Lambert Collins is a good man. He's spent 54 bucks for tickets, another $67,000 to fill the laps of his nephew and his girlfriend's son with Cokes and popcorn -- all for seats in the rafters. But his presence is spurred by familial duty, not pleasure. He clearly doesn't want to be here.
"I don't like basketball, period," he says.
It's opening night, Cavaliers versus Boston, and the air is filled with all the excitement of a biology class. By the end of the first quarter, the hometown boys are already down by 14 -- a deficit that will blossom to 35 before the night is through. Though the crowd is officially announced at 17,748, at least a third came dressed for Halloween as invisible people.
"I didn't realize it was the home opener till I got these tickets from my daughter," says a guy named Jerry, whose prodigious gut and accommodating smile are parked in the last row. "I actually hear more about the Rockers than I do the Cavs."
Therein lies the problem. In a city that considers the Brownies and Tribe parts of the Holy Trinity, the Cavs don't even get mentioned in obscure sections of the Bible, like the Book of Marty. In fact, when it comes to devotion, they're in danger of being overrun by their little sister from the WNBA.
It's been said that Cleveland isn't a basketball town. The Browns haven't had a winning year since '94, yet sell out 73,000 tickets to every game. The Cavs had seven straight winning seasons in the '90s, but struggle to get 10,000 on opening night. Here in the Land of Virtue, we prefer sports that involve large men on steroids smashing into each other, or at least wielding clubs. It doesn't seem right wearing a dog mask to watch skinny guys prance around in shorts.
Some of the Cavs' woes stem from simple misfortune, most notably the injuries to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. But as Harvard management faculty are fond of saying, "Never hinge your business model on a dainty Lithuanian with a bad hoof."
This, most certainly, will be the Cavs' fourth straight losing season, each worse than the last. Randy Wittman inspired his charges with rousing lines like "Men, if we give 110 percent, maybe we can beat the point spread!" John Lucas's exhortations are likely more modest: "Guys, let's keep it close till halftime, so we don't lose beer sales." In its preseason rankings, CBS placed the Cavs at 27th (out of 29 teams). The Sporting News had them among its "bottom feeders" at 25th. On talk radio, the even money is on 15 -- as in whether they'll break the team record for fewest wins in a season.
Pro sports is an industry known for treating its customers like so many fish in a barrel. But out of wretchedness comes light, and these dire times have brought a humility to the Cavs' front office that is -- dare it be said -- actually endearing.
Slashed prices mean season tickets can be had for just nine bucks a game. When the team called lapsed ticketholders prior to the season, fans with questions were patched directly to owner Gordon Gund, General Manager Jim Paxson, or Lucas for answers. (Try getting Carmen Policy on the horn.) And when a West Side elementary invited the Cavs to read to children, four coaches and 10 players showed up.
For regular people, reading to kids or answering the phone is no big deal. In professional sports, it can get you canonized. Someday, likely many years from now, the Cavs will be good once more, and Gund won't take your call with a $200 bribe. But unlike other franchises, which whine about their ingrate fans when losses mount and seats go empty, the Cavs aren't playing that game. They know they suck. They know it's of their own doing.
"We have to give people a reason to care," says spokesman Ed Markey. "We're asking the fans for a lot. We're asking them to hang with us, to be patient."
He seems to mean it.