The Rematch Of The Rematch

Tonight the Cleveland Cavaliers square off against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA championship finals.  It’s the first time in NBA history that two teams have played each other for the championship three years in a row, and the ledger stands at 1-1 — with Golden State winning the first year, when two of the three Cleveland stars were out with injuries, and the Cavaliers memorably winning in seven games last year, as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and their teammates brought the first championship trophy to Cleveland since 1964.

curry-lebron-finalsThere are more story lines to this series than you can count.  There’s the tiebreaker angle, of course, and the fact that the lineups of the two teams are more studded with NBA All-Stars than any two prior teams that have met in the finals.  There’s the fact that Golden State hasn’t lost a game this post-season, going a perfect 12-0, and are pretty much invincible when Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant are on the floor.  (Cleveland, on the other hand, has lost only one game in its march to the championship series.)  There’s the fact that the gifted Durant joined the Warriors specifically to try to win an NBA championship, and now he gets his chance.  And there’s the weird, post-“off the schneid” vibe of a Cleveland team playing for a championship without the weight of 52 years of futility, bad luck, and bad karma hanging on their shoulders.  A Cleveland team, playing as defending champions?  Who’da thunk it?

The overwhelming consensus seems to be that the Warriors will win handily, just as they’ve done in virtually every other game this season.  In fact, some people are betting that the Warriors will end this post-season 16-0, which has never been done before.  That conventional wisdom is not surprising, because in the last three seasons Golden State has won more regular season games than any team ever has, even though they are playing in the much tougher Western Conference — so they logically should be the favorite.   Of course, the same arguments were made last year, when the Warriors were of course without Durant, and the Cavs ended up winning anyway.

I don’t pretend to have any great insight into how tonight’s game will go, but I’ll be watching for one thing:  can the Cavs keep the game close?  The Warriors blow out so many teams, you just wonder how they will react if the game comes down to the wire and they’re thinking their home-court advantage might be on the line.  I’ll also be interested in seeing what kind of impact Cleveland’s other key contributors — players like Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye — have in this game.  If the Cavs hope to win, they need a significant contribution beyond just the James/Irving/Love trio.

Two other points:  First, the NBA playoffs seem to take forever, and there are long layoffs between series, so let’s hope the two teams are not too rusty.  Second, why does the game have to start at 9 p.m. Eastern?  I know it’s out on the west coast, but can’t the NBA have a little regard for the working stiffs among us who’ll need to get up tomorrow morning and get off to work?

Advertisements

An Athlete For The Ages

I never got to see Babe Ruth up at bat in a baseball game, watch Jesse Owens run and jump, or cheer as Jim Brown carried the football on a sweep . . . but I am getting to watch LeBron James play basketball.

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along that is so spectacularly gifted that they break all the records, bust through every preconceived notion, and change their sport and the expectations about it in fundamental ways.  Babe Ruth singlehandedly turned baseball from a bunt and steal, scratch for a run, “small ball” game to one in which home run hitters and big innings were what brought fans to the ballparks.  Jesse Owens set records that lasted for decades and thumbed his nose at Hitler and his racist notions about a “master race” while doing so.  Jim Brown crushed every NFL rushing record then in existence and was such a dominant player, in size, speed, and power, that he is probably one of the few NFL players of his era who actually could have played, and starred, in the modern league.

And, then, there is LeBron James.  He hasn’t had quite the same impact on his sport as Ruth, Owens, and Brown, because he’s working against a much longer history of NBA players — but he’s still steadily moving up the all-time records lists, routinely scoring 30+ points in the playoff games when the challenges are the greatest, and winning, winning, winning, wherever he plays.  He’s probably not going to catch Bill Russell or Michael Jordan when it comes to winning championships, or score the most points every year, but in every game he is the dominant player and, to use Reggie Jackson’s phrase, the “straw that stirs the drink.”

And, speaking as a non-athlete, it’s pretty amazing to watch a barrel-chested, 6-foot-8, 270-pound man who can run like a deer, jump out of the gym, dunk from the free-throw line, shoot three-pointers, and block shots from the cheap seats.  He’s basically unguardable, and he imposes his will on every contest.  Watching LeBron James play is simply an awesome spectacle.

Let’s not engage in petty arguments about whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, or worry about whether LeBron’s team wins the championship every year.  Let’s just savor the fact that we’ve got an athlete for the ages in our midst, and we’re lucky enough to watch him work his magic in real time.

My Heart Is In Cleveland

I’m sitting at a computer here in Columbus, Ohio, but my heart is in Cleveland right now.

If I were physically in Cleveland, I’d be cheering my brains out, and drinking another beer, and buying a round for the bar, and wanting to stay out forever and talk about the game, and my town, and my teams, so the night would never end.

usa-today-8677789-0I’d want to think about LeBron James’ clutch block, and Kyrie Irving’s killer shot, and the nails defense that the Cavs played in the last quarter — because those plays had finally pushed The Drive, and The Fumble, and Red Right 88, and the ’97 World Series to the background, where they belong.  Bad thoughts have finally — finally! — been exorcised and replaced by happy ones.  And these are happy thoughts that we will always have.  I’ll never forget it, and I doubt that any true Cleveland sports fan will, either.

The people of Cleveland deserve it.  They really do.  They not only deserved to win, after so many years and so many heart punches, they deserved to win in historic fashion, with the northern Ohio kid who came home, with the first NBA team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win it, with the impossible three-game winning streak — including two victories on the road — against the best regular-season team ever.  No one will ever forget this NBA finals, and it went to the Cleveland Cavaliers.  LeBron James will never have to buy a drink in Cleveland, for the rest of his life.

When LeBron James fell to his knees and wept after the final buzzer sounded, I knew exactly how he felt.  My emotions were so close to the surface, I’m not sure if I was laughing or crying or cheering.  All I know is that 52 years of frustration was finally coming out, in whatever way it could.

Deep down, I think, I never really thought I would know what it felt like for a Cleveland professional sports team to win a championship.

Now I know.

For The Cavs

I don’t particularly like the NBA.  I don’t like the one-on-one, isolation element of the game.  I think it’s ugly basketball.  I don’t like the calculated refereeing, or the glitzy, strobe light element of the player introductions, or a thousand other aspects of the over-hyped NBA version of basketball.

But, damn it, if the Cleveland Cavaliers don’t win this game and this series there is no justice in the world.  None.  Nada.  Zilch.

What does Cleveland have to do, anyway?  It has lost jobs by the thousands.  It has been humiliated.  It has had its river burn, and become the butt of sorry jokes.  It has had victory snatched from its grasp, and seen bitter disappointment by the score, again, and again, and again.

So, if there is anything fair, and proper, and reasonable in the world — if there are cosmic tumblers ready to click into place — if there is any semblance of balance — LeBron James and his teammates are due.

Damn it!  They are due!  Come on!

-Aire Jordan

The latest Forbes magazine list of billionaires has come out.  Unfortunately, I’m not on it — but Michael Jordan is.  In fact, Forbes determined that Jordan made a mind-boggling $100 million last year to enter the exclusive billionaires’ club.

How did Michael Jordan become a billionaire?  Basically, it’s because he owns a big chunk of an NBA team — his share of the Charlotte Hornets is estimated to have a net value of $500 million — and because he’s got the ultimate brand, even though he’s been retired from the NBA for more than a decade.  Last year he made $100 million from Air Jordan sales.  More than $2.6 billion of his shoes were sold — or more than half of the U.S. basketball shoe market.  Even at Air Jordan prices, that is a lot of shoes.

People often begrudge the wealthy all of the dough they’ve accumulated, but it’s hard to imagine anyone getting too upset about Michael Jordan’s wealth.  He was a great player who built a great reputation and then a brand, and he’s made a lot of savvy decisions for himself since he hung up his own Air Jordans.  In an era when many athletes are breaking the law or frittering away their millions on their “posses” or frivolities, Jordan has been smart — and a guide for other athletes who want to end their playing days with money in the bank and future prospects for more.

It would be good for athletes the world over if more of them wanted to Be Like Mike.

The LeBron Effect

The new-look Cleveland Cavaliers open their season tonight, playing at home against the New Your Knicks.  When I was driving home from work tonight, one of the local radio stations announced that it would be carrying the game.

“That’s odd,” I thought.  I don’t think any station carried the Cavs games last year.

And then I remembered:  LeBron is back.

If you ever wondered about the impact of one player on a team, a franchise, and a city, consider the LeBron Effect. When LeBron James announced that he was returning to Cleveland, it energized the city and the Cavaliers franchise, produced huge ticket sales and set the roster dominoes to falling.  Now the Cavs have a changed lineup and a changed attitude — and so do their long-suffering fans.  My friends up in Cleveland say that the Cavs are by far the toughest ticket in town.

With LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love, the Cavs expect to contend for an NBA championship — which would be the first championship a Cleveland sports team has earned in 50 years.  Those expectations are a heavy burden, but LeBron James is used to the pressure.  It’s all just part of the LeBron Effect.