Monday, June 1, 2009

Next Year, again

When I was growing up, Cleveland tragedies happened in an instant. Whether it was Rich Karliss's kick sailing through the January chill at Cleveland Stadium, Earnest Byner meeting Jeremiah Castille at the 2 yard line, Michael Jordan, John Elway, Jose Mesa – it was always a case of "oh so close" but so far away. But in recent years, the tragedies have come not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The 2007 NBA Finals were never a series. Even with two kinda close games at home, we never really got too excited. Duncan, Ginobili, and especially Parker, made it clear from the outset that this was about them.

Game 7 of the 2007 ALCS – while a little drama was conceded earlier in the week, game 7 was never REALLY in doubt. Fans point to Joel Skinner's decision to hold Kenny Lofton at third in a one run game, but even fixing that error would only have delayed the inevitable. Just like the NBA Finals, at some point well before the last pitch, the fan's mindset changed from "we have a realistic chance of winning," to rationalizing about how a comeback wouldn't be the most incredible thing in baseball history. It's a comforting feeling, but also one that is looked back on as na├»ve and stupid. When my team is winning by 4 runs late in a game, I'm not thinking about ways the other team can come back, I'm thinking about winning.

And now this. A series that included two one-point games, an overtime game, and another game not decided until the final minute. A series that could have been considered on of the best ever had it gone to a seventh game. It ends with the greatest whimper yet. The game was decided early. The half-time deficit was 18 (19 if you count the tech), we never got the lead below 10 in the second half. The rationalizing started early. And when the final buzzer sounded, and Lebron untucked his jersey and walked off the court, it was hard to be depressed. It was hard to be angry. In fact, the angriest I got on Saturday night, was when TNT dusted off the tri-yearly Cleveland sports misery montage. The montage that only seems to get longer as we become more and more sick of it. Unfortunately for the montage gods, this series will have a tough time making it onto that montage. There was no defining moment in Game 6, there was no instant of heartbreak, or calamity of spirit.

Which hurts all the more.

After game 4 I stayed up thinking. What if Rashard missed. What if Varajau tipped in that missed free throw that mercifully went in. Then we win. But behind all of my misery and pain, I thought that we can still win this series, 3 in a row is not impossible.

But after game 6, there was no loss of sleep. There was no "what ifs" or "second guesses," the lack of a moment to point to and ask yourself why wasn't there. There was no Jose Mesa, no Elway, or Castille. No Pedro, no Jordan, no Tommy Maddox. Just a team, considered by most to be the best in the NBA, going down to a team that was simply better in all facets. No blown calls, no cruel twists. Just a more cohesive group, better coached, better prepared, and able to catch one or two more breaks over 6 games.

The pain won't come from game 6, but from game 1 – what if Delonte hits that three in the corner, what if Rashard can't hit that miracle over Andy, what if Lebron doesn't dribble into the corner? And game 4 – what if delonte gets that rebound?!?! Sure, Mo had a bad series, Delonte lost a step, and Z was absolutely a disgrace – but in my memory, and all of our collective memories, we won't have an image. The image we'll have is Lebron, standing 25 feet away from the hoop with 6'10" Hedo Turkoglu's arms outreached, and the ball on its way into history. We will all remember where we were on Friday May 22, we will always have that, but beneath that memory, and forever, we'll remember only one other fact. We lost.

We won't remember why. We won't remember how. We will simply remember that the greatest image in Cleveland sports, from the greatest player in Cleveland Sports was ruined 8 days later in the most lobsided playoff defeat in three years. We had no answer for them, and they were the better team. End of another chapter in the tragedy that keeps on writing itself. Curses? Falling out of favor with the Gods? An inferiority complex born upon the shores of Lake Erie? Believe whatever you will. But what's important is not why this is happening, but the fact that for some indescribable reason our lives as sports fans remains defined by failure.

Another season has passed. Since December 1964, 125 Cleveland sports seasons have started, 1 ended 65% through the season. 39 have gone to the playoffs. 0 have ended with a championship. By October, that number will be 126, and certainly by January it will be 127. Next year at this time is our next hope. We will see the same montage, we will hear the same stories. But next June, maybe that image of Lebron standing triumphantly, arms raised in the air, and elation flooding his face, will not be the memory of a game 2 victory, but the final lasting image of this never-ending story.

Hate to say it, but for the 125th time in the last 45 years: "we'll get them next year."

No comments: