Madden, a longtime Cleveland sports fan, frets about whether he should expose him to more of it.
“You wanna be optimistic, but you’re afraid to go there,” he says. “It’s hard to explain.”
Not for people who have Cleveland roots. For they share Madden’s sentiments. They worry about investing too much emotional capital in LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yeah, fans hear the hype; it surrounds them. This time, a Cleveland team won’t break their hearts. This time, a Cleveland team will bring home a championship. This time ...
But the city has had other times like this one. It has had others teams and other years when Clevelanders were tantalizingly close to celebrating a title. Close so often that, well, they fear another team, another athlete and another agonizingly painful moment in sports history will rock their world anew.
“We know the history of the fans: what they went through — like the John Elway 99-yard touchdown drive or Michael Jordan pulling up from the free-throw line and ending our season, and Jose Mesa not being able to close out the ninth,” James says. “They know the stories.
“We stick together. It's a great bond between me and these fans that we have here.”
In LeBron they must trust.
Other athletes have been heartthrobs — the toast of the town. Other teams have bonded with the city. But not since the 1964 Browns has a team brought a title to Cleveland.
Now, it’s the Cavs the city wants to spend its emotions on. They are the hopes of fans that have little else on the sports landscape here to pride themselves in.
How could they?
In the early ’90s, they saw the city of Baltimore steal their Browns. The NFL let the city keep the team’s name and awarded Cleveland a new franchise.
“The Browns are the first love of this town,” says Daryl Ruiter, a sports reporter and sports producer for WKNR, 850 AM.
The league should have kept ’em. For these Browns look like a mirror image of the Detroit Lions, a sad-sack franchise with a track record of ineptitude that only the Los Angeles Clippers rival.
And then there are the Indians, once the talk of the town.
Oh, the Tribe — a franchise without a title since 1948. With lousy management and tightfisted owners, the Indians have better odds of sailing a kayak around the world than of winning a World Series.
Neither they nor the Browns have a megastar, a player whose appeal transcends the city.
The Cavs do: LeBron James. He alone offers Clevelanders a reason to be optimistic — to dream a delicious dream.
“At the same time, it’s cautious optimism,” says Ruiter, a Cleveland native. “They have seen time and time again, quote, ‘great teams’ not finish when it comes time to winning a championship.”
Ruiter remembers the pall that hung over the city like thunderclouds after the 1997 World Series. The champagne was on ice in the clubhouse, and thoughts of a ticker-tape parade down Euclid Avenue, the epicenter of the city’s downtown corridor, were dancing in people’s minds.
But a misplayed groundball by Tony Fernandez in the 11th inning led to a loss, not a victory. The loss crushed people’s spirits. Tears flowed, not champagne.
The hurt of losing
People here tend to be forgiving souls, except when it comes to their sports teams. Politicians and ministers can resurrect a sullied image; it happens here. Try losing a big game under a national spotlight and you will find no forgiveness in a Clevelander’s heart.
It has had to endure too much hurt to forgive — or to forget.
Clevelanders carry the hurt with them; they tuck it somewhere to pull out and reflect on it. Talk then starts about how cursed Cleveland teams are and about how another disappointment awaits, says Rick Balazs, an accountant in downtown Cleveland.
“That’s why I kinda hope the Cavaliers can do it,” says Balazs, who was 12 when the Indians lost the ’97 World Series. “If they don’t, it’s gonna be more of the same reaction: ‘You know, Cleveland can’t do it; they can’t win the big one.’
“To me, that’s rubbish.”
Madden doesn’t worry about how the city will react if the Cavs don’t win the title. He says Cleveland fans shake off disappointment better than people anywhere else.
“And, unfortunately,” he says, “it’s because we’ve had a lot of practice.”
He tries to see James and the Cavs, the team with the best record in the NBA, in a different light. They tempted Madden and other Clevelanders into believing in 2007 before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
Nobody expected the Cavaliers to beat the Spurs. San Antonio was too experienced in the ways of NBA championships. But the Spurs were preparation, seasoning the Cavs for success later.
Promises, promises, promises
Now, later is here. The Cavs are the marquee team in the NBA, the team that many people expect to win the title.
All of that sounds good. The prideful talk has Clevelanders giddy and confident. They gobble up tickets to Quicken Loans Arena. They are pouring their emotions into James and the Cavs, something people have not done since the wonderful 1990s at Jacobs Field.
Those teams at The Jake promised fans championships, too. None came. Now, the promise there has given way to mediocre. The love affair fans had with the Indians and The Jake has moved across the plaza to The Q.
Promise thrives there. It has led to grand dreams: parades, championship banners and MVP chatter.
Past dreams and promises haven’t amounted to much here — not since ’64. The years since have taught Clevelanders a hard lesson: not to invest too much emotion in either.
Not even on LeBron and the Cavs.
“We’ve been disappointed too many times,” Madden says. “I think until the trophy is hoisted, we really won’t believe it and celebrate it until it happens.”