s Day.

Just me and my son. A young boy who loves basketball, but is still too young to stay awake through a late-night game.

He fell asleep on the couch next to me, still too young to know that Cleveland never wins.

But in a weird way, this was it. This is what I dreamed about rocking that swaddled baby boy back when the world was still different. When it was better?

Was the world better before the worst thing that ever happened to me, happened?

Could the Cleveland Cavaliers contend for a championship if LeBron never leaves, allowing them to get Kyrie and Tristan?

With 4 minutes and 30 seconds to play, the game was tied 89-89.

I was sipping vodka for medical reasons for the first time since the first couple of months following my wife moving out.

I sat in tensed silence on the edge of my living-room sofa with my hands covering the bottom-half of my face.

No one could score.

And then with 1:55 left on the clock, I finally see how Cleveland will lose. A two-on-one fastbreak with the NBA’s MVP the past two seasons and the guy named NBA Finals MVP against us last year.

The Warriors will make a layup. The fans will go crazy. And that will ultimately prove the difference.

And then, in a split-second, LeBron James flew through the air like a human missile and blocked the would-be layup in the most amazing, powerful, unexpected, iconic, meaningful, magical basketball play I’ve ever seen.

Since a sleeping child was the only other person in the room, I never got to say: “HOLY SHIT. DID THAT REALLY JUST HAPPEN?” so I’m saying it now.

Then, more time ticked off. Still tied at 89.

And with 53 seconds left, Kyrie Irving—the guy who only plays for the Cavs BECAUSE LeBron left Cleveland for four years—makes my new favorite three-pointer, a highlight we’ll be seeing and talking about in Northeast Ohio forever.

A shot block by the kid from Akron. Redemption.

A heroic dagger from LeBron’s unlikely future running mate. Providence.

A memory for every father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, friend, neighbor, stranger near or far whose hearts were on the line. A moment.

The kind we usually only have when tragedy strikes. Those uniting Where Were You When…? moments are so rarely joyful for so many people.

Champions.

Cleveland, Ohio.

Believeland.

Champions.

Are you shitting me?

And now everything gets to be different. Because it happened. So now it CAN happen. Belief and hope won’t just be the harmless weapons of the delusional, but the justified tools of people who have been there before.

My little son woke up the next morning with no memory of the night before, despite my efforts to wake him.

“Who won, Dad?” were the first words out of his mouth. “Let me guess: The Warriors,” he continued, sadly.

“Here, kiddo. I have it recorded. Let’s watch the final two minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

And then I hit the Play button and watched the miracle again.

This time, complete with celebratory hugs with my son. A dream I thought was lost, but wasn’t. Because we don’t always know what will happen next. Because we don’t always understand why yesterday happened. And because we have no idea what’s in store for us at the end of the long and winding road once this next chapter is written.

When do sports matter? Times like this.

When is something silly like basketball more than just a game? On Father’s Day. When curses are dispelled, and dreams come true, and hope returns.

Sometimes Life is a game.

And sometimes, a game is Life.

A moment.

Providence.

Redemption.

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More Than a Game

Image/Nike

Image/Nike

On Jan. 17, 1988, I sobbed on the living room floor while my mom yelled at me for crying.

“It’s just a football game, Matt! It’s not that important!” she said.

Even though I was only 8, I knew she was wrong.

My stepdad had walked out of the house without saying a word. He didn’t take a coat even though it was freezing out there.

We just watched the Cleveland Browns fumble away the Super Bowl, and my stepdad and I were devastated.

“It’s not that important!”

My stepdad took a long time to come back inside.

Don’t tell me what’s important. I wanted my favorite team to win in the biggest game of the year, and when they didn’t, I cried because it hurt, and I don’t give a shit whether that makes sense to anyone.

Don’t tell me it didn’t matter, because my heart broke, which means it mattered.

People care about what they care about. I respect almost any demonstration of enthusiasm and passion, even if I lack interest in the subject.

My mom didn’t understand why a football game could mean so much.

A lot of people don’t.

Maybe it’s because we live in Ohio, and Ohio is “boring,” so we all care about things like football, basketball and baseball more than people who live in places where surfing and mountain climbing and Upper East Side parties and Hollywood Blvd. are viable options.

But we do care about these things. Passionately.

 …

On Thursday, my favorite basketball team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, is going to begin a best-of-seven (first team to win four games wins) series that will determine this year’s NBA champion.

Anyone even loosely familiar with American professional sports knows the city of Cleveland has not won a pro sports championship since 1964—the longest drought of any major U.S. city. The national media reminds us all the time because they’re evil sadists.

Under normal circumstances, that would make us media darlings—the You can do it! underdogs many of us love to root for.

But somewhere between the feel-good story that is the Golden State Warriors and their totally likable superstar (NBA MVP Stephen Curry who is super-easy to root for) and the bizarre hateful-admiration combo many people feel toward Cleveland superstar LeBron James, I get the sense most people will be rooting for the Warriors. And that’s fine.

 …

Here’s the thing I want people who don’t care to understand: I’m not rooting for the millionaire athletes you don’t believe deserve the praise and admiration and money and attention they get.

I’m rooting for my friends.

Kris and Todd and Dusty and Steve and Tim and Angie and Nate and people I’m forgetting to name. Long-time Clevelanders who have faced heartbreak after heartbreak from the bloody front lines. They’ve been waiting their entire lives for this. They deserve it.

I’m rooting for my neighbors. They deserve it.

I’m rooting for co-workers and the people I see walking around in Cavs hats and jerseys. They deserve it.

I’m rooting for my tribe. The people who live where I live and care about what I care about. We deserve it.

A common interest is not always enough to bring people together.

But in Ohio? In Cleveland? That’s exactly what it does.

Because it’s more than a game.

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Now I Can Die in Peace

There will always be a higher mountain to climb.

There will always be a higher mountain to climb.

I root for professional sports teams in a city famous for not winning a championship in 50 years.

It’s almost statistically impossible to have a five-decade run of suckage like we’ve had in Cleveland, Ohio. That’s why sports fans in northeast Ohio collectively showcased the world’s largest erection in the history of sexual sports metaphors last summer when basketball star LeBron James announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The return of James ignited a series of events that now have the Cavaliers as the odds-on favorite in Las Vegas to win the NBA title. Probably for the next five years.

Typical fans expect major injuries to crush all of our hopes and dreams.

Sensible fans simply hope this team built for dominance will deliver Cleveland its first major sports championship in five decades.

Fans like me engage in conversation about how many championships we might win.

I’m never satisfied.

With what? I don’t know. Everything?

My poor (at worst) to middle-class (at best) upbringing shouldn’t justify my high expectations. But I have them anyway.

This dissatisfaction would manifest itself in my youth as materialism. I wanted things. I had a lot of friends with infinitely more financial resources than my family did. There was no jealousy. Please don’t think that. But it did establish a standard in my mind. A standard of living which, if achieved, would seem to indicate you’ve “made it.”

Hardly anyone has money in college. So, when I started getting my full-time job paychecks from the newspaper after graduating, I felt like I made it.

I was living in an affluent beach town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, surrounded by boat owners, country club members and owners of prime real estate. I’d feed my lust for big houses and piles of cash by walking through multi-million-dollars homes on the weekends and dreaming of life in a place like that.

That’s the recipe for making a totally pleasant three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment three miles from the beach seem like a shitty place to live.

When we moved back to Ohio, we bought a house that would have cost three times as much in the town we’d just moved from. So it seemed awesome.

All it took was a job offer I was unable to accept that would have made me a lot of money to make my perfectly adequate house seem wholly not so.

I drive a new Jeep Grand Cherokee. But it’s not the Limited!!!

I have six televisions (and don’t even watch TV that much). But I need a new big-screen for my basement!!!

Everything is relative.

I might never have most of the things I want. But I could lose a whole bunch of things I already have and still always have everything I need.

Fortunately, my cravings are no longer material. I want to achieve a higher state of being. I want to walk a higher path.

I don’t seek things. I seek peace.

I’m intellectually capable of understanding that contentment and happiness come not from attainable things, but from within.

Even still. I want more.

Desire is Full of Endless Distances

That was the headline of marketing genius and prolific writer Seth Godin’s blog post today. I read it three times and hugged myself because sometimes that’s how much I love things I read.

Here it is:

“Just one more level on this game, she says. Once I get to level 68, I’ll be done.

Just one more tweak to the car, they beg. Once we bump up the mileage, we’ll be done.

Just one more lotion, she asks. Once I put that on, my skin will be perfect and I’ll be done.

Of course, the result isn’t the point. The mileage or the ranking or slightly more alabaster or ebony isn’t the point. The point is the longing.

Desire can’t be sated, because if it is, the longing disappears and then we’ve failed, because desire is the state we seek.

We’ve expanded our desire for ever more human connection into a never-ceasing parade of physical and social desires as well. Amplified by marketers and enabled by commerce, we race down the endless road faster and faster, at greater and greater expense. The worst thing of all would be if we actually arrived at perfect, because if we did, we would extinguish the very thing that drives us.

We want the wanting.”

Seth’s usually (always?) right. I think he’s a genius and a master of asking the right questions.

And I agree with him here.

There’s something tragic about it, too. About a life lived chasing and climbing and chasing and climbing… and never arriving, OR getting there and thinking: Shit. Now what?

I’m skinnier. But not skinny enough.

I’m stronger. But not strong enough.

I’m smarter. But not smart enough.

I’m a better man than I used to be. But I’m not good enough. And I’m now realizing I probably never will be.

Maybe I’ll never have my Rocky Balboa moment. Maybe I’ll never conquer all of my personal battles or achieve all my goals.

And there is something inherently dissatisfying about that. But it’s also honest.

And the truth is: I want the wanting.

I want to chase after the things that move me, even if it amounts to nothing more than a cat chasing its tail.

Because what the hell else am I going to do?

I want things. Things I may never have. Things that, if I acquire, might lose their appeal and have me looking longingly toward other things.

I choose to embrace the tragic purity of climbing and chasing knowing I may never arrive at my destination. That the Browns may never win a championship. That I may never have my dream home. That I may always feel like I have a bunch of growing to do.

We’re human. The real beauty is in the trying.

There. Now, I can die in peace.

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