Last night, I knew how it was going to end before Game 6 even began. I’m from northeast Ohio.
Long before they lost the NBA Finals on their home court, I knew the Cleveland Cavaliers would devolve into a stumbling, bumbling mess; I knew that the guy who really is the best player in the world (even if he’s also a narcissistic jackass who killed all his hometown fans on national television and then expected all those zombie corpses to take him back four years later, which of course we did) would lose to the team led by a smirking, failed mouthguard model who looks like he’s out way past his curfew.
Forget it, LeBron, it’s Cleveland. Home of: The Drive. The Fumble. The Shot. I’ve heard all the jokes. They’re not funny anymore. It’s not because Cleveland’s sports teams don’t deserve ridicule. It’s because the jokes are too easy. And at some point in the recent past, the knee-slappers turned into something darker. There’s a dagger in those voices now, plunged a little deeper by every TV network that orders its production assistants to whip up a fresh montage showing all of Cleveland’s failures over the last 50 years, in order to play that package in pre-game coverage, during timeouts, and also as part of the post-game show, in case anyone missed it the first dozen times. Sometimes they also include footage of the Cuyahoga River engulfed in flames, just to put a fine point on it.
Here’s something else I knew last night before it happened: I wouldn’t sleep well. I’d remain awake, twisted up in frustration. I knew it because it’s what happens every time I’m dumb enough to believe in the Cavs, or the Indians, or especially the Browns. Here’s a story: In the fall of 1988, I was in fifth grade, and my entire school was singing cheesy cover songs about the Browns. “We’re Going to the Super Bowl” to the tune of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” and so forth. Realize that this was after enduring the previous two years of heartbreaking post-season losses to the Broncos. We were all under a mass delusion. Surely it couldn’t happen again. Of course it did. The Browns lost at home on Christmas Eve to the Oilers in the Wild Card Game, and when class resumed in January, the mood at school was darker than the day three years earlier when we’d all just watched the Challenger explode.
I haven’t learned. My daughter was born in the fall of 2007, after the first time LeBron led the cast of a touring company production of Les Misérables to the NBA Finals, and lost. Unfazed, I bought her a little pink Indians onesie and sat her on my knee as the Tribe took it to the Yankees, impossibly, in that year’s postseason; I laughed gleefully as a bunch of crazy bugs attacked Joba Chamberlain on the mound in the best display of home-field advantage I’d ever seen. Later, during our inevitable ALCS collapse against the Red Sox, my daughter was kept away from me, for her own good. (FYI, 2007 was also the year the Browns went 10-6—their best record of the past 20 years—and missed the playoffs.) After losses, I have thrown TV remotes against the floor, shattering them into a million little pieces. I have shouted obscenities loudly enough to wake everyone in the house. I have bitterly wished for death—both for the opposing players and for myself.
And still I watch. Last fall, I witnessed (we are all witnesses) the Browns erase a record 25-point road deficit and beat the Tennessee Titans midway through the season. It was glorious. On the drive home, my wife vomited repeatedly in the passenger seat. I should have recognized it as an omen of the eventual debut of Johnny Manziel.
Will I hold out hope that our ‘04 Red Sox moment will happen soon, triggering a multi-sport run of hometown championships? That Kevin Love will be full strength next season as he resists the urge to opt out and escape, and that Kyrie Irving will get a bionic knee, and that this time next year I’ll be watching the right side of a sweep? That the Browns will luck into the next late-round NFL Draft superstar and go dynasty for the next decade? That the Tribe will finally erase the memory of their epic ‘97 World Series collapse? I’d like to say no, but deep down, I know the answer is yes. At this point, I’m just about locked in for life. I’m a career factory worker, hating my job but knowing no other life.
Here’s the worst part: My dad is from western Pennsylvania. I could have been a Steelers lifer! Next time you see one of those guys driving a yellow-and-black F-250 with six Lombardi Trophy decals covering the back window, imagine me in the driver’s seat. If my dad had raised me right, I wouldn’t be fated to die 20 years too soon of a heart attack some Sunday afternoon. Instead, he let me find my own way, and look what happened.
And now I am in my father’s shoes. My son is only 2 years old, but already, he shouts, “Go Browns!” like a champ. Every time, I am proud and ashamed, in equal parts. My son doesn’t know anything. He can’t poop in a toilet or open a jar or even identify shapes with 100 percent accuracy. What right do I have to teach this innocent, lovely child—whose young mind represents the hope of all humanity, in that it can be taught to understand quantum physics or geopolitics or how to navigate O’Hare without getting lost—that he is supposed to live and die on the continual and innumerable failures of the professional sports teams of Cleveland, Ohio? Teaching him such a thing would be as bad as teaching him that the races shouldn’t mix or that trickle-down economics is a real thing or that Pepsi is better than Coke. Already he has the impulse to Hulk-smash his toys when he gets mad, and the last thing I want to do is reinforce that behavior. Likewise, I never want his face to be the one on the Jumbotron, weeping without reservation as the window to fandom’s Valhalla evaporates before his eyes.
I also worry for my daughter, who is seven now and already knows the existential dread of watching Daddy watch the Browns, feeling all of the goodwill and love drain slowly out of the house as the sky darkens toward the black oblivion of night. Too often, I am ashamed to say, my wife must lead the kids out of the den, quietly telling them to leave me alone for a while because Calvin’s little storm cloud of rage is visible above my head, just looking for something to strike with lightning. I think I might need to send my daughter to boarding school for deprogramming. Someplace where no one cares about sports and life is always perfect. Someplace like South Beach. I hear that’s nice.
And so I equivocate like Hamlet. Will I wish for my children a better life than my own, or will I push them into the rustbelt family business of futility? What if I leave it up to them and they choose the 76ers or the Raiders or the Mariners? I must save them from their own bad choices! But history shows I can’t be trusted to make such choices! Fuck!
At least we live in Memphis, so I don’t have to worry about the miserable groupthink that infected me as a child. My kids don’t wear orange and brown (except when I force them to), they slept peacefully last night just like all of their friends, and they don’t get visits from Chief Wahoo at school. They did have Grizzlies Days this spring, when everyone dressed in two-tone blue and growled around the hallways. I was all for it. I like the Grizzlies a lot, and I’m happy when they win. But when they lose, just as inevitably as the Cavs, I am able to take it like an emotionally intact adult. It’s too bad, but life goes on. Maybe that’s the way out for me, and for them. Maybe we can start with those guys, and find a couple of other teams together— avoiding any bandwagons—that will give us pleasure and sometimes lessons in defeat without sparking a murderous rage. We’ll follow the sun and blaze a new trail of Manifest Destiny, like the explorers of old, trusting that life beyond the horizon will be better than the life left behind. We’ll just stay the fuck away from Cleveland.
Go _______ !
Geoffrey Redick is a freelance writer and radio producer. He lives in Memphis. He’s on Twitter.
Lead image by Sam Woolley.
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