Full disclosure: I am a bandwagon Cavaliers fan. I never once, before moving to Cleveland, rooted for the Cavaliers, watched a Cavaliers game with any interest, or even thought about the Cavaliers much more than, “Man, that LeBron James 'The Decision’ TV special was bullshit.” My husband, however, is originally from Cleveland and would often have Cavs games on our TV while I would sit next to him on the couch, laptop open, checking Facebook, scrolling for something more interesting.
When I first my husband, he set about the morbid task of introducing me to the Cleveland sports teams that he so loved yet had so disappointed him throughout his entire life. He tried to tell me about Cleveland sports. “It’s terrible,” he said. “All they do is break your heart.” I’m from Indianapolis originally and throughout the '80s and '90s watched my Colts lose again and again. I related this to my husband, as a way of showing that I know how he felt. “NO,” he replied. “THAT IS NOT THE SAME AT ALL.” He told me how this is so much more, that it cuts down to the bone of the city. He told me about 1964, about the generation-long championship drought, about his love of Cleveland sports passed down to him by his mother, about how hard it is when you love something so much, your team, and they love you back and they work so hard, so very hard, each and every year to make it to the playoffs, and they do make it, they often make it, they get so close, so tantalizingly close, and then, for reasons that can only be explained by either chaos theory or by God being both real and also actually hating Cleveland, lose. They lose in such spectacular, unbelievable, heart-shredding ways that it takes weeks, months for the fans to recover. And they never actually recover.
In Chicago, my husband spent many Sundays at Vaughn’s Pub, which offered itself up as a refuge for ex-pat Cleveland Browns fans. My husband took me there with him – at the start of the season the bar would be packed, standing-room-only, a line out the door waiting to get in. By the end of the season there was plenty of seating room because there were only 12 die-hard fans left. He went to Vaughn’s each Sunday, as though it were a form of penance. He’s a fan, and therefore he has a duty to witness and take on the despair. Go to the bar, drink a beer, hope against hope, watch the team try and fail, nod silently when the bartender mumbles, “Maybe next year.” When our son was born my husband delighted in dressing his baby boy in tiny Cleveland sports gear even as I teased, “You’re just setting him up for a lifetime of disappointment.”
What made the Cleveland championship drought so particularly painful is that it occurred while Cleveland itself was the subject of a decades-long national disdain. The manufacturing boom ended, the city population was decimated, the river caught on fire, and everyone loves to kick a city when it’s down. Major sports teams are the representatives of their city – they are our ambassadors, our gladiators, our avatars. They step onto the field of combat and do battle on our behalf. Our hearts race at the same rate as theirs. And then they lose and everyone, fans on both sides, see it as some sort of proof of what the critics were saying about Cleveland all along. We’re no good.
It is a psychological fact that people derive positive self-esteem from being associated with a successful sports team, while being associated with an unsuccessful sports team has a negative impact on self-esteem. A successful sports team also leads to greater social connectedness – when teams win, fans wear their hats and t-shirts and feel a kinship. Which is why I am so wholly impressed that Cleveland kept on believing throughout the championship drought. They kept on supporting their teams, buying tickets and gear and hoping without apology. There was a quiet determination in the gallows humor – the universe is infinite, so eventually Cleveland has to win.
As the Cavaliers advanced through the playoffs, I found out quickly which of my new friends were die-hard fans. These friends were always in Cavs gear, had tickets to every game at the Q, and veered between nervous excitement and quiet panic as the final series progressed. I watched a few games, each of which the Cavs lost, and when my friends figured this out I was asked to please fucking stop watching the games. I obliged.
Until the last game. I wanted to watch, I really wanted to watch, and my husband said that, since I had been sober during the earlier games that I watched, it would be OK for me to watch this game as long as I drank. Heavily. I opened a bottle of wine that turned out to be terrible, but I drank it anyway because when I did the Cavs seemed to score. And I understand that rationally none of my actions have any bearing whatsoever on the outcome of a game being played thousands of miles away by a group of men who have never and will never see my face, but feeling like I had a system in place helped to stem my own panic. I don’t want to see my friends sad. I don’t want to see my husband sad. I don’t want to see my new city sad again, once again chiding itself for ever daring to hope, once again wishing that one day all of this misery will have been worth it. But not today.
As the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter, I was guzzling my Beringer, holding the glass with both hands. My husband sat next to me on the couch, but was more sitting in my lap, his fingers digging into my leg. And the seconds ticked away, Golden State did not make the shots, the buzzer sounded, and we were in the air, my husband and I, hugging and collapsing onto the ground because we are not graceful and did not communicate which of our celebration legs should be bearing our weight. I heard fireworks. I heard cars honking. I heard my neighbors shouting with joy. I heard the sound of hundreds of thousands of men and women around America bursting into tears all at once. I heard the sound of hope being justified. I heard the sound of everyone who has ever loved Cleveland all at once saying, “OhmyGodohmyGodohmyGod.”
My husband cried, I cried, and later that night, as we were still trying to calm down at 1 AM and go to sleep already, I had a thought: “Our son now lives in a world where Cleveland wins.” And in the dark my husband smiled.