Sunday, June 14, 2015

NBA Finals: Game 4 Postmortem

   Before Game 4, I ditched the perfectly adequate spread in the media dining room in the bowels of Quicken Loans Arena and headed over to East Fourth Street, relishing my every inch-along moment in a dense, exhilarated crowd where just about everyone but me was sporting Cleveland garb[1].
   Not, I should add, just Cavaliers stuff. In fact, I’d say at least half of it emphasized the Cleveland itself, first and foremost[2]. Things like believeland. Or cleveland is the city. This isn’t normal. You don’t see a whole lot of this in championship games in New York or LA, cities too large to have their identities so entwined with that of their sports teams. And neither do you see it in smaller cities like San Antonio, St. Louis or (shudder) Pittsburgh — places that have both won recent titles and been only rarely the butt of cruel jokes at the expense of any suffering. The fact that you see it in title-rich Boston, of course, is why Boston fans have become the most insufferable in the country. But Cleveland’s yearning for redemption is … well, if you’ve made it to the second graf of a blog on the Cleveland Mag website, I can’t imagine you need me to explain.
   Even a surprising amount of Cavs merch made a nod toward the team’s history. There was quite a lot from the orange-and-blue era and many replica jerseys of retired players[3], presumably to send the message that the wearer ain’t no bandwagon-jumper.
   I managed to burrow my way into the Greenhouse Tavern and bully my way to the bar[4], where I scored a seat at the far end. Next to me was a woman in v-necked wine-and-gold shirt picturing the retro Cavalier dude and her date, dressed in immaculately pressed, logo-free togs that would pass casual-Friday muster in the most staid law firm, though he turned out to be a New York-raised Jackson Hole, Wyoming, real estate agent. She was his massage therapist until she moved here to start her own business. He came to visit and wouldn’t tell me how much he paid for the tickets because he didn’t want her to think he was trying to impress her[5].
   The massage therapist said she wasn’t a huge basketball fan but she had deep family ties to Cleveland had been “living and dying” with the Cavs all season. “When I came home,” she said, “everyone joked that I was just trying to be like LeBron.”
   As for Realtor guy, he was just rooting for a good series, though as a New York Rangers fan, he knew what it felt like to suffer for a long time and then finally be redeemed.
   The woman and I made eye contact. Yeah, right, the look said. Realtor guy don’t know from suffering.
   “Of course,” he said, scrambling for the save, “I want her to be happy, so I’m rooting for Cleveland.”
   “Of course,” I said.

   Two days later, as I write this, I kind of envy Realtor guy and anyone else who doesn’t have a dog in the fight that this NBA Finals has become.
   For them (and, judging from the stellar TV ratings, there are multitudes of such people), this has been a delightfully a close, hard-played series, rich with storylines, MVP winners and unlikely heroes. A series that both displays and challenges the state-of-the-art basketball strategies. A series in which first one team split games at home, then the other team followed suit. A series that’s tied 2-2 and seems destined to go seven — which, really, is the only rooting interest you have.
   They enjoy every minute of it without worrying that maybe they’re crazy.
   For Cleveland fans[6] — at least those of us living and dying with the Cavs — we’ve been … if not literally living and dying, at least kind of, well … manic.
   Before Game 1, we were hopeful.
   After it, we were distraught
   Before Game 2, we braced for what seemed like a certain 4-0 sweep.
   After it, our spirits soared, flying along with the team back to Cleveland with home court advantage.
   Before Game 3, we were at best cautiously optimistic.
   After it, with Cleveland up 2-1 and with (historically) a 74 percent chance of winning, we allowed ourselves, for the first time, to get serious about how we’d really feel not if but when a Cleveland team wins a title in our lifetime.
   Before Game 4, we’d allowed ourselves to get downright giddy.
   After it, we weren’t crushed the way we were after Game 1. We were ground down. Emotionally exhausted and ground down. We woke resigned to losing the series in seven.
   Before Game 5, a lot of us will be braced for more disappointment.
   But our believeland clothing will betray us. And snippets of old songs will creep into our minds. Tonight the orange and blue delivers, some of us will sing[7]. Hard workin’ town, hard-workin’ team.   // Mark Winegardner

[1] Not while wearing press credentials. Hey, I’m a pro. There is a code to observe. I will confess that this series has driven me to violate the no-cheering-in-the-pressbox a few times, though I have recovered speedily and then dutifully swallowed my shame.
[2] Way more than that, if you concede that the ubiquitous all in slogan makes a nod toward the region’s soul-deep involvement with this team.
[3] Zydrunas Ilgauskus, who wore #11, remains #1 in the hearts of at least a dozen people I saw that night.
[4] That’s just an expression. Bullying is wrong! All night, I politely chanted excuse me, pardon me, excuse me, pardon me the way Hare Krishnas chant Hare Krishna, Krishna Hare. I digress, but where did all the Hare Krishnas go?
[5] “Twenty-two apiece,” he said when she went to the bathroom. That’s thousand. Plus service charges. He offered to show me his receipt on his iPhone, but I said I’d take his word for it.
[6] Probably for Golden State fans, too, although as fear overcomes me and I feel this series slipping away, I’m not of a mind to be empathetic to you guys.
[7] Actually, this is my ringtone.

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