Lack of fan support is a LeBromination

May 13, 2010


It’s the elbow, stupid.

It really is.

Ever since Tuesday night when LeBron James and company looked like the Star Wars crew at the end of The Empire Strikes Back – beaten, defeated, ready to give up – Cleveland’s best athlete has been taking a nationwide pounding. They’re calling him a quitter. They’re accusing him of throwing Game 5 against the Celtics. They’re saying he can’t wait to get out of town and join the Knicks.

Heck, we’re calling him those things right here in Cleveland. We should be ashamed. Ever since he received his first Cavaliers jersey, LeBron James has been nothing but positive toward the city of Cleveland. He’s carried us through some dark moments and given us our greatest hope for a title. And now in his darkest moment, when he’s trying to play through an injury that would probably sideline him for weeks if this were the middle of the season, Cleveland fans are abandoning him. Instead of supporting LeBron, we’re abandoning him.

LeBron is not quitting on the team or the city, folks. The answer is really quite simple. It’s the elbow.

Remember the 2008 AFC Championship game between the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots? Chargers superstar running back LaDainian Tomlinson sat on the bench wearing a parka most of the game, his expression hidden by his tinted face mask. New England won the game. He was heavily criticized after he left the game, especially when it was revealed Charger quarterback Philip Rivers played with an ACL injury that required surgery and several months of rehab. Even though Tomlinson gave it a go at the beginning of the game, sitting on the bench away from his teammates has overtaken his legacy.

Now, LeBron is doing the opposite. He’s trying to avoid the LT2 legacy. LeBron is gutting it out and not making excuses. Instead of praise ala Willis Reed of the Knicks starting Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals with a torn leg muscle, our reaction has become a LeBromination. Because LeBron is masking his true feelings, we think he doesn’t care. It’s 180 degrees the other way.

We know this because LeBron has been telling us this for the last couple of weeks. It doesn’t exactly take a Doc Jensen dissection of Lost to figure out what’s keeping Cleveland from its championship hopes this time around. Yet no one’s reading between the lines.

It started after the series finale against the Bulls on April 27. LeBron gave us the first hint of what the future held with this postgame comment:

“It bothers me because I don’t know what it is. Hopefully it doesn’t continue to bother me. But I’m not concerned. Cleveland fans have nothing to worry about. They have no reason to panic. I don’t think it’s that serious.”

That quote was LeBron’s big mistake. He told Cleveland sports fans there was nothing to worry about, which would be like Greece’s president telling his country’s citizens that the current economic meltdown is like being 10 cents short for the pop machine. Tipoff is enough reason for a Cleveland sports fan to panic. LeBron’s elbow falling off? Worse than Terminal Tower toppling over and flattening The Q. Still, we believed him because we need something to believe in. False hope will do.

Reports quickly followed about an MRI that revealed no damage, and another that merely showed a strain. 

After the Cavs struggled against the Celtics in Game 1 of their playoff series, we heard this from LeBron regarding his elbow:

“Throughout the game it loosened up. I have a no-excuse policy. This team has a no-excuse policy. … We’re about coming out and competing against the Celtics.”

 There’s the money quote. LeBron is not denying there’s something wrong with his elbow. He’s implying there’s something seriously wrong with his elbow. And he’s saying it’s not an excuse for his performance. LeBron is old school. He knows the game’s history. He knows the great players don’t hide behind injuries. They tough it out. And that’s what he’s doing. If you’re healthy enough to play, you don’t use your health as an excuse.

It certainly can be a reason though.

After being whipped by the Celtics in Game 2, this was what LeBron said about his elbow:

 “I’m going to continue to try to be the player I am and not use this elbow as an excuse. I’d never use an injury as an excuse. It’s just two games. I understand the burden and the pain Cleveland fans have. I don’t feel pressure at all. I’m looking forward to Game 3.”

There it is again. The elbow is obviously a problem. But LeBron won’t use it as an excuse. He won’t even use it as a reason, even though it obviously is the reason why the Cavs are about to sink to the bottom of Lake Erie.

Then LeBron went out and whipped the Celtics from the start in Game 4. He scored 21 points in the first quarter and thoroughly demoralized the Boston crowd as the Cavs dealt Boston its worst home playoff loss in history, 124-95.

All that talk about the elbow? No big deal. It was probably just a little pain. LeBron wouldn’t let it stop him.

Until Game 5. After the convincing performance in Game 4, LeBron put up probably his worst performance in his biggest game. He looked disinterested. His jumpers were straighter than Fausto Carmona’s pitches. He heard the boos from the home crowd, all because his elbow doesn’t work right. All because he was trying to play through a devastating injury to bring the home fans what they so desperately want – a championship.

Now he’s being hammered from left to right like a soccer ball. What should be hailed as the most gutsy performance by the premier athlete in the NBA is being called a gutless try by a quitter. We should be praising the hometown man trying to bring the hometown fans what they desperately seek. Instead, we’re turning against LeBron because our previous relationships have ended so badly we can’t possibly believe he’s doing anything but quitting on us.

The quotes have become more obvious the last couple of days. The blog Fear The Sword claims that LeBron is playing with a torn elbow ligament that will take six to eight weeks to heal. A shot to numb the elbow helped him perform in Game 4, but that remedy is only available every 10 days, the blog claims. Then Plain Dealer Cavs beat writer Brian Windhorst tweeted this Wednesday:

LeBron also talked about elbow, hinting about plans, severity: “The elbow is an issue I’ll deal with in the offseason.”

So in ironic Cleveland fashion LeBron James has been accused of being a quitter at exactly the time he is giving his most to the team. At precisely the time LeBron is doing anything he can to help his hometown team to their precious championship people are claiming he is turning his back on us in order to head to the Knicks. At the exact moment that LeBron James needs his fans the most we are giving him the least support.

This truly is a turning point for Cleveland sports. It’s going to become the moment we as fans look back on with greatest shame.


There was always next year

May 12, 2010


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.

Be like Mike, but don’t be like Bulls

April 27, 2010

The Chicago Bulls are a lot more similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers than you might think.

Oh, no, not this year’s version. Not any version in the recent past, and most likely not any version in the near future. No, right now the Cavs are one of the NBA’s elite while the Bulls are a guest body on CSI. They’re just here to further the story along for our favorite characters, like LeBron James.

Yes, right now and for the foreseeable future, the Cavs are a 60-win juggernaut and a marketing dream. As long as LeBron James is here, that is.

Which is where the Chicago Bulls come in?

The Bulls are still viewed as NBA royalty. Because of Michael Jordan the Bulls are viewed as one of the NBA’s premier franchises, a team whose return to glory is only a matter of time.

Only problem is that outside of Michael Jordan, the Bulls don’t have a glorified past. Which means they probably don’t have a glorified future. Really, the Bulls have been an irrelevant franchise for much of their existence.

Consider: take out the Jordan era (1984-1998) and the Bulls have played 29 seasons. In only nine of those years did the Bulls finish over .500. Nine out of 29 years. With Michael Jordan? Six NBA titles. Without Michael Jordan? They haven’t even won six playoff series. The Bulls have posted a 4-14 mark in playoff series without Jordan, never winning more than one series in a given season.

Take out the Jordan era and the Bulls have a 1,027 – 1,318 won-loss record. That’s a .437 winning percentage. That equates to 35 wins per season. That’s irrelevancy.

What does any of this have to do with the Cavaliers? Well, before LeBron the Cavs were 4-13 in playoff series. Only once did they win more than one playoff series in a season. That was in 1992 when they lost to the Jordan-led Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. And, in the 33 seasons before LeBron James joined the Cavs they were 1,172 – 1,502.

That’s a .438 winning percentage.

The Bulls without Jordan and the Cavs without LeBron have exactly the same history.

Fortunately for Cleveland fans, the teams don’t have the same present or the same future. We hope.

Where Jordan and LeBron differ is their connection to their cities. Jordan had nothing to do with the Bulls before joining them in 1984, and virtually nothing to do with them since leaving in 1998. He was really nothing more than a hired mercenary.

Jordan was born in Brooklyn, grew up in North Carolina, and attended college at the University of North Carolina. He joined the Bulls only because the Portland Trail Blazers made the mistake of drafting Sam Bowie over Jordan in the 1984 NBA Draft. After retiring from the Bulls for a second time in 1999, Jordan came back to the NBA for a second time a year later, this time as part-owner of the Washington Wizards. Then he made his return to the court as a member of the Wizards for the 2001-02 season. After Jordan retired as a player for good after the 2002-03 season, he was fired from his management position with the Wizards. Now he’s back in the NBA as head of an ownership group of the Charlotte Bobcats.

Meanwhile, LeBron was born and grew up 40 miles south of Cleveland in Akron, has built a home between here and there, and has surrounded himself with his family and high-school friends since the day he arrived in the NBA. The only thing anyone can find to criticize LeBron about are his sports allegiances – he roots for the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys, not the Indians and Browns.

Maybe the Cavs weren’t much before LeBron crashed the party. But they stand to be a whole lot while he’s here. That’s the other reason Dan Gilbert will do everything short of locking LeBron in the Q basement in order to keep The King here after his current contract expires. The Cavs are back to irrelevancy if LeBron leaves. The Cavs are back to being the Chicago Bulls if LeBron doesn’t sign a contract extension this summer.

And who wants to be the Bulls?