Let me take you back in time. It was the fall of 2002 to the spring of 2003 and I was a sophomore in college. The Cavaliers were terrible. They went 17-65. I probably watched at least 70 of those 82 games on TV.
My roommate at the time, also a Cleveland sports fan, asked me about two-thirds of the way through the season, "Why do you do this to yourself? You know the Cavs are just going to lose again." My response was the same as it has been my entire life. I am a diehard fan. I am there for the good times and the bad times. When you stick with a team or a person through the rough times it makes you appreciate the good times so much more.
Bandwagon fans can never achieve that sense of nirvana. You have to experience the lowest of lows to appreciate the highest of highs. I certainly wasn't going to abandon the Cavs when they needed fan support the most. The Offspring said it best in their song Self Esteem, "The more you suffer...The more it shows you really care."
That 2002-03 team had the following core:
- Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the starting center. He was finally getting healthy after several years of foot maladies sidelined his career. He was easily the best player on the team and made the All-Star team that year.
- Rookie Carlos Boozer started at power forward. He made NBA All-Rookie Second Team. After his second year in the league he stabbed a blind man in the back, owner Gordon Gund, when he bolted for Utah after breaking a handshake agreement where the Cavs agreed to not pick up his option in return for a new big contract.
- Darius Miles started at small forward. We had just traded for him as the main piece of the Andre Miller trade. Miller had just led the league in assists the previous year. Miles was one of the biggest underachievers in the history of the NBA.
- Ricky Davis was the starting shooting guard. He was one of the best scorers in the league. However, his selfishness earned him the nickname Piggy Davis and he once infamously shot at his own basket in an attempt to pick up his 10th rebound to complete a triple double.
- Milt Palacio was the starting point guard. It goes without saying he was one of the worst starting point guards in recent NBA history.
- Rookie Dajuan Wagner was the sixth man for the team. He finished fourth in rookie scoring and his game was like a poor man's Allen Iverson. However, a knee injury and a rare intestinal disease ended his pro career prematurely. He was best remembered for scoring 100 points in a game while in high school. The rest of the bench was a barren wasteland.
Watching that team play was painful. Big Z was terrific, but you held your breath hoping his feet wouldn't betray him once again. Boozer and Wagner offered promise for the future. Ricky Davis and Darius Miles made you want to pull your hair out. Each was talented, but their basketball IQ and work ethic were deplorable. Everyone else was forgettable.
The entire season each and every Cavs fan had only one date on their mind. May 22. It was circled on the calendar. That was the day the NBA draft lottery took place. We had just finished tied for the worst record in the league with the Denver Nuggets at 17-65 and thus had the best chance at winning the lottery.
During the lottery we made it down to the final three picks along with the Nuggets and the Memphis Grizzlies. What was at stake? The rights to draft local savior LeBron James from Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He was possibly the most hyped high school player of all time, dubbed the Chosen One. Those ping-pong balls controlled our destiny.
The other player that everyone else was salivating over was Carmelo Anthony. As a freshman at Syracuse he led the Orangemen to a national championship. He was a prototypical NBA small forward. While everyone knew he would probably be a future All-Star, he wasn't the cross between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson that LeBron James was being billed as. He didn't grow up in northeast Ohio.
The envelope that revealed who had the third pick was opened. Denver Nuggets. Every Cavs fan watching the NBA lottery let out a cheer. It was now down to us and the Grizzlies. Jerry West knew what was riding on this next envelope more then anyone. The Grizzlies had previously traded the rights to this pick as part of the Otis Thorpe trade. The only way they got to keep it is if it was No. 1 overall. Otherwise it was going to the Detroit Pistons.
Cleveland went on to draft LeBron James with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft. He quickly transformed those 17-win Cavs. In his rookie season they more than doubled their win total to 35 and finished in ninth place, just outside the playoffs. His second year the Cavs increased their win total to 42, but once again finished in ninth place, just missing the playoffs.
His third season the Cavs won 50 games and made the playoffs earning the fourth seed. In his fourth season the Cavs went all the way to the NBA Finals before bowing out to the San Antonio Spurs. His fifth season the Cavs made the playoffs before being bounced by the eventual champion Boston Celtics. His sixth season the Cavs led the league in wins at 66. The Cavs would once again lead the league in wins in his seventh and final season with 61.
Along the way LeBron James made the Cavaliers not only one of the best teams in the league, but one of the most exciting to watch as well. We were enjoying it all so much that we let our guard down.
LeBron meant more to us than any player ever has to an NBA franchise. All of our hope rested on his shoulders. He was one of us, and he was the most talented basketball specimen the league had possibly ever seen. We would contend for an NBA title every year for the rest of his career. Or so we thought.
The Decision was the knife in the back Cleveland fans had been dreading for years. We tried to disregard all of the rumors we heard that said he wanted out of Cleveland. We wanted to believe LeBron would never stab his loyal hometown fans in the back. We were so very painfully wrong.
LeBron's departure left the Cavs with a huge void at SF. His departure also led to Ilgauskas and Shaq leaving for title shots at the tail end of their careers. We also traded away Delonte West. The remaining roster pieces were mediocre, but still should have been good enough to sneak into the playoffs.
When someone asked me where I thought the Cavs would finish this year I said eighth place. When asked why, I said, "Because I think the Heat will finish in first place, and nothing would be more painful than to get bounced by LeBron in the playoffs the first year after he left. As Cleveland fans, we should always expect the most painful outcome to become reality."
It wasn't that outrageous of a prediction. Mo Williams was a good PG. Anthony Parker, a solid role-player, was returning as the starting shooting guard. JJ Hickson was going to finally have the opportunity to shine as the starting power forward. Varejao, while out of position at center, was great defensively and possibly the best energy guy in the league. Only Jamario Moon at small forward made you frown. The bench had some solid role-players in Jamison, Boobie Gibson, and Ramon Sessions.
This season started off with promise. The Cavs beat the Celtics in the first game of the year. They hung around the top eight in the Eastern Conference up until the Dec. 2 showdown with LeBron at the Q. At the time the Cavs were a respectable 7-10. Then LeBron and the Heat came in and embarrassed a heartless Cavaliers team.
They never showed any fight despite the raucous crowd that was backing them. LeBron James broke their spirit. That coupled with injuries to Mo Williams, Varejao, and Boobie Gibson among others completely derailed the season. Since that night the Cavs have only won a single game. They have lost 36 of their last 37 games.
After losing to Detroit tonight they have lost 26 straight—that extends the single season NBA record and all time consecutive NBA record. To say the Cavs are terrible right now would be an understatement. What makes matters worse is the lack of hope that Cleveland fans had back in 2003. Even if we end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, there isn't a LeBron James type of player projected to be in the draft this year. In fact the 2011 NBA draft is shaping up to be one of the weakest drafts in recent memory.
There are only four things left to hope for the rest of this season. First, that the Cavs win at least two more games to avoid tying the 1972-73 76ers that only won nine games. Second, that Chris Grant trades away Jamison, Parker and our huge trade exception to stockpile draft picks and young talent for the future. Third, that whoever the Cavs draft this year proves me wrong and turns into a perennial All-Star. Finally, that LeBron chokes in the playoffs once again and gets to watch someone else win it all.
Hopefully this nightmare is over sometime soon. Until then the consecutive losses are at 26 and counting.