(photo from Twitter.com)
First let me state I’ve never rooted for any Cleveland team CONSISTENTLY, however I did pull for the Indians for a few years in the 90s and when they lost to the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS. Living in New York and watching the Jets, Mets and Islanders of late, I have a pretty good perspective of what its like to experience losing sports teams with awful owners and fears of never winning again.
Being a sports historian and actually writing a piece with Cold Pizza and the “Most Tortured Sports Cities” during my time at ESPN, Cleveland has always held a part of my attention. I felt for Cleveland fans when “The King” left back in 2010 in a very public scene of rejection, so I now can break a slow smile for the fans in one of the best cities in the United States. In honor the of Cleveland, I will highlight some reasons why today’s news of LeBron coming home is so thrilling to hometown fans who have had more than their share of heartbreak since seeing the city’s last championship in 1964.
The last Cleveland team to win a major sports championship was the Browns who defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 on December 27, 1964 behind 114 rushing yards from Jim Brown and 3 TD pass from Frank Ryan to Gary Collins. Since then Browns fans have not had much to cheer for. Here are some of the torture the Browns have brought on Browns fans since defeating the Colts in 1964.
Brown departs – The Browns fall to the Packers 23-12 in the 1965 NFL Championship, but with franchise RB Jim Brown just 29 and having rushed for over 1,500 yards in 1964, the future is bright for Cleveland. Browns fans envision winning many Super Bowl titles, as the NFL and AFL were now starting a game to pit the champions of each league after the 1966 season. However, in a shock to football fans everywhere, Jim Brown never reports to training camp in 1966 and retires shortly before the season starts.
Red Right 88 – After not making the playoffs since 1972, the 1980 Browns win the AFC Central behind NFL MVP QB Brian Sipe and the “Cardiac Kids” who rallied to win many games late in the fourth quarter. Hosting the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional Round of the 1980 playoffs, the Browns seem ready to win another nail bitter, as they were driving for the winning FG on the 13-yd line with 49 seconds left. However, kicker Don Cockroft had missed 2 FG and 2 extra-point conversions earlier in the game and Head Coach Sam Rutigliano was not confident he could make any field goal. Rutigliano calls “Red Right 88” which he instructed Sipe that if his target TE Ozzie Newsome is not open to “throw the ball into Lake Erie”. Sipe misread the coverage and forced a pass that Raiders DB Mike Davis intercepted to end the Browns season.
Marty Schottenheimer was named Head Coach in midway through the 1984 season, and leads the Browns to their most successful era since Jim Brown. However, despite winning division titles in 3 of his 4 full seasons and leading the Browns to the postseason every year, playoff failures put a huge dent in his legacy.
The Collapse – In the 1985 playoffs the Browns fail to hold a 21-3 second half lead against the Dolphins in the divisional round. Led by the passing of Dan Marino, Miami scored 21 unanswered points to win 24-21.
The Drive – Leading 20-13 with just over 5 minutes left, the Browns pin John Elway and the Broncos at the 2-yard line in the 1986 AFC Championship at Cleveland. Elway maneuvered the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays, including a 3rd-and-18 conversion at one point. He connected with Mark Jackson with 37 seconds left to tie the game at 20. Then Rich Karlis kicked a game-winning 33-yard field goal in OT to send the Broncos to the Super Bowl.
The Fumble – For the second year in a row, the Browns and Broncos hooked up in the AFC Championship game. The Browns fell way behind, but made a spectacular comeback, scoring 30 points in the second half, led by quarterback Bernie Kosar. They still trailed 38-31 late, but were on the verge of scoring a game-tying touchdown with just over a minute to play. Running back Ernest Byner, who’d already notched two touchdowns on the day, took a handoff from Kosar — and he appeared to have the room to reach the end zone. However, Broncos DB Jeremiah Castille was able to strip the ball away from him and recover it at the 3-yard line, sealing the win for Denver.
The Move – Perhaps fans never saw it coming, but owner Art Model had panicked when he lost a combined 21 million the previous 2 seasons and wanted the city to pass a referendum on renovating Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Modell secretly began negotiating with Baltimore and on November 6, 1995, with the Browns sitting at 4-5, Modell announced he was moving to Baltimore for the 1996 season. Cleveland accepted a legal settlement that would keep the Browns’ legacy in Cleveland. On February 9, 1996, the NFL announced that the Browns would be ‘deactivated’ for three years, and that a new stadium would be built for a new Browns team, as either an expansion team or a team moved from another city, that would begin play in 1999. Modell would in turn then be granted a new franchise (the 31st NFL franchise), for Baltimore, retaining the current contracts of players and personnel. There would be a reactivated team for Cleveland, where the Browns’ name, colors, history, records, awards and archives would remain in Cleveland.
Since “restarting” their franchise, the Browns have been downright awful, posting just 2 winning seasons and appearing in just 1 postseason game. To make matters worse, the Ravens (previously the 1995 Browns), drafted all-time great Ray Lewis in 1996, and have gone on to win 2 Super Bowls after moving to Baltimore. The Browns remain one of 3 franchises NEVER to make a Super Bowl appearance.
Since winning the city’s last World Series title in 1948, Cleveland has had their share of disappointments in baseball. Only the Cubs (1908) currently have a longer stretch of failure in securing another World Series title than the Indians.
The Catch – After winning a then AL-record 111 games, the Indians were swept by the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. But one moment from the Series lives on forever. In the top of the eighth inning at the Polo Grounds, Giants center fielder Willie Mays made his famous over-the-shoulder catch of a 460-foot drive by Vic Wertz, which preserved a tie game. Then, Dusty Rhodes won the game for the Giants with a pinch-hit home run in the 10th.
Close, but yet so far – From 1955-1994, the Indians were awful. From 1959-1994 they only finished above 4th place ONCE (1968). Of course this does not count the incredible job that Lou Brown did leading Wille “Mays” Hayes, Ricky Vaughn, Jake Taylor, Pedro Cerrano and Roger Dorn to the fictional 1988 AL East Division Title. In 1995 the Indians won 100 games in a strike-shortened season, but fell short of a World Series title losing to the Atlanta Braves in 6 games. Despite the disappointmentoflosing in 1995, the 1997 World Series was the defining moment of failure for this franchise. Trailing 3-2 heading back to Florida, the tribe forced Game 7 and took a 2-1 lead into the 9th inning. Trying to end the 33 years of no major sports championships, Jose Mesa could not close the door, allowing a game-tying sac fly to slap-hitting Craig Counsell. Edgar Renteria ended the hopes of Cleveland fans 2 innings later when he singled off the glove of Charles Nagy with 2 outs, chasing home the same Craig Counsell, who had reached on an error by 2B Tony Fernandez. In 2007 the Indians seemed destined to make their first World Series appearance since 1997, but were outscored 30-5 in the final 3 games, after taking a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
While the Browns and Indians have left enough baggage of heartbreak for the city’s fans, the Cavaliers are the reason fans have so much hope today. After entering the league in 1970-71, the team had an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1976 before falling to the eventual champion Celtics in 6 games. Not until Lenny Wilkins and players like Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Larry Nance in the late 80s, did the Cavs make themselves noticeable again, setting the stage for one of the franchises most heartbreaking moments.
The Shot – After winning a then franchise record 57 games, the Cavs were expected to challenge the defending Eastern Conference Champion Detroit Pistons for the chance to face-off against the Lakers in the NBA Finals. However, facing then legend-in-waiting Michael Jordan in a best-of-five 1st round series, Cleveland is almost eliminated in 4 games before rallying to send the series back to Cleveland for Game 5. Using a 16-3 fourth-quarter run, the Bulls took a 99-98 lead with six seconds left, thanks to a Michael Jordan pull-up jumper. But a Craig Ehlo lay-in off an inbounds play gave Cleveland the lead with three seconds to play. Coming out of the timeout, Jordan was double-teamed by Ehlo and Larry Nance. But he got free anyway, stayed in the air longer than the mere mortals guarding him and nailed a double-clutch foul-line jumper to give the Bulls a 101-100 victory.
The Trade– While most of the sports world doesn’t remember this moment, fans in Cleveland do. The Cavs were named by Sports Illustrated as the “team of the 90s” with top 3 scorers (Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price) all being all 25 or younger. However, the Cavs decided to break up the trio and trade Harper (one who was then being compared to Michael Jordan). Harper said former Cavs General Manager Wayne Embry called him into his office one day and said he was seen in a nightclub with a tray of drugs being passed around the room.”I (Harper) said, ‘What? I’ve never been in that club. That’s not where I go.’ ” Harper even offered to take a drug test. In the end, Embry thought Harper was a bad influence and days later sent him to the then waste land called the Los Angeles Clippers. Harper, who grew up in Ohio and attended Miami University, was heartbroken. “I was so mad,” he said, “but I wasn’t mad at the guys on our basketball team. I wasn’t mad at the head coach. Me and them, we were always on the same page. I was mad at the Cleveland Cavs, but, then again, it’s a business, and so they thought they made the right move and I had to move on.” What made matters worse was the trade was severely lopsided. Cleveland sent Harper, two first-round picks and one second-round choice to Clippers for Danny Ferry and Reggie Williams (Ferry was then actually considered the next Larry Bird). The Cavs eventually reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 1992, but never reached the heights they could have with Harper, who despite suffering a major knee injury, still averaged over 19 PPG in 4 plus season with the Clippers.
The Decision – In perhaps the most overhyped moment in the history of sports, ESPN decides to air “The Decision” which was 25-year old LeBron James announcing where he would spend the majority of his remaining NBA career. After growing up in Cleveland, James revitalized the franchise after being drafted number 1 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft. James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007, a franchise best 66 wins in 2008-09 and another 60 win season in 2009-10. However, after falling to the Boston Celtics in consecutive years in the postseason despite 60-win seasons, James is growing frustrated by not having a strong enough supporting cast. Getting his idea from the Celtics trio (Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce) that ousted him in the playoffs the past 2 seasons, James announces he is going to “take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat”. Joining fellow all stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James hopes the trio can lead the Heat to many championships. Left in the wind is Cleveland.
In closing let me say I’m happy for Cleveland. No, I’ve never been the biggest LeBron James fan (my NBA heart will always belong to Magic Johnson), but I do think he is back where he belongs. I’ve never been one for “creating championships” which I believe James was forcing when he decided to play for the Heat. It worked twice, but I’m sure he leaves a bit disappointed in the outcome, which is probably why he decided to come back to Cleveland. So…here’s to you Cleveland. I sincerely hope your dreams come true and LeBron grants you that championship wish you have been without for so long.