This upcoming weekend, the game of basketball will celebrate the enshrinement of its 50th Hall of Fame class. It’s hard to think of a better way to celebrate turning 50 than by inducting Vivian Stringer, David Robinson, John Stockton, Jerry Sloan, and Michael Jordan into its halls. The Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony is often times a chance for reflection, as these great heroes we grew up watching and either loving or hating look back at their careers and try to put words to what it all meant. It is in that spirit that we look back at what Michael Jordan meant to basketball in the city of Cleveland and try to put words to his influence on the passion many of us feel for the Cavs.
In Cleveland, basketball is hardly the sport of choice. Throughout the state of Ohio, kids are brought up and raised to be football players. For most people throughout our fair state, their hearts are interwoven with the spirit of either The Ohio State Buckeyes or the Cleveland Browns (or, in many cases, both). Sure, the Indians have been around since the creation of the American League over 100 years ago, and there’s a history and legacy there, but the heart of Cleveland has always belonged to the Browns, and it likely will always be that way.
There has never been much room for basketball in the hearts and minds of those who dwell lakeside, and prior to 1970, there was never even an NBA team in town to root for anyway. Then came the Cleveland Cavaliers. I wasn’t alive yet for much of the misery and torment of the franchise’s early years, and even if I was, I probably wouldn’t have cared all that much. Nobody else in Cleveland really seemed to, as the Cavaliers were always a second rate franchise in that city.
And why shouldn’t they have been? Sure, there was the miraculous run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1976, but beyond that, the early years were dim. And so professional basketball in Cleveland continued to wallow on in obscurity and general disinterest from the Cleveland sports fans. What the Cavaliers needed was a spark. A catalyst. An infusion of life, energy, and passion. If Mark Price and Brad Daugherty were the catalysts that kick started the Cavaliers as a franchise, it was Michael Jordan who gave the Cavaliers fans a purpose and a reason to care beyond the esoteric sense of duty one has towards their own sports teams.
All great sports teams and any franchise or entity that truly matters in a deeper sense of being needs a villain, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s Michael Jordan was more than happy to oblige the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers franchise. From 1988 to 1994, the Cavaliers were in the playoffs 6 out of 7 years, and in those 6 playoff appearances, the Bulls knocked the Cavs out in 5 of those seasons (although it should be noted Michael Jordan was retired and did not play in the 1994 first round series).
It was out of the frustration of seeing season after season after season ending at the hands of Michael Jordan that many Cavaliers fans began to hate Michael Jordan. When every single highlights package of the greatest player who ever lived is certain to contain footage of the most heart wrenching and insufferable defeat in the history of the franchise (“The Shot”), it’s only natural for the hatred to grow through the years. And out of the ashes of that hatred, we were able to develop the fuel to root for the Cavaliers that much more. In a way, Michael Jordan gave us Cavs fans purpose. He was able to awaken a spirit of passion within us, not just for the Cavaliers, but against Michael Jordan. We banded together. It united us. Here was the best team in the franchise’s young history, and one player was singlehandedly ripping out our hearts every single season. And in many ways, that’s the definition of greatness in sports, and it’s the nature of mutual hatred and respect.
Looking back on it now, I’m able to recognize the foolishness of it all. I sometimes wonder if my personal hatred for this enemy of the Cavs prevented me from truly being able to ever fully accept and recognize the greatness I was witnessing. In many ways for Cavs fans, some things have now come full circle. Today, we see how it feels being on the other side of the equation. Just as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls never really knew or understood the hatred of Cavs, and they certainly didn’t reciprocate the feelings, so too do we today look at the Washington Wizards fans with a bewildered amusement. Being able to watch LeBron James put away a single franchise in 3 straight playoffs has allowed me to come to terms with what Michael Jordan represented to Cavs fans back then.
Looking back on Jordan’s career, then, it’s fitting in many ways that he ended his career in Washington DC with the Wizards. I mean, why shouldn’t his career end in the same place where LeBron James’ first triumphs in the NBA would take place? It’s easy to be a Cavs fan these days, but it hasn’t always been that way. There was a time when lethargy was the rule of the day in the Richfield Coliseum. Perhaps Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, Hot Rod Williams, and Brad Daugherty could have done it on their own, but in a way, it was Michael Jordan who elevated Cleveland basketball to become something it could possibly never have been on its own.
Not to get too carried away here, as the Browns will forever rule the city of Cleveland, and it’s not like Michael Jordan made the Cavaliers into the toast of the town. Far from it. But like in the movie “The Dark Knight”, just as the Joker needed Batman in order to become something respectable he couldn’t be on his own, the Cavaliers also needed their villain to instill a true passion in its fans. And through Michael Jordan and a resolute hatred for what he did to the Cavs on the court, myself and many of my friends and Cavs fans just like us came to be bigger NBA fans and bigger Cavs fans than we ever were before.
And so as an absolute NBA junkie, I take this time to reflect and thank Michael Jordan for representing evil in my heart and for making me care. Thank you for giving me so much entertainment as a youth and thank you for shouldering the hatred of so many fans like us and using it to fuel you to even higher levels. I may not have been able to realize it at the time, but looking back on it now, that was a great time to be a Cavs fan and it was a great pleasure to watch the best basketball player who ever lived for so many years. My only hope now is that we can see history repeat itself again, only this time with LeBron James playing the lead role and the Cavaliers as the setting for greatness.
(Photo Courtesy of Ed Wagner, Jr/Chicago Tribune)