There’s always next year, they say. They say it especially often in Cleveland, where usually there’s only next year. Our hopes go poof year after year, no matter the sport. Still, year after year battered and bloodied Cleveland sports fans get up, clean themselves off, and soldier on into the next season, the next sport, the next year.
There’s always next year, we say.
Until there isn’t. After Tuesday night, when the Cavs suffered their biggest home playoff loss in their most important game in franchise history, even next year looks like it’s been taken away from us.
The fallout from Tuesday night’s 120-88 at the hands of the Boston Celtics isn’t about a team with the best record in the league on the brink of being knocked out of the playoffs before the NBA Finals for the second straight season. It isn’t about the mystery of LeBron James’ poor performance and his subsequent indifference about it. It isn’t even about the last 45 years without a championship.
No, the fallout from The Debacle at The Q is all about next year. Or rather, the lack of it. It’s about the lack of hope. Because no matter what anyone might say, the reality is that the best player the Cleveland Cavaliers will ever have – heck, the best player that most people alive right now will ever see wearing “Cleveland” on his chest – might have played his last home game in his hometown. And if LeBron James leaves town he takes next year with him.
You could see it on Cavs owner Dan Gilbert’s face during Game 5. He looked like he had just watched his house burn to the ground. The rest of us felt like we’d just watched our dog get run over. Even Jose Mesa was disappointed in the Cavs Tuesday night.
What next year will we be waiting on if LeBron leaves after a second-round collapse against the Celtics? The Browns’ next year, with 35-year-old Jake Delhomme at quarterback? The Indians’ next year, after trading Cy Young winners in back-to-back season? The Cavs’ next year, with a team that can hardly win with LeBron having a bad game, much less without him even on the court?
Losing to the Celtics in the second round of the playoffs would be a kick in the groin, but that’s all it would be if LeBron were with us for the long run. We’ve suffered those before. But if LeBron skips town with next year in his back pocket, well, that could be a death blow to the Cavs in Cleveland.
Wait til next year? We’ve been waiting for it, ever since 1964. There’s been heartbreak along the way, plenty of it. The Browns have been stopped on the goal line of the Super Bowl. The Indians were a grounder away from a World Series title. The Cavs have already made one NBA Finals with LeBron and a supporting cast made out of balsa wood. OK, none of them have won the ultimate prize. But we’ll give it another go. We’ll wait til next year.
Wallowing in Cleveland sports misery used to kind of be fun. We’re all in this together. We’ve accepted the defeats over and over, knowing we could pick ourselves up off the mat to stare down the next blow. Even though our teams have been bad over the years there’s always been something good to look forward to. The Indians and Browns have crashed and burned over the last couple years, but we still had LeBron. Before LeBron arrived we were still hopeful about the Indians while forgiving the Browns their missteps simply because they had returned. When the Browns left town the Indians distracted us with some of the best teams in baseball. Pre-Jacobs Field we had the Cavs of Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, and Craig Ehlo. And before the Cavs caught our attention we had Bernie Kosar and the Browns making runs that were stopped a goal-line short of the Super Bowl.
We’ve always been miserable, but we’ve always been happy. There’s been bad times, sure, but they always came alongside good times. Our stories were like those of people who lived through The Great Depression and called it the good old days. There was always next year – always.
Not anymore. Not if the Celtics beat the Cavs and LeBron leaves. Not if LeBron becomes LeGone. If this ends badly Thursday night – and the Las Vegas bookmakers have made the Celtics one-point favorites – then it might just end, period, for a lot of Cleveland sports fans.