A championship for Cleveland: Why does winning feel so weird?

Cavs-championship-paradeClevelanders are well-trained pessimists. Starting at birth, we learn about all the crappy things that have happened to our teams over the years: The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot. These events brought misery and anguish to Cleveland sports fans. And yet, we give them names. We repeat them. We remember them.

Pessimism, at least for Clevelanders, is not passive or reflexive—it’s intentional. Instead of remembering, we could choose to forget (or at least try to).

But we don’t.

We’re not totally devoid of hope—we call our city “Believeland” for a reason. But it’s a hope governed more by logic than faith.

Disloyalty is not an option; we will forever cheer for our sports teams. But no amount of losing could ever lead us to treason.

We believe because hope is more practical than despair. We hope for the best, but we fully expect the worst. (Even our optimism is more depressing than most people’s pessimism.)

We’re practical people—but we’re idealistic, too. During this DiMaggio-like 52 year losing streak, the people of Cleveland we’re forced to adapt. But we could choose how we were going to do adapt: Do we love our sports teams less or do we get better at dealing with despair?

We chose despair—we could never bring ourselves to love less. We knew what the consequences were going to be, and we were prepared to face them when they arrived. Since we chose misery, it didn’t feel quite as miserable. We based our whole identity on losing, so another loss didn’t change who we are.

That’s why our litany of horrible moments—The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot—became our mantra of survival. We had already experienced all these events. One more defeat would just be another item added to the list.

Every defeat still hurt—but that’s because we wanted it to. If we stopped caring about losing, then victory wouldn’t mean as much either. We were willing to sacrifice our well being, but not our love for our teams. To love the Browns, the Cavs, and the Indians, we still had to believe in them. We needed hope … just not too much of it.

Losing sucked, but I love the people it turned us into.

We took pride in our identity as losers because we worked so hard to cultivate it. We clung to the title of most-tortured sports city like it was our birthright. There are certainly other sports fans that have experienced their fair share of misery (i.e. Cubs fans, Bills fans, Pirates fans). But Cleveland sports fans don’t segment by individual sports; we just wanted another championship—we didn’t care which sport it happened to be in.

Cleveland earned the title of most-tortured sports city, and god forbid anyone should try to take it away from us (it was the only title we might ever have). The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot. But it was more than that. It was Willie Mays’ catch in the 1954 World Series. It was Art Model (firing Paul Brown, forcing Jim Brown to retire, moving the team to Baltimore). It was losing the 1997 World Series.

And then we each have our own personal tales of woe that might not have made it into the pantheon of cursed Cleveland moments. For me, it was getting Kenny Lofton back in 2007, only to blow a 3-1 ALCS lead and never make it the World Series (where we certainly would’ve beaten the Colorado Rockies). I wanted it so badly that year, but of course we came up short.

But more than anything else, it was 1964. It was the interminable wait for a next championship that might never come. By the summer of 2016, each and every Cleveland sports fan had been waiting 52 years for a championship—it didn’t matter how old you were, each of us had been waiting the same amount of time. Because memory is passed on. It’s collective. It’s ours. It’s shared.

On Sunday, June 19, I was on my way to a bar in Washington, D.C. to watch my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers take on the Golden State Warriors in game 7 of this year’s NBA Finals.

I thought about going home for game 7. I wanted to watch with friends and family in the city of Cleveland itself. But I ended up staying in D.C., and I’m glad I did.

The bar was completely overrun with Clevelanders for game 7. I was hundreds of miles away from Cleveland, but walking in and seeing all those Cavs Jerseys … I had never felt more at home.

Throughout much of the game, I felt like a true-blooded Clevelander. It wasn’t just about how much I wanted to win; it was more how much I expected us to lose—even when we were seconds away from victory.

We were up by three with 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, and LeBron was fouled hard on his way to the basket. I couldn’t help thinking this was the moment it was all going to unravel. LeBron lay in agony on the court clutching his arm, and I thought: Oh god, what are we going to call this one?

We were only up by three and we were playing the most prolific three-point shooting team ever—it seemed so perfectly orchestrated for devastation. LeBron was going to miss both free throws. They would call timeout. Take the ball up the court. Hit a three to tie up the game. We would go to overtime. The Warriors would win. The Cavs would lose.

That was how it was supposed to happen because, for 52 years, that’s how it always did.

But LeBron made one of two free throws. We were up by four, and you can’t score four points in one possession according to the rules of basketball (so long as J.R. Smith doesn’t foul Steph Curry when he’s shooting a three). We were going to win.

And just like that the streak was over. The championship timer had been reset to zero. We were champions once again.

When the final buzzer sounded, I celebrated like I never had before. I felt unbridled joy and happiness. I screamed, I cried, I jumped up and down like a maniac. But it all felt a little weird.

Everyone in the bar celebrated, but I think we all felt that little twinge of strangeness in the pit of our stomachs.

The first thing you do when your team wins the championship is hug everyone in sight, strangers included. One of the first people I hugged was a random man standing behind me. We embraced like we were brothers, and then he looked at me and said: What do we do now?

That’s the question. This was the moment of the evening where I didn’t feel like a Clevelander. We’ve been well-trained to deal with losing. But winning? This is something new.

Don’t get me wrong—I rather like winning. I celebrated our championship like it was the greatest day of my life (and I don’t just mean my life up until this point). While no championship can ever exceed this one, I’m very much looking forward to another parade in downtown Cleveland.

But I have some concerns. What happens to the part of me that so identified with losing? What happens to The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot? What happens to the person I was? Do we forget our miserable history now that we’re champions again? Is this the beginning of our new history? Or do we somehow include who we were into who we are now?

The other day I found a t-shirt online that says “The Block, The Shot, The Stop” in reference to the three iconic plays that sealed the victory for us at the end of game 7. It’s a wonderful concept that incorporates our losing past with our victorious present—but will the next generation of Cleveland sports fans get the reference?

I hope they do.

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