Friday, May 14, 2010

The Countdown

The Pantheon of Proper Noun Cleveland Defeats Welcomes Its Newest Inductee

There is a defeat, a one-time setback in a specific contest, and then there is Loss, a feeling of shame, depression or unease - physical and emotional - caused by a diminishment of one's self and/or resources.

These are two separate experiences. Most people, places and groups can suffer a defeat without it affecting their sense of self or triggering any sense of upper-case Loss. Except in Cleveland. Along the Cuyahoga River, each defeat brings the sour, fetid taste of varied heartbreaks past rushing up the from the stomachs and into the mouths of sports fans like a karmic tailgate-beer belch. In Cleveland, 1954 gets conflated with 1989. Michael Jordan wears a Broncos No. 7 jersey and Craig Ehlo gets stripped of the ball by Willie Mays just before the goal line. The edges of each defeat blur, becoming part of the same overarching, deflating sense of Loss that threatens to replace whatever civic pride is left in this once-proud manufacturing center, where residential "for sale" signs have long-ago replaced commercial innovation, with some sort of toxic self-loathing.

Rated as the most tortured sports city by a few years, Cleveland immortalizes sporting setbacks with monolithic proper-noun gravity. Cleveland was on the wrong end of the "The Catch" in the 1954, "Red Right 88" in 1981, "The Drive" in 1987, "The Fumble" in 1988, "The Shot" in 1989, and most recently "The Countdown" in 2010.

There was also Jose Mesa in 1997. Don't forget him. Lifelong Indians fan and dedicated outfield percussionist John Adams won't.

In Game 1 of the '54 Fall Classic between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants, with the game tied, 2-2, and with Indians' runners (feathers not dots) on first and second in the eighth, Tribe first baseman Vic Wertz sent a blistering drive to the deepest part of the Polo Grounds. Giants centerfielder Willie Mays turned his back on the infield and matched the flight of the ball step for step until he was, by some accounts, nearly 500 feet from home plate.Had the ball gotten over his head - or rather past him - it was a two-run hit easily, which would have spelled certain doom for the Giants given that the Indians' pitching had paced them to a 111-win season (an American League record at the time). With his No. 24 still facing his teammates in the infield, Mays amazingly caught the ball over his shoulder at a dead sprint. But what he did next was perhaps even more impressive. Without seeming to slow, stop or pause, Mays spun on his heel, sending his hat flying off even as he was bringing the ball into his glove and fired a strike back into the infield keeping the runners, who had tagged up, from scoring on the play. The contest was still tied. The Giants escaped the inning and would take a shock 1-games-to-none lead in the Series thanks to a pinch-hit bomb by Dusty Rhodes. The heavily-favored Indians never regained their poise after Mays' catch and the homer by Rhodes, a utility man, and were swept by the Giants.

As the Indians slipped from atop of the American League after the upset defeat in '54, Clevelanders were able to turn toward the gridiron to bolster their provincial pride. In the early years of for-pay, football leagues, the local squads didn't disappoint. The Browns were a powerhouse outfit in the All-American Football Association and went on to run roughshod over opponents in the pre-merger National Football League. Gridiron championships suddenly seemed a Cleveland birthright and the citizenry may have felt as empowered as Hall of Famer Jim Brown. Or they may have hated Brown because he was vociferously outspoken black men during the 1960s. Or it may have been both. Either way, Brown was an unstoppable force in a league of movable objects. He remains the only player in NFL history to average more than 100 yards rushing per game for his entire career. Drafted out of Syracuse in 1956, Brown dominated the league, winning three MVP Awards, before hanging up his spikes before the 1966 season because of a conflict with management over his decision to take a role in The Dirty Dozen that would cause him to miss pre-season training camp. Art Modell and the Browns' management tried to strong arm Brown into bailing on the film and, by extension, his burgeoning acting career. Wrong move. Brown's arms proved strongest and he walked away from Cleveland at the age of 30 with virtually every yardage and scoring record imaginable.

During his career, Brown did just about everything. We all know that he ran. And his opponents knew that he ran over them. He scored touchdowns in bunches. And he was an underrated receiver out of the backfield. Like I said, the guy did everything that someone playing his position could do. Except fumble. Not even once. In nine seasons the ball never slipped from his grasp. Which may lend some credence to the notion that the franchise and perhaps even the entire city was cursed for the part that Modell and his cohorts played in Brown's decision to retire in 1966. Because, you see, two of the Browns' three proper-noun losses deal with late turnovers. In "Red Right 88," it was an interception in the end zone. In "The Fumble" it was, well you guessed it, a fumble just before the goal line.

And, the third loss of the Browns' unholy trinity involves another surefire Hall of Famer, not quite Mays but an icon all the same. The third region-wide groin kick came at the steel toe of Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway after the Browns took a 20-13 lead over the visiting Broncos with just over five minutes to play in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, thanks to a long touchdown toss by Bernie Kosar. Following the score, the Browns kicked off. The Broncos' returner bobbled the ball and then foolishly downed it on the 2 yard line. Elway took the field with 5:02 on the clock and 98 yards between his team and pay dirt. Nearly 50,000 Browns fans in Municipal stadium felt like he wasn't going to get there. They hoped he wasn't going to get there. And they knew their representatives on the field were going to do everything they could to keep him from getting there. Needless to say, he got there. It took 15 plays and all but thirty-some-odd seconds of the time that remained. The Broncos tied the game to force overtime and won with a field goal on their first drive of the extra period. Elway became a folk hero in the Rockies and today "The Drive" is yet another defeat suffered by a Cleveland team with its very own Wikipedia page. Said page says The Drive "ranks as pro football's prototypical performance in the clutch."

If one were to go hunting for pro basketball's prototypical performance in the clutch then they would certainly have to consider what happened in Game 5 of a first-round series between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs when Michael Jordan hit the first playoff buzzer beater of his career. Not only did Jordan's bucket from the free-throw line win Game 5 but it also won the series. This was a walk-off win in the walk-off game.

After having beaten the Chicago in all six meetings during the '89 campaign en route to 57 wins, tied with the Lakers for second-best record behind the Pistons, the Cleveland squad featuring Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, Mark Price, Hot Rod Williams, Ron Harper and, of course, Craig Ehlo was dumped from the playoffs by Jordan and the Bulls in heartbreaking fashion. In front of a sell-out crowd at the Coliseum. Likely some of the same men, women and increasingly scarred youngsters who witnessed Elway drive the length of a chewed up field to beat the Browns were sitting in the stands for Jordan's shot.

The Bulls had stolen homecourt advantage from the Cavs by taking Game 1 but Cleveland brought the series finale back home with a 108-105 victory in Game 4 in Chicago. After four games in which no team was able to win by more than 8 points, Game 5 didn't disappoint. Both teams were tied, 88-88, late in the game before trading threes and clutch hoops straight through the final moment. Jordan put the Bulls up 99-98 with a jumper with just 6 seconds remaining. Had the scoring ended then, No. 23 would have been the hero. But Ehlo scored on diving, driving layup when he cut to the hoop after having inbounded the ball on the next play. Ehlo's bucket put the home team up 100-99 with just three ticks to tick away. Timeout, Chicago.

Jordan ran at the inbounder near midcourt, received the inbounds pass, reversed course, ghosted by Nance without difficulty, his momentum still carrying him across the court as he rose near the foul line. Ehlo jumped with Jordan, arm extended in hopes of blocking or at least bothering the attempt. Ehlo jumped and fell, subject to the laws of gravity as most men experience them. But Jordan rose, then hung, and lastly floated, just a breath longer than everyone else and fired at the rim. Score. Buzzer. Fist pump.

Six championships and countless clutch shots later and the result in Cleveland seems fait accompli. But on the morning of May 7 1989, especially in the environs of Lake Eerie, that was hardly the case. It was devastating. Because the Jordan that we know now didn't exist yet. And Cleveland, the better team during the regular season, fancied itself as having top-to-bottom roster best-suited to unseat the Pistons in the East.

Perhaps because the NBA during the late 1980s and duration of the 1990s was littered with the carrion of contenders that strayed into the path of the Chicago Bulls, the impact of "The Shot" on Cleveland may seem less profound when viewed from New York or Indiana or Salt Lake or just about any other hoops-loving city that was held down by MJ in the ensuing years. Looking back, though Jordan's ascendance to G.O.A.T status began that night. At the start of that series he was merely another explosive scoring champ that had made just one trip to the conference semifinals, where his side had been dispatched, 4-1, by the Bad Boy Pistons. But not after that shot. Not after "The Shot."

Of course, Jordan and Elway weren't the only legends that were "born" in Northeast Ohio during the 1980s. LeBron Raymone James was born on Dec. 30, 1984 in Akron. Two decades later, James would be playing for the home team and having many of his neighbors and kinfolk thinking that finally a local squad would be on the right side of the score sheet. During James' formative years there weren't any Christmas-ruining losses to speak of. At least not for him. Since James is a Yankees fan he probably wasn't as put out as some of his middle schoolmates when the Indians blew a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series.

In the case of Mays, Jordan and Elway, the home team in Cleveland was done in largely by the transcendent action of a player since established as one of his sports best. And in the case of Red Right 88 and the Fumble, the results was determined by Clevelanders making mistakes in hopes of securing a win that they so desperately wanted. All these civic tragedies were the result of demigods or were mistakes of exuberance and effort by local would-be heroes (or Jose Mesa). They were mistakes of commission rather than mistakes of omission.

Or neglect. Or apathy. Or retreat. Or surrender.

Which is what sets apart the Cavaliers loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals, heretofore known as "The Countdown," from any previous loss in Cleveland sporting history. Unlike when facing Mays, Elway and Jordan, Cleveland team had the transcendent talent (although not the next best four...) in James. And this time the mistakes were of omission and neglect. This team gave up. They weren't outdone in a climactic moment by a hero in a road uniform and they didn't trip over their own feet in a desperate attempt to cross the finish line first. They went meekly. Without blunder, yes, but also without a fight.

Unlike Craig Ehlo, who fought his way to 24 points in that Game 5, including the shot that had put Cleveland in front 100-99 just before Jordan's buzzer beater, and had been in No. 23's pocket all day on defense. And he'd done it on a sprained ankle. Ehlo may have been the supporting actor in the climatic scene but he had given it his all and was a large reason the Cavs were on the verge of victory before Jordan's heroics.

Unlike swashbuckling Browns quarterback Brian Sipe, who tried to force a game-winning touchdown pass into tight end Ozzie Newsome in the waning moments of a tilt against the Raiders in the 1981 playoffs. Unlike Browns running back Earnest Byner, who tried to get the ball across the goal line for a game-tying touchdown late in the 1988 AFC Championship game. Byner had amassed nearly 200 yards from scrimmage and already scored 2 touchdowns when he got within inches of leveling a game that had once been lopsided in favor of the opposing Broncos. Both Browns may have given the ball away but they did so while trying to win.

The Countdown may be the worst of all the proper noun losses in Cleveland history because the team, which counted the game's most irrepressible talent among its number, gave up. Unlike, Ehlo, Sipe and Byner, these guys didn't try to win. That is the one sin that is unforgivable in sports. Perhaps worse than cheating or throwing a game because at least in those cases there is some endgame. But in the fight or flight moment of the season, Lebron and his teammates just wanted the game to end. They watched and waited for those second to count down.

The 2009-2010 Cleveland Lebronaliers sported the NBA's top record at 61-21 and had the league's MVP. Even better, the aforementioned MVP had grown up in nearby Akron and been a local celebrity since he entered his teens. With Lebron leading the way, Cleveland swept the defending-champion Lakers during the regular season and were the most consistently dominant side in the sport.This group was confident. They had pre-game pantomimed and mid-game danced together. They had clowned. They had Shaq. Just to be sure, though, they added Antawn Jamison heading into the postseason. This was going to The Year in Cleveland to make everyone forget about all the other The's.

The Cavs dispatched of the Chicago Bulls in 5 games in the first round. Fitting. Up next, were the over-the-hill Boston Celtics. After them was supposed to be the Orlando Magic, but to the chagrin of those in Ohio a series broke out with the Celtics. With the best-of-seven affair knotted at two games apiece, the Cavs were embarrassed on their home floor in Game 5 by a score of 120-88. James' performance was not one befitting someone honored as league MVP, let alone someone dubbing himself "The King" who has designs on Jordan's throne. With an off day between Game 5 and Game 6 there was ample time for ruminations on what was taking place. The consensus was that Game 6 would be a referendum on the first phase of James' career and that the result could determine whether or not he left his home state as a free agent during the offseason. Of course, the stage was also set for the sort of heroic effort that would begin James' assault on the all-time greats in earnest. If he recovered from his own dismal showing in Game 5, overcame the balky elbow and lifted his mates over the four-headed monster from Boston then he'd take one step closer to his first title and the rarified air of Jordan. Some considered this the likeliest scenario. Others were so gutted by the debacle in Game 5 that they began to doubt both James' health and his desire.

As Game 6 got underway James was active but sloppy, perhaps the result of that elbow injury that he'd made such a show of by shooting a left-handed free-throw in the Game 5. He scored 9 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, assisted on 2 buckets in that first quarter, but also turned the ball over twice and was charged with a pair of fouls. He was pulled by coach Mike Brown after the second foul with about a minute to play in the quarter. The team floundered in that last minute, committing a shot-clock violation. The Cavs trailed, 22-25, after one.

Shot clock violation aside, this still wasn't LBJ lone wolfing it against five opponents. Cavs point guard Mo Williams had 10 points in the first frame and would continue to score in bunches in the second quarter. Much later Anthony Parker would hit a clutch 3-point shot that looked like it could have propelled the Cavs back into the game. Yet the deficit of the first quarter swelled ever so slightly as the game went along, a few points here and a few points there, without Cleveland being able to wrest control of the game from Boston.

The Celtics led by 9 at the start of the fourth quarter. That lead ballooned to 14 points with about 6 minutes to play and stayed that high for the better part of the next three minutes before the Cavs cut it down with a combination of stops and made free throws. Cleveland trailed by 11 points with 3:09 to play when Parker hit the three, assisted from LBJ, that opened the door for what could later have been called a "Jamesian" comeback.

Parker's made 3-point shot pulled Cleveland within 8 at 83-91. The clock had just gone under 3 minutes. And there was no doubt, not in the tenor of the announcers voices, not in the nervous demeanor - should we play defense or just try not to to foul? - of the Celtics that 8 points with 2 minutes and 51 seconds left to play IS a ballgame. After a Rasheed Wallace miss, Lebron came soaring through the lane to control the defensive rebound. Another hoop was going to make this a two possession game. The comeback was on if the Cavs kept pushing and Lebron channeled his 2007 playoff performance against the Pistons when he netted 25 straight, including all 18 points in a pair of overtime sessions. Reminiscent of that night, Lebron went to the rack, although without the Boeing directness that we know him capable of. He was stopped on a strong challenge by Paul Pierce, but that was the impulse. Get the ball. Go to the rim. If he takes the ball in from the top of the key, rather than the circuitous path that allowed Pierce to get in front of him, then there is no stopping this. Only trips to the free-throw line. The next time that James got the ball, after a 1-for-2 trip to the line for Celtics point guard, he drove north-south through everyone and rose up for the dunk. He didn't stuff it emphatically but this was the signature move.
This was the same play that took my breath away the first time I saw him play at the Garden in his rookie season. I'd bought tickets far in advance and found myself stuck in mericless rush hour traffic in my buddy's jeep in Midtown as the game was starting. We just parked the car in a garage and hoofed it 20 or 30 blocks on a hot evening to see this kid. And both left feeling that we'd gladly do it again if need be. Even at 19, his frame made him look like a man amongst boys. At 25 there was virtually no stopping that drive. It was now a 7 point game with 2 minutes and 6 seconds left.

But that was it. Lebron and the Cavs seemed to hang it up after that. In a game when he secured 19 rebounds, the Celtics secured a crucial carom on the next trip while he was in the vicinity. On a trip the other way he took the ball along the sideline again and then lazily threw an off-balance baseline pass to a scrum of Celtics in the paint. And then, most dumbfounding of all, he walked, slowly - one foot in front of the next and repeat - over to Paul Pierce on the perimeter as crucial seconds ticked off in the final minute. After another Boston miss, James allowed Mo Williams to bring the ball up the floor and then never ventured within a few feet of the three-point line as Williams drove and looked for a cutter or someone to kick the ball out to. James was closer to midcourt, content to let Kevin Garnett mark him out of his season's final possession. Anderson Varejoa took a three-pointer on what very well could have been his last offensive trip in a Cavs uniform. That happened. It all happened. Slowly. Awkwardly. The Celtics seemed surprised. ESPN's announcing troika of Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen seemed disgusted. And all the while Lebron and the Cavs seemed at worst disinterested and at best discombobulated.

I can't understate my reaction to the last two minutes of Game 6. I was gobsmacked, flabbergasted and and even a bit stupefied. I wanted to (and may have) rush to a thesaurus to find oddball words to describe my metagrobolization. I thought that I must have been missing some key bit of information because what was unfolding seemed inexplicable to me in an elimination game. The fact that Cleveland head coach Mike Brown and NBA MVP LeBron James called off the Cavaliers with a single-digit deficit with more than full minute to play is ASTOUNDING to me. They didn't push the ball when they had it and they didn't foul when they didn't. The Cavalier surrendered and waited for the final whistle. It was The Countdown.

Great players become legends by overcoming just those sorts of deficits in the playoffs. Jordan doesn't dribble out the clock. And Larry Bird definitely puts a foul on somebody just to prolong the game. For all the missed shots by the players and poor rotation choices by Mike Brown, that last minute may have been the most damning. Same goes for Lebron.

Teams facing a similar deficit with so little time still on the clock may lose the game 99 times out of 100 even if they foul and hurry, but Lebron James has to believe he is the One. Right? Doesn't LBJ actually have the words "Chosen One" tattooed somewhere on his body?

While clearly a lesser light than James, Reggie Miller killed the Knicks in a similar situation and felt like he just needed the ball and a look to make up any deficit.

I can't remember when or where I heard Reggie say it, but I recall him saying that he always felt like he could win a game as long as his time closed within 6 points when the game hit 2 minutes. That rule always stuck with me. Well, Lebron dunked to pull Cleveland within 7 at the 2:06 mark. Close enough. They had a puncher's chance with the league's heavyweight champ - no, not Shaq - in the ring. But instead of a battle cry, we got the NBA's "No mas " moment.

Even oft-injured Larry Johnson famously won a playoff game for the Knicks with a four-point play. Mercurial talents like Tracy McGrady and Stephon Marbury have engineered crazy last-minute barrages of their own. These things do happen. value="">

There are two dozen or so All-Stars each season in the NBA. Most of them can score points and accomplish great feats of athleticism. Few, though, can dominate their peers. And fewer still can dominate circumstance. Down four with one possession? Down by six with less than 19 seconds? No problem. To be the best, a player must always believe they can do what seems impossible to you and me, and they must occasionaly be able to pull it off. Toward the end of Game 6 it looked LBJ might not even believe. Or care.

Where was the fire? The anger? The blind confidence? Gone like a puff of talcum powder.

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