The Cleveland Indians went to the World Series in 1995 and 1997. They lost both times. The new Cleveland Browns never went to the NFL’s title game, but were football champions back in 1964, a few years before the NFL-AFL merger and the birth of the first Super Bowl. In 2007, LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to its first Finals appearance in franchise history, losing to the San Antonio Spurs in a sweep, fueling speculation regarding the necessity of pairing James with viable championship talent. That was the Cavalier’s one and only trip to the NBA Finals.
There have been many notable sports curses throughout the history of the country. Football’s Bobby Layne led the Detroit Lions to multiple championships in the 1950’s. The Lions traded Layne because of his age, prompting the Detroit legend to declare that Detroit ‘wouldn’t win for 50 years’. They have had one of the worst winning percentages in American professional sports since the trade.
In 1920, baseball’s Boston Red Sox traded the great Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. Prior to the trade Boston had won five championships to New York’s zero. For the next 83 years the Bo-Sox would go ring-less, while the Yanks racked up 27 titles.
Cleveland’s championship drought spans generations, with no Cleveland fan under the age of 58 being able to experience the pinnacle of sport. With the arrival of the ‘Chosen One’ back in 2003, northeast Ohio fans across the country literally salivated at the idea of finally reaching the “Promised Land,” and with good reason. James was an extremely talented, local kid, who was touted as the best player to enter the draft since Michael Jordan. His size and skill as a teenager were unparalleled. The idea of potentially having the best player in the sport play for Cleveland was something for Cavs fans, and Cleveland fans in general, to be proud of. We finally had a championship-caliber player. And more than that, we finally had hope.
Then he left. LeBron’s ‘decision’ back in 2010 was a gut-wrenching blow for all Cleveland fans. In many people’s eyes his move to South Beach was true evidence of a Cleveland Curse. LBJ gained two MVP Awards and a trip to the Finals as a Cavalier. He had established himself as the best basketball player in the country. For some it was more than mere evidence of a curse, it was a direct result of it. Many wondered, ‘how could he leave his home?’
The year of James’ departure the Cavaliers would endure (at that time) the longest losing streak (26 games) in NBA history. The Cavs went from 66 wins in 2009, 61 wins in 2010 to a heartbreaking 19 wins in 2011. Even after winning the NBA lottery and landing Kyrie Irving as the number one overall draft pick the following year, the Wine and Gold have yet to top 33 wins in the four years following LeBron leaving.
Outside of the Cleveland Indians trading Rocky Colavito back in 1960 (Colavito led Major League Baseball in homeruns the previous year and the Indians wouldn’t finish within 11 games of first place for 33 years following the trade), LeBron was the first great Clevelander to leave in his prime and be the unquestioned leader on a championship team immediately elsewhere. Miami’s celebratory press conference that prompted LeBron to promise ‘Not one, not two, not three, not four…’ championships for South Florida was received by Cleveland as a direct slap in the face. At that moment the burning of the jerseys following The King’s split seemed not only acceptable, but necessary, when considering the unspoken promise to Cleveland fans made by LeBron’s potential. Then the article in GQ of James stating ‘We hated Cleveland growing up’ just fueled the fire.
The first time James played as a Cavalier, Cleveland didn’t quite know what to expect. Sure, our hopes were high after LBJ dropped 25 straight points to beat the mighty Detroit Pistons in game five of the 2007 Conference Finals, ultimately winning the series in six games. But even after losing to the Spurs in the following round we weren’t quite ready to concede the curse because we still had him. But then he left. The curse lived, perhaps louder back then more than ever.
In his return, LeBron has a responsibility to win a championship and finally lift the Cleveland Curse. As odd as it may be, this responsibility is more to his city, and not his new teammates. James grew up rooting for this town, he knows firsthand how we feel. Northeast Ohio supported him before he was a super star in the NBA. How can he owe anything to this new Cavalier roster when he still has yet to play a single minute of a regular season contest with Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving or David Blatt? He owes the people that rooted for him in Akron when he was barely a teenager. He owes the people that wept through The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot and The Decision.
Whether or not you believe in curses of any kind, the last half century has been a cruel one for fans of Cleveland sports of any facet. Just weeks ago the Cleveland Gladiators (Cleveland’s Arena Football League team) was blown out at home in the Arena Bowl after losing one regular season game and going undefeated at home.
If I tried really hard I could probably blame LeBron for that too.