This year just may be the one when the most notorious “curse” in all of American professional sports is lifted. The city of Cleveland has experienced a drought unlike any other city hosting multiple professional sports teams. The last championship they can boast of was when the Cleveland Browns won the NFL title in 1964, before a little thing called the Super Bowl was invented! Before that, you have to go back to 1948, when the Indians won the World Series. Although not necessarily clear favorites for the title this year, the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers are, at the time of this writing, one of the best teams in the NBA. They were the first team to chalk up 25, and then 30 wins, and with the season now more than half over, there is little doubt that this team will go deep into the playoffs, if not all the way.
Without question, the biggest sport of all in Ohio is Ohio State University football. Though not a professional sport, it is most definitely an industry, and I’d be willing to bet there is at least one OSU alum on every single NFL team. The Buckeyes have won their share of national championships (as recently as 2002, in fact), and when that happens, Cleveland fans cheer as loudly as anyone in the state outside of Columbus, (where the stadium is located). Still, having a local champion to shine rays of light on the beleagured citizenry (the skies above Cleveland are generally unremittingly gray) is a matter of intense longing for Clevelanders, who have so often been denied. Cleveland has names for its heartbreaks, and the star villains of these episodes are some of the biggest names in pro sports. “The Catch”, by Willie Mays (in the 1954 World Series), “The Drive” engineered by John Elway to win the 1987 AFC Championship game, and “The Shot” by Michael Jordan (a buzzer beater that ended the playoff run of the Cavs in 1989) are a few among many stories of unlikely episodes that dashed the championship hopes of Cleveland’s pro teams. It’s bad enough that the city has lost over half its population from its peak of nearly a million in 1950. Bad enough that it is referred to as “The Mistake on the Lake” and has the Kent State Massacre and the burning of the Cuyahoga River to live down. Clevelanders can put up with that. There is pride in the city that, although it might seem unmerited to most Americans, is deeply felt by its residents. But, to go so long without a championship, to have come so close and fallen short so often, is a thorn in the city’s side it would dearly love to extract.
Enter Lebron James. There are two things about him that mark him as a city saviour right out of central casting: he’s great, and he’s local. Born and raised in nearby Akron, for the last ten years, beginning with his stellar high school career, he has been an icon of Northern Ohio sports. By a happy set of circumstances that seem almost ordained, the formerly woeful Cavaliers were able to sign James right out of St. Vincent-St. Mary HS, and the man-boy even had the temerity to promise the city a championship when he signed. Even in a superb year for rookies (that included Carmelo Anthony, considered by some to be the greatest college baller of all time), Lebron stood out. He was the cream of his class in scoring, and, at the tender age of eighteen, put up all around offensive numbers that most seasoned veterans can only dream about. Rookie of the Year seemed deserved enough (though “Melo” Anthony’s fans may argue), as this bright new addition to the Cavs helped the team’s record improve from a dismal 17-65 the previous season to a much better 35-47 in 2003/4.. Cleveland was ecstatic! If “The Chosen One” (he actually has this tattooed across his impossibly broad shoulders- all the better to hoist a city with?) continued to progress along the trajectory his career had charted thus far, could a championship be far behind?
And yet, and yet. The Lebron James Era is now seven years old, and the Cavs have yet to achieve that which Cleveland covets above all else, that elusive championship. No one can deny that with James leading them, the team has ascended to the highest echelon of the NBA, alongside the L.A. Lakers and the Boston Celtics. They overachieved their way to a Finals match-up with the San Antonio Spurs three years ago, and were summarily swept off the court in four games. The current version is much improved over that team. Still, up to this point Lebron can’t even add to his stellar resume a Finals victory, much less a championship.
But wait. It gets worse. For this is the year when Lebron’s current contract runs out, and he can opt, if he decides that his chances of winning a championship (or multiple championships, which he needs to be considered among the all time greats) to take his superhuman ability elsewhere, leaving Cleveland without the championship he promised it, and scant prospects for one any time soon. So, Cavs owner Dan Ferry and his back office minions have done everything they could to create a Cavs team with a genuine chance of going all the way this year. How could King James walk away from the best team on the planet, after all? The biggest (and I do mean BIGGEST) change to the team is the addition of Shaquille O’Neal, who has been on four championship teams in his career, as many as anyone still on the court today. Shaq is a giant, a guaranteed Hall of Famer, and probably the strongest man to ever play professional basketball (he actually brought down the entire framework, down to the floor bolts, of a basket during a slam dunk once, and walked away after bringing the shot clock down on his back as a result). But the Shaq of 2009/2010 is clearly past his prime. His formidable presence is not what it once was, by a long shot. Had these two physical specimens, Shaq and Lebron, shared the floor when they were both in their prime, they would probably have been an unstoppable force such as the NBA has rarely seen. But Shaq is still a monster. Furthermore, recognizing his diminished powers, he has magnanimously stated that his goal is to win “a ring for the King (James)”. He’d definitely like one more of his own, too. Particularly since this is probably his last season, and that ring, were it to happen, would almost surely be plucked off the finger of Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, his former teammate who also has four championships to his credit, as a Cavs championship is likely to go through the Lakers (best team in the West) this season. Kobe still has some good years, perhaps many good years, in him. So Shaq would at least like to be the first of them to get a ring for each finger. Lebron wants to get his first, badly. And Cleveland? This City of Broken Dreams wants something of even greater value, the lifting of a curse, and, even if its for just one lousy year, something to brag about.