Keith Strudler: End The Sadness
If you’re a basketball fan, this is what you’ve been waiting for. After months of regular season, followed by another lifetime of playoffs, we’ve finally arrived at the grand finale. The end of this wonderful tale. Thursday, the NBA Finals begins, a best of seven series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a rematch from last year. This is the matchup we’ve all waited for, the best team in the history of the NBA, at least according to their regular season record, against perhaps the best all-around player in NBA history, if you believe that about LeBron James, as many do. It’s small ball that the Warriors play, whipping the ball around the perimeter to 3-point shooters, against star ball, which the Cavaliers practice in LeBron, and to a lesser degree Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the most current incarnation of a Big Three. It’s east vs west, San Fran vs Cleveland, and pretty much every other clichéd opposite you’d care to present. Just to put it in terms everyone can understand, both potential leads for Space Jam 2 will play in this game. That in itself should let you know how big this series really is.
As a point of reference, Golden State is a fairly strong favorite, both in Vegas and by Nate Silver’s 538, which gives the Warriors a 69% chance of winning the title. And despite Golden State’s near defeat to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals, most assume this will be an entertaining, yet inevitably predictable NBA Finals.
Clearly, for the average Cleveland resident, there is nothing inevitable about anything. The long suffering sports town is desperately hoping for its first major sports championship since the 1964 NFL title. Before it was even called the Super Bowl. Before the moon landing. Before LeBron James’s mother was born. You get the picture. The Cavs have come close two times in the past decade, losing in the Finals in 2008 and last year. Both on the back of their favorite son LeBron. In between, of course, James won a series of rings with the Miami Heat, adding just another layer of intense burn on the tortured soul of the Cleveland Sports Fan. Some cities name their championships and best plays – like The Catch, or The Immaculate Reception. Cleveland does the opposite and names its worst moments – The Interception, The Fumble. They even called their football stadium The Factory of Sadness. It sounds like what you’d call a prison or a mortuary. Wrigley Field is called The Friendly Confines. Madison Square Garden is The World’s Most Famous Arena. They’re The Factory of Sadness.
So what am I getting at here? As a sports fan, I’m most interested in simply seeing compelling basketball, especially if that said basketball could end before midnight so I could function the next day. As is, I assume who’s ever leading at halftime won the game. But at some point, particularly in championship events where few of us have true ties to either team, you may feel compelled to have a rooting interest. To rally behind one team or the other, so at the end, if you choose wisely, you can feel like you won as well, even though all you did was pretend to know something about athletes who live half-way across the country. This is what makes sports great. The endless ability to leech onto the accomplishment and aspirations of people that work much harder than we do. I firmly believe the entire potato chip industry was built on this concept – that we can throw parties to cheer for teams we previously cared nothing about.
So, if you, like most, feel the need to choose a team for this NBA Finals, I say this. Choose Cleveland. I know the natural inclination is to go the other way, to pick the team that’s most likely to bring you success and happiness and all the spoils of victory. To get behind Steph Curry, who’s as lovable as a Care Bear. To cheer for a team that plays exciting, fast paced basketball and is more fun than a Bernie Sanders rally. From one of America’s great metropolitan areas. That all sounds reasonable, but I implore you, don’t do it. Rarely has a city needed something more than Cleveland needs this. In fact, think of cheering for the Cavaliers as a form of charity. Being a Cavs fan, willing them to victory like only someone in a lazy boy with large plate of nachos can do, is your good deed for the year. And if they win, you can be one of those annoying people who said you knew the underdog was going to win the whole time, like all those people who said they knew Villanova was going to beat Georgetown in 1985, even though no one did. In this NBA Finals, no matter how hatable you find LeBron James, the city of Cleveland needs your love. They need, they really need, to finally win a title.
And like all basketball fans this time of year, I think they’ve waiting long enough.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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